PORTLAND, Maine — For the first time in nearly three decades, you can see inside the city’s oldest — and last — gay bar without opening the door.
The new, full-length front windows at Blackstones are both of symbol of the city’s bigoted past and how far it has come in accepting all its residents.
First opened in 1987, Blackstones has always had a laid-back, neighborhood vibe. That didn’t stop anti-gay vandals from repeatedly smashing the front windows out with rocks and bricks back in the day.
The Pine Street watering hole’s owners and patrons refused to be bullied out of the neighborhood, though. Instead, they boarded up the windows with plywood and plexiglass, then went back to playing pool and drinking beer.
That was 28 years ago.
Now, Portland has changed. The bricks and rocks have stopped flying. It has become a more welcoming place to the LGBTQ community.
Blackstones hasn’t changed much at all. It’s still a chill bar filled with West End regulars and the clack of pool cues and eight balls. Except now, it has large front windows heralding a new, more open era of inclusiveness.
Owner Matt Pekins had been thinking about bringing the windows back since 2015.
On Sunday, manager Carl Currie pulled down the plywood. Behind it, he found ghostly shards of hateful broken glass. They’d been in there since 1991.
BDN Portland spoke with Currie Tuesday night about the change and what it means.
Q: Is this a big deal?
Currie: It’s a pretty big deal. Everyone’s responding to it amazingly well. It changes the whole dynamic of the bar. The amount of light that comes in totally changes the bar. It feels more open. People walk by and say, “Oh my God, I’ve never seen inside there before.” It’s been overwhelmingly positive. We put the glass in because we’re at a point now where the bar is safe. It’s time to open it up and acknowledge that.
Q: Does it feel like an important milestone for the city, maybe marking how it’s become a safer place to be openly gay?
Currie: That’s hugely important to recognize. When you look at [the picture of the] broken glass it’s important to recognize that those things happened — there was a huge issue of bigotry in this city — but it also reflects on how Portland [has now] accepted the LGBTQ community completely — or nearly completely. There’s been such broad acceptance. That’s why we’re the last [gay] bar.
Q: But you’ve also made this change as part of a general spruce-up of the bar as well?
Currie: The number one reason that drove this decision is for the last two Prides, I’ve been standing out here, smoking cigarettes, watching people walk up — and it was just this plexiglass-clouded view into the bar. If we didn’t have the rainbow lights or the [rainbow] flags, it’s just a [crappy] hole-in-the-wall bar — it’s Ricky’s.
Q: That’s not very inviting to first-timers, right?
Currie: You’ve got tourists coming into Portland from all over the country. It’s got the finest food on the eastern seaboard and they’re Googling gay bar, they’re walking up to Blackstones, and what they’re seeing is boarded up windows — everything seems a bit secretive — they didn’t get past that front wall. That was the number one motivation for me. That first impression is super important.
Q: Have times changed in Portland to the point where straight people on the street can look through the window of a gay bar without feeling the need to throwing a brick through it — or have Blackstones’ patrons become more comfortable being spotted at a gay bar?
Currie: I think it’s column A and column B. Most of the community in Portland is incredibly accepting of this bar — and most of the people in this bar are not looking for anonymity. People aren’t trying to hide. But the scariest part of the window is that — for the next two weeks, before we get a little tinting — we have created a fishbowl. It’s exciting, because we’ve demystified [the bar] but also a little alienating because people are stopping to look in.
Q: Yeah, sorry, I totally gawked when I walked by the first time — like a triple take.
Currie: It definitely happens.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Watch: Portland Pride parade