Raleigh Warehouse District - Development of a "Gayborhood" 1970-Present
By Roy Ellis
In volume 8, issue 3 of “Raleigh Downtowner” magazine, the editors included the results of survey of their readership, called the “Downtowner Awards”. The goal of this survey was to determine the best downtown Raleigh has to offer across a wide range of categories, including places to visit, eat, drink, and shop. For the category “Best Gay/Gay Friendly Bar”, the winners were The Borough, Legends, and Flex. Using downtown Raleigh’s West Hargett St. as a ruler, one can observe that The Borough is on the line of the 300 block of West Hargett St., with Legends facing the 400 block, and Flex on the 500 block. Is it a coincidence that the LGBT Center of Raleigh is on the block between Legends and Flex, or that a gay book store is directly across the street from Legends? Could it also be a coincidence that a $40 million condo project, with a cyan rainbow color scheme, is the only business separating Legends from the Borough? For the purposes of this web page, let us assume that these are not coincidences.
The Warehouse District takes its name from the busy warehouses that populated the area next to Raleigh’s central rail line. In the first half of the 20th century, the area was populated with coal yards, feed mills, and a Coca-Cola bottling plant, and warehouses to store everything being produced. As Raleigh’s manufacturing industry began to fade, large warehouses would be left vacant for decades at a time. In the 1970s, Raleigh’s artistic scene laid claim to the area, finding the wide open spaces of warehouses to be perfect locales for performances and galleries.
In 1978, one especially popular warehouse was converted from a Civil War warehouse lot into the more hip sounding “Lot 13”. Lot 13 housed several permanent art installations and was the location chosen to stage a performance piece called “Opening Windows and Passages”, which featured a young David Sedaris. By the 1980s, several permanent art galleries appeared in the reason including Anthony Ulinski’s Dovetail fine woodwork and William-Cozart woodshop, both of which are still present and operating in their original locations today. These galleries were not necessarily queer in nature, but they did offer the region a more liberal, artistic vibe.
Throughout the 1980s, more and more artists flocked to the district, such as Doug Van de Zande, Thomas Sayre, and Steve Schuster, opening photography, sculpture, and architecture studios, respectively. Naturally, the “alternative” part of town needed an “alternative” club. The Berkeley was erected in the mid 80’s to answer that call. Once the Berkeley opened the door, The Capital Corral nudged it open further, becoming the Warehouse district’s first gay club. The Capital Corral still operates in the same location, under different management and a new name: 313 Raleigh. Legends (the most popular and mainstream club) along with Flex (for a slightly older, scruffier crowd) opened in the 90s.
Lull in Development
In 1998, the City of Raleigh planning director, George Chapman offered his opinions on the potential for future growth in the Warehouse district. He made it clear that the city would not be able to offer incentives to businesses. Niche stores, vying for an allusive customer are not traditionally investments the city considers practical or effective. At the time, tax incentives were being saved for large job creators, such as additions to the Convention Center and Memorial Auditorium. Chapman notes, “The so-called alternative business community usually seeks to locate in areas that are under-valued, which has been an attraction of the [Warehouse district].” He predicted that, “the area will continue to develop on its own… with businesses that are trendier and more upscale than an alternative arts area would feature. Over the next decade, the area did continue to develop, but at a much slower pace and not quite in the direction Chapman expected.
Liz Masnik is the proprietor of The Borough, one of the district’s newest additions, opening in 2007. She developed and opened the pub with no expectations for creating an identity. Her strategy was to “… get the doors open and see what happens after that.” A typical night at the Borough reveals people from all walks of life. There’s the young Urban Outfitters alternative crown and bachelorette parties, as well as the more mature crowd, just stopping by for a drink after the latest gallery opening. Commenting on the wide range of patrons her pub attracts, Masnik notes, “I’ve never been to a place with such a mixed clientele… [a place that] doesn’t define itself one way or another.” However, the “Raleigh Downtowner” readers who named it the number one “Best Gay/Gay Friendly Bar” means that the people of Raleigh have already defined it – as friendly.
