Boomtown

Luxury lofts, boutique bookstores, and dress-up bars: Near Northeast comes out

At a time when most bookstores have enough floor space to sell station wagons or livestock, Query Books is one of the pleasant anomalies--a smartly and idiosyncratically stocked shop with more character than square footage. On this rainy Sunday afternoon, Memorial Day Eve, Query's narrow main room is somewhere between cozy and cramped, with 30 or so people on hand to hear Will Fellows read from his new book, A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture. As Fellows reads, a few customers from the adjoining Wilde Roast Café, which is doing a brisk breakfast and lunch business, walk over and quietly buy a paper.

Next, Robert Seger, a Minneapolis man interviewed for the book, tells the mostly male crowd about his collection of 45 vintage washing machines. With somewhat sheepish enthusiasm, he explains the "high drama" of the 1947 Frigidaire's bobbing agitator, the logistics of restoring long-in-the-tooth appliances, and the special appeal of '50s washers in pink and turquoise. A man with 45 washing machines, I figure, is a man with exceptionally clean clothes, and a guy you probably don't want to help move.

Lounging on the Wilde side: Dean Schlaak (seated) and Tom DeGree of Wilde Roast Café
Richard Fleischman
Lounging on the Wilde side: Dean Schlaak (seated) and Tom DeGree of Wilde Roast Café

To Fellows, Seger represents something larger. The Milwaukee-based author argues that gay men are disproportionately represented in neighborhood revitalization, historic preservation, and restoration (of homes, Frigidaires, what have you) because of five major cultural traits: gender atypicality, "domophilia," romanticism, aestheticism, and what he calls "connection- and continuity-mindedness."

"Rather than dismissing these realities as the stuff of stereotype," Fellows writes, "I see them as the stuff of archetype, significant truths worthy of exploration."

Like the men profiled in A Passion to Preserve, Wilde Roast's co-owner Dean Schlaak is a restorer with a keen aesthetic sense. Previously self-employed as a carpenter, Schlaak did much of the work on Wilde Roast's interior, a spacious room with a giant portrait of Oscar Wilde above the counter and sepia-toned, Victorian decor to match.

After the reading, Schlaak's business and life partner Tom DeGree chats with Fellows about the café and bookstore, both of which opened this March, and about the live theater (T.H.E. Theater & Wash & Brush Up Company) that's set to move in across the street. "You see," a customer nearby jokes, "we're taking over things."

Edina Realty's Brad Palacek thinks that quip isn't so far from the truth: A new, more moneyed neighborhood, he argues, is set to become Minneapolis's gay locus. But before we let him elaborate, let's put a label on what "things" may or may not be undergoing a gay takeover. We're talking about the still-expanding shopping and entertainment district on and around East Hennepin and Central Avenue and the homes, apartments, and ritzy new lofts in the vicinity. We'll call the district Near Northeast.

"[Near Northeast] is ripe to become a real Mecca for gays and lesbians," says Palacek, who regularly takes out large ads in Lavender. "The days of Loring Park being the Twin Cities' gay hub, I truly believe, are gone, and Uptown just doesn't offer that much anymore," he adds. "It really has moved to that side of the river. There's potential for Northeast to become one long stretch that you can walk down, like [Chicago's] Boystown or Dupont Circle in D.C. And that's the fun. That's what people want: a six- or eight-block walk where they can parade themselves--good, bad, or indifferent."

Some would argue that a nexus of queer culture, even if it's just a shopping district, is not what Minnesotans want--that any type of gay ghetto is an obsolete concept in an era of increased acceptance. Others argue that Minnesotans are simply too reserved to foster a true gayborhood. GLBT Minnesotans are Minnesotans first, they say, and liberal straights are only tolerant of homosexuality as long as they don't have to see it or talk about it.

As Palacek notes, Northeast doesn't offer a gay walking tour yet, but its trendy entertainment district is probably the area's densest concentration of queer or queer-enough establishments. Near Northeast's fleet of gay-owned or gay-oriented businesses includes Boom! and Oddfellows, the swanky video bar and its accompanying upscale restaurant; the Bobino/Starlite Lounge/Elbow Room complex; Margarita Bella, which hosts a Wednesday-night dance night aimed at the Hispanic GLBT community; Portfolio Studios, a commercial photography outfit with a specialty in beefcake; plus several other gay-owned businesses and straight businesses that attract a gay clientele. While many of these places target a GLBT crowd, most are going after a mixed clientele, especially, of course, the restaurants (the extent to which food can be classified according to sexual orientation remains open to debate).

At turns funky, quaint, and bland, Near Northeast has some of the aura of bygone Uptown, some of the working-class, European character of old Northeast, and some of the bourgie gentility of 50th and France. Its gayness tends to be stylish and integrationist--probably about as close to the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy model as Minneapolis would want to get. And while the neighborhood's queer factor is relatively muted, it's definitely open. When Boom! opened in January of 2000, part of what made it so different was that it had windows. Not cloudy, porthole-like windows, or windows covered with hefty-bag-like stuff, but giant, look-at-the-fun-going-on-inside windows.

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