The crest of the Brass Rail rises into the sky, an insistent purple and flesh-pink-deco-kitsch rectangle, colors mounting colors. It might be the prow of a ship — a purple, flesh-pink, and terracotta ship, with its name spelled out in black letters on a bright yellow sign — sailing northeast, carrying in its hold the seeds and history of Hillcrest’s life as San Diego’s gay district.
3796 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
The Brass Rail provided the occasion for my own discovery of the gay community in Hillcrest, four years ago. After three months of living in Little Italy and bumming around downtown, I went looking for an apartment and happened to turn left off of Grape Street and onto 5th Avenue. By the time I got to University, I was enchanted by the look of the area, and when I chanced on Balboa Park, bordering Sixth Avenue, I knew where I wanted to live. A friendly guy who gave me directions struck me a probably being gay, but nothing else tipped me off. (This was before Gay Mart opened on the corner of Sixth and University.)
There were no vacancies along Sixth, so I took my search back to Fifth Avenue and found the boxy, stately pink stucco house next door to Celadon. Thirty-six twenty-four, a one bedroom apartment on the first floor, was about to be vacated, and I jumped at it. The ceilings were high, the windows weighted, the rooms spacious, and most importantly, the place felt old and solid and elegant, like houses back East.
An older guy I knew from college needed somewhere to live, so we rented the apartment together. (Something made me want to explain to the lady renting it to us that we would not be sharing a bedroom, but I wasn’t sure what.) Since I paid more rent, I slept in the bedroom, and he set up in the dining room, building a standing closet to serve as a partition from the rest of the apartment.
The day I signed the lease, I took a walk down Fifth toward the shopping district, past the Brass Rail. It was then I made my discovery. On the side of the building hung a banner that read: “Every Wednesday — Whipped Cream Wrestling With The Go-Go Boys.” The banner was adorned with a drawing of na buff fellow in a thong, in case of any difficulty in imagining Go-Go Boys. I had just rented a one-bedroom apartment with another man — an older, more muscular man — two blocks from the epicenter of San Diego’s gay district. What would my girlfriend, miles away in Kansas City, think?
We didn’t live in Hillcrest long after we married — we found a secluded guest house in Mission Hills that was more to our liking – but I often wondered how Hillcrest was chosen, if it was chosen at all, as the center of gay life in San Diego.
The August 31, 1973, issue of the Pacific Coast Times, a now defunct locally based magazine for gays and lesbians, features an interview with “Ed from the Brass Rail.” In it, he recalls an establishment that, “during the middle ‘30ss, became the smartest restaurant in town. A chef wearing a tall white hat was always visible in the front window, and the food he prepared was extremely delicious…[T]he old-fashioned image was completed by the authentic brass spittoons and a genuine brass rail. This was the first Brass Rail, and both restaurant and br were popular with theatergoers.”
The Brass Rail was located at the corner of Sixth and B downtown, in the same building as what was then the Orpheum Theater. In 1957, the restaurant and bar was purchased by Lou Arko. Lou no longer owns the Brass Rail, but he owned it for a long time, long enough to see it flourish in its current location.
I meet with Lou at #1 Fifth Ave., a bar owned by Omar Lowry, who has been tending bar in San Diego since 1969. Omar is with us and adds his own insights and stories to Lou’s. Lou’s hair is white, and he peers out though black horn-rimmed glasses. Though he’s not gay, he has been owner or part-owner of numerous gay bars and considers himself a friend to the gay community. He is at turns genial and gruff, businesslike and affable. Omar, younger, tall and bearded, introduced him as the man to talk to if I wanted to know about Hillcrest.
Lou remembers the Orpheum, which occupied the corner at Fifth and B, “was the biggest theater at the time. In between (the Orpheum and Brass Rail) was a sandwich shop — on the first floor, that is. All the rest, upstairs – I think it was a six-story building — were offices. Insurance companies, attorneys. It was very ornate from the outside. You had these columns, you know, the kind of old-fashioned fancy work.”
Inside, the Brass Rail “was high-ceilinged, 15 to 18 feet. A lot of it was painted. I think the place opened in 1934, right after Prohibition and all that. The guy who owned it had a party in 1936 – I’ve got a picture – and there were tons of people. They were not all gay. During the war, I think, for whatever reasons, little by little the military started to come in. Then, how it turned out to be gay, I don’t know.”
Bridget Wilson, a longtime gay activist and attorney, might see a connection. She tells me that “like most of San Diego, (the gay community) is a product of World War II and the slightly pre-World War II aircraft industry. San Francisco had had its gay community for years, had its Barbary Coast decadence that had always gone on there, but in this town, the gay community was built by the military.
“I know that would make them crazy, but the fact is that what happened was that people came here in the ‘40s because of the war. Lots and lots of people came here to be in the Navy, be in the Army, go on their way across. World War II was the largest conscription of forces in the history of the country, and in those days, the concept of telling them you were gay to get out of the service was a little less popular. And if you did, they didn’t care, they just sent you over. You were just as good cannon fodder. So really, World War II is where transient populations of all kinds came, saw the beauty, and stayed.”