Gay Bars Threatened By Downtown Development May Be Saved By Cultural-Historical Significance
By Samuel Stark
Reporting Texas TV
AUSTIN, Texas — Nestled among skyscrapers in Austin’s booming downtown area is The Iron Bear, a beloved gay bar on West Sixth Street. Bengie Beshear, a co-owner of the venue, describes it as welcoming to all types of gay men.
“The Iron Bear is place that catches the people that don’t really fit in the stereotypical gay mold. It’s important to have spaces like what we are,” Beshear said.
The Iron Bear, along with some other queer-friendly spaces on Fourth Street, may soon be demolished to make room for new developments going into the downtown area.
Many in the queer community decried the proposed demolition of The Iron Bear, which led Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission to initiate historic zoning on the bar’s building.
The Historic Landmark Commission’s action paused the proposed demolition.
If the commission recommends historic zoning to the city council at their May 4 meeting, the council will need a supermajority vote to approve the action.
The Iron Bear moved from Eighth Street to Sixth Street in February 2020, just three weeks before the first shutdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic. When they moved into their current location, the owners were aware the building would be torn down at some point, but said there were no other options in the downtown area.
Although the owners were aware of the impending demolition of the structure, they did not think it would happen so soon.
“It was kind of a shock that the [property] owner was trying to work with another company and tear down the building,” Beshear added.
For an Austin building to be considered a historic landmark, the Austin Historic Landmark Commission must first approve historic zoning, followed by a city council designation.
“(The designation process) actually asks properties to qualify in a few different categories,” said District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents the district where the business is located. ” A building would have to show architectural significance… and cultural historic significance.”
A couple of blocks south of The Iron Bear is Oil Can Harry’s, Austin’s oldest LGBT entertainment venue. Another new development proposal would demolish 201-213 W. Fourth St., which includes Oil Can Harry’s and two other queer-friendly businesses, Coconut Club and Neon Grotto.
Tovo spoke with the developer and said he recognizes the significance of Oil Can Harry’s and has been working with the owner.
Tovo said some of the original façades will be incorporated into the redevelopment and Oil Can Harry’s will have the opportunity to return to the space once it is complete.
“It’s a better story than some of the ones that come across our desk as council members,” she said. “(Others get) demolished completely.”
Although reassured by the prospect of Oil Can Harry’s returning once the new skyscraper is erected, a drag performer who goes by the name of Vylette Ward is concerned the new development will change the dynamic of Fourth Street.
“This is Fourth Street. This was gay Mecca. Just to hear that things are changing up a little bit is kind of scary,” Ward said.
“We find out that people still get gay-bashed right here on a gay strip. I think it’s very important that we have that LGBT inclusivity in one spot, so we have that one space to feel safe.”