The Borough is representative of the new wave of development in this area, including:
Videri Chocolate Factory – a shop that lets visitors go behind the scenes in chocolate making process
Dapper Style House – an experimental high fashion retail and bar hybrid
Raleigh Denim Workshop – a startup high end clothing line, whose collection was picked up by Barney’s New York in their first year of operation.
The September 9, 2010 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer contained a headline entitled, “A Welcoming Plan – Raleigh’s LGBT Center Hopes Events Will Help Unite Residents." The Center opened their new office on the northern entrance to the Warehouse district, welcoming all visitors from the heart of downtown in May of 2010. It intends to serve a haven for the Raleigh queer community, with the crux of its mission lying on visibility. “All marginalized communities need a visible presence,” said Justine Hollingshead, LGBT Center board member. The executive director of the Center, Bobby Hilburn, mentioned that his life would have been easier if a similar center had existed when he was in his 20s. He added,” putting a face on the LGBT community is a big step forward."
The city of Raleigh added a vote of confidence (in the form of a $1 million grant) for the Warehouse district by supporting the development of the Contemporary Art Museum, or CAM Raleigh. This joint venture between failed City Gallery of Contemporary Art and North Carolina State University’s design school is expected to inspire artistic minds. The president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance feels that, “the more students you have coming to school downtown, the more creativity and innovation get to happen. We’d love for those students to ultimately open up their own places, their own studios downtown.” The previous museum had a short life span due to partisan budget cuts, but the new venture was a bi-partisan effort strongly advocated by Mayor Charles Meeker and City Councilor Phillip Isley.
The Warehouse district is now in the perfect position to return full circle to its arts-centric bungalow roots of the 70s revitalization. This time around, the district will not just have the support of the City, but it will have the support of a full-fledged Raleigh Gayborhood that can proudly call those city blocks home.
- "2012 Best of Downtowner Awards." Issuu.com. Raleigh Downtowner, 19 Mar. 2012. Web. <http://issuu.com/raleighdowntowner/docs/downtownermagazine-vol8-iss3>.
- Hoyle, Amanda J. "Hue Takes a Different Tack." BizJournals.com. Triangle Business Journal, 29 Mar. 2010. Web. <http://www.bizjournals.com/triangle/stories/2010/03/29/story1.html?page=all>.
- Larson, Karl. "Reminiscences of a Raleigh Boy, Part 4: The Warehouse District." Goodnight, Raleigh - a Look at the Art, Architecture, History, and People of the City at Night. Goodnight, Raleigh, 25 July 2007. Web. <http://goodnightraleigh.com/2008/07/reminiscences-of-a-raleigh-boy-part-4/>.
- "What to Do in Chapel Hill & the Triangle." UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. Web. <http://specials.kenan-flagler.unc.edu/MBAclubs/Pride/Pages/ChapelHill.aspx>.
- Edgers, Geoff. "Whatever Happened to Raleigh's Warehouse District." News & Observer [Raleigh] 15 Nov. 1998: G1. Print.
- Monica. "Local Profile: The Borough's Liz Masnik." NewRaleigh.com. New Raleigh, 12 Feb. 2011. Web. <http://www.newraleigh.com/articles/archive/local-profile-the-borough-liz-masnik/>.
- Gibson, Dale. "Denim Direct From Raleigh." Triangle Business Journal. 17 Dec. 2010. Web. <http://www.bizjournals.com/triangle/print-edition/2010/12/17/denim-direct-from-raleigh.html>.
- Hensch, Mark. "A Welcoming Plan - Raleigh's LGBT Center Hopes Events Will Help Unite Residents." News & Observer [Raleigh] 9 Sept. 2010: 3B. Print.
- Geary, Bob. "The Long Road to CAM, and What It Means for Raleigh." The Independent Weekly [Durham] 27 Apr. 2011. Print.
- Chandler, Stacy. "New Museum Takes a Bow in Raleigh." Charlotte Observer 1 May 2011: 2E. Newsbank. Web. <http://http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/InfoWeb?p_product=NewsBank&p_theme=aggregated5&p_action=doc&p_docid=137007C8A39563E8&p_docnum=8&p_queryname=1>.