This past weekend, 36 Oaklanders were killed when Ghost Ship, a warehouse that was converted into an artist colony, caught on fire. On the other side of the country, a 28-year-old man armed with an AR-15 rifle opened fire in Washington, D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria, claiming to be investigating an alleged child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton on the premises. The claim was unfounded, and fortunately no one was injured, unlike another incident involving an AR-15 back in June, when 49 patrons of the Orlando, Fla., gay club Pulse were massacred.
“Bar and clubs have a big impact on our community and have been a sanctuary for us,” said Terri Slavin, a representative of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. It was at the Center that a group of gay bar owners and managers met with members of local police and fire departments shortly after the Orlando tragedy to discuss how to potentially deal with terrorist attacks in Los Angeles. Law enforcement speakers emphasized vigilance of suspicious activity in or near LGBT establishments, as well as the importance of identifying possible escape routes for patrons and employees.
Orlando makes clear that in 2016, even traditional “safe spaces,” such as gay clubs, which for decades have served as LGBT sanctuaries from homophobic persecution and violence, aren’t entirely secure. So how safe is West Hollywood? As Los Angeles’ premiere mecca of queer culture, how visible and accessible are the emergency exits in Boystown’s myriad gay bars and clubs? If an inferno or crazed gunman were to erupt in one of these watering holes, how quickly could a crowd of gays escape?
To answer these queries, this reporter personally hit up every major gay bar on the Boystown strip, the gay nightlife epicenter stretching along Santa Monica Boulevard from La Cienega Boulevard to Robertson Boulevard, to see for himself the accessibility of their emergency exits.
Heading westward, the first stop is Gym Bar, clubhouse to WeHo’s queer kickball crowd. This small jock pub features a wrap patio, which, in the case of an emergency, would allow patrons seated outdoors to easily flee the premises. Inside, a clearly marked side exit is located several feet from the front entrance, which would potentially provide twice the egress in the event of a fire. On the other hand, the close proximity between the doors could be a liability if a gunman were to attack. In that scenario, pull a move from the Pulse survivor handbook — get down and scramble through the hall where the bathroom is and head out the unmarked staff exit to safety.
Nearing the corner of Larrabee, the next stop is Trunks. Upon entering the narrow bar, its emergency exit is visibly at the opposite end of the establishment, leading directly into the back alley. The intimate venue is dwarfed by its neighbor Flaming Saddles, which flaunts a second story and multiple bars, making it potentially difficult for a lone gunman corner a crowd. In addition to its open-air front patio, the queer cowboy bar features front and back staircases, a side exit leading directly onto Larrabee, as well as an additional employee exit connected through the kitchen.
Across the street, the significantly smaller Revolver displays a similar layout, with a front patio and side exits, but with a few key differences. Most prominent is its eponymous revolving door entrance, which in an emergency becomes useless at best and a hazard at worst. Additionally, there appears to be only single sets of stairways, one running up to a second floor alcove, and the other down to the subterranean bathrooms, making them potential traps for patrons if either were ever obstructed during a crisis.
Micky’s, which suffered a catastrophic conflagration back in 2007, knows firsthand the importance of safety. In addition to its front patio, back exit and multiple staircases, the bar also enforces a strict “no backpack” policy, a post-Orlando reaction intended to prevent concealed firearms from entering the premises. On the other side of San Vicente, a similar TSA-like bag check procedure is being enforced at Bar 10, the newest entry on the Santa Monica strip, which also features a clearly marked back exit.
Between these two venues, Rage provokes a bit of consternation. While a number of clearly marked exits provide egress from the bar area directly onto front patio, there appear to be none in the stage area in the back. Like most of its neighbors, the establishment should logically have some sort of doorway into the back alley but to this reporter, it was not clearly visible.
Conversely, St Felix’s back exit is transparent from the moment you cross the threshold. A pulled back curtain not only clearly reveals the emergency doorway, but also the bustling kitchen you’d need to cross to get out.
On the south side of Santa Monica Boulevard, scruff dive Motherlode’s entrance is flanked by a pair of shallow smoking patios, but during an emergency, patrons towards the rear of the bar should swing a right past the bathrooms and head out the back exit, leading out toward West Hollywood Park.
Finally, rounding the corner is the Abbey. While it sports the largest front patio of all the locations explored, the high, gothic metal fencing makes it difficult to safely scale. Fortunately, three separate exits lead out onto Robertson, while the back exit parallel to the restrooms opens out onto the park. Plus, the sheer size of the club makes it difficult for a single assailant to easily corner patrons.
With this information in mind, enjoy many WeHo bar crawls over the holidays. And as we enter 2017, take the biggest lesson we’ve collectively learned from this past year: anything can happen, so always have a contingency.