REMEMBERING THE UNDERGROUND
By Colin Dabkowski
News Arts Critic
If not for the drag queens smoking cigarettes on the corner, passers-by would hardly know the Underground Niteclub existed.
That was the way we liked it – the way it was supposed to be – in the Buffalo we used to know.
For more than 40 years, in that anonymous basement bar on Delaware Avenue – hidden behind a frosted glass door, down a flight of dingy stairs – Buffalo's gay community converged over cheap vodka sodas, trashy drag shows and bad karaoke.
They met there in different eras, under different ownerships, during different crises.
The space first opened as a gay bar called the Hibatchi Room in the mid-1970s and later rebranded itself briefly as Me and My Arrow, a Studio 54 clone, in the early 1980s. In the '90s it became Buffalo Underground, later dropping the "Buffalo" and becoming just the Underground, a name that recalls a host of instant associations good and bad, for countless members of the city's queer community.
The defining ethos about the Underground? Everyone was welcome, as long as they behaved: Leather daddies and bulldykes, drag queens and curious closet cases, club kids, day-drinkers, musical theater majors and tenants of the housing complex upstairs who trickled down to become part of the crowd.
And yeah, even straight people.
Sometimes there were spilled drinks and sometimes there were unprintable acts in anonymous stalls. Sometimes the carpet crunched underfoot, and it was best not to ask why. Yes, sometimes the cops showed up, but mostly they left the patrons alone.
One time, on a rainy Pride Parade afternoon in June 2007, this writer kissed his boyfriend for the first time near the comically tiny Underground dancefloor. Eleven years later, we're still together: Must have been something about the discount disco ball or the smell of stale Blue Light.
No matter who walked into the place, there was always a sense of being safe from prying eyes. Cliques dissolved. People who under no circumstances danced felt free to dance there.
All of that -- "the good and the bad and the indifferent," as one longtime patron put it on a recent evening -- will become part of the long and sordid history of gay Buffalo on Sunday, when Underground closes its doors after a 30-year run. (Its history as a gay bar under different names extends back even farther, to 1974.)
Owner Nick Tiede, who bought the bar six years ago after bartending there for years, lamented the fact the bar is being forced to close because the federal department of Housing and Urban Development is denying the renewal of its lease.
The closure of Underground portends the end to a vanishing era of Buffalo's bar scene, when drinks were priced to move, rooms were designed for comfort rather than style.
"When I was growing up going to the gay bars, I feel like they were kind of more like this, a little more divey, and now they've kind of gotten more upscale and pretentious," Tiede said. "I feel like this kind of held onto something that the bars used to be like, and we're kind of the last one that stuck with that."
The bar, said longtime patron Omar Parra, "has always been a safe haven for anybody that wants to express themselves. So to lose that element, it's kind of devastating. The next generation won't know. That's what we lost."
Mickey Harmon and Nicholas Blazier, who co-organized a series of spectacular theme parties at Underground called "She Lives" over the last few years, hailed the space for its unpretentious and welcoming vibe.
"It was kind of like a seedy bar, but sometimes those are the best places. It was the ultimate gay dive," Harmon said. "You could kind of be yourself and do whatever you want when you're there."
Blazier, like many Underground patrons, will miss the space's protective, almost speakeasy atmosphere.
"It's just kind of sad that some place like this, a diamond in the rough, is disappearing," he said. "I actually remember at one of the first events we had there, I was speaking with this straight guy. He said, 'This is the coolest bar I've ever been to.' It really is. It was like a little funhouse he did not expect."
Much more than a funhouse, the Underground was a refuge for a population in need of protection.
It played that role in the '70s, a decade of gay liberation and political struggle. It played that role in the '80s, providing a hidden room for collective healing during the terror of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Vestiges of those struggles live in the architecture of places like the Underground. Some of them close naturally, as customers fall away and find other homes above ground.
But when they die prematurely, as the Underground is being forced to do, it feels like an insult to history, another needless loss in a community far too familiar with the concept.
So, let's all raise a glass and say a toast:
Here's to the Underground, where we became ourselves.
©2018, The Buffalo News
Photograph by Pierce McCleary