Sometime in the next month or so, not even he knows exactly when, the flow of queer currents downtown will change forever when Harris' bar, Spurs, a longtime fixture at Eighth and Cheapside, will evacuate its old Texaco station home and move to 1121 Race St. just north of Central Parkway.
Originally a Country-Western Levis/ leather cruise bar where men were men and women weren't welcome, Spurs has evolved over the years, drifting away from the cowboy theme, flirting with hardcore leather and currently thriving on weekends with a diverse clientele packed into its intimate barroom and patio.
The bar's success over the past 25 years raises questions about its imminent uprooting. The last thing anyone needs in a successful business is sudden, drastic change, but the climate has turned cold on Eighth Street.
For the past year and a half, false police complaints have been made by East 8th Lofts developers regarding nighttime music blaring from Spurs' patio. Bar patrons have been blamed for car smash-and-grabs committed during last year's Jazz Festival. Traditionally reliable parking spaces have been pissed-out, appropriated and made suddenly subject to tow.
The elements of turbulence were brewing for a few years, after Harris, 36, purchased the bar from founder and friend Dale Dissinger. Then, last year, Dissinger's properties on Race Street became available at just the time Harris was learning his Spurs lease wouldn't be renewed. Race Street seemed a logical choice, but Harris couldn't have predicted what the rushing surge of possibilities would bring his way.
"It's really just been things that have happened," Harris says of the rapid developments. "I didn't really plan it. It just worked out that way."
What worked out was the sudden availability of the old Belmont Cafe at 1121 Race, across from Harris' newly acquired buildings.
Basically ready for occupation as a bar and having better amenities, Harris picked the best rock to cling to in the flood.
But if moving his business wasn't enough, Harris, his employees and his "Angels" (the riot of tipsy bacchanals that follows in his wake) are doubly busy preparing for their annual Hurricane Party this Saturday. For those uninitiated to this summertime spectacle, the Hurricane Party has historically served as one of those few times in the year when Cincinnati drops its inhibitions along with its pants. Traditionally held on the weekend of Jazz Fest, the event attracts visitors from all over the U.S. and Canada.
This year's Hurricane Party will be substantially different from the drenching debauchery of years past. Instead of being at Spurs, the private party will be held at an off-site location. It's being promoted in the "circuit party" fashion, and $25 tickets must be purchased in advance at Spurs. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Stonewall Cincinnati.
Pushing back the date freed Harris to deal with getting his new bar ready to open. And the change in location, from a public business to a private party, freed his liquor license from getting tangled in the mesh of soaking, sweating, writhing flesh that an indoor hurricane often produces.
And making the party a benefit for Stonewall helps strengthen one of the few dikes protecting Cincinnati's gay netherlands from the surrounding sea of uncompassionate conservatism. It also reinforces an already generous gift on Harris' part, made despite the battering and buffeting he's taken.
The most remarkable gem to emerge from the flotsam of the past few months is a new home for Stonewall at 1118 Race St. Harris is giving the group all three floors of the building to use however it will.
"Personally, I think it's going to be a wonderful move for Stonewall," says Doreen Cudnik, the organization's executive director. "In terms of visibility, it's going to help to be this accessible, to have a storefront property this close to downtown. It makes it much easier for people to come down and stop by."
"It was a spur of the moment thing," Harris says of his gift. "I'd never planned to do anything like that. It just sort of happened."
He's excited about the potential for Stonewall to grow into its new home across the street and for their hopes of bringing other community organizations in to help occupy the site. It's entirely up to Stonewall what direction such developments might take.
"It's going to be a work in progress," Cudnik says. "I would hope to see other community groups use this space, and of course we'll be looking for other funding sources to complete the renovation of the building."
Currently Cudnik is enjoying what she describes as a "bright, beautiful office" created by Harris' generosity and brought into being under the guidance and labor of Paul Groneck, a Stonewall board member who's also responsible for transforming the old Belmont into the new Spurs. "Paul worked his magic, and I feel very comfortable here."
"Comfort" will be key in the successful transformation of this stretch of Race Street from empty storefronts into a center of gay visibility. Harris plans to utilize the neighboring parking lot after 8 p.m. for Spurs customers, vowing, "I'm gonna light it like a football field. Whatever it takes."
The past few years have seen much talk of a gradual dequeering of downtown and a supposed conspiracy to push all gay businesses to Northside. Harris dismisses such talk.
"With all these buildings," he says, "if I could move more gay people down here, I think that would be wonderful."
And he's in agreement with Cudnik regarding the increased gay visibility downtown. "It'll be hard not to be more visible. We're right in the middle of everything now."
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