The first time Daniel Schaefer went to the City Nightclub—the only all-ages gay dance club in Portland and, at the time, the country—he and his friends spent half an hour dawdling out front, building the nerve to go inside. It was the late ’80s, and Schaefer, then a high-school sophomore, had an inkling he might be gay, mostly because everyone kept asking if he was. But it wasn’t the fear of confirming his peers’ suspicions that fueled his reluctance: He was intimidated by the guy at the door, collecting the cover.
“We hemmed and hawed,” Schaefer says, “then said, ‘Let’s go in for 15 minutes. If we don’t like it, we’ll bail out, and no one has to know.’ We walked in the door, and I’d never seen two guys kiss before, or just feel comfortable around themselves. It didn’t feel like there were any kind of restraints. It was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve found my home.’ Those 15 minutes turned into the whole rest of the night.” And the rest of the night turned into every weekend for the next decade.
In its heyday, the City Nightclub functioned somewhere between Studio 54 and Outside In, a space in which kids who had no place else to go could explore and exert their identities. Search for the City online, though, and what little pops up will often refer to the club as “infamous” or “notorious.” Hounded by police and then-Mayor Vera Katz, and beset by accusations ranging from pervasive drug use on the premises to a child pornography ring operating out of its basement, the City, which moved from downtown to the pre-Pearl District during its lifetime, closed in the late ’90s, and is remembered less vividly today as an icon of Old Weird Portland than other alleged dens of iniquity like Satyricon.
But for regulars like Schaefer, who is organizing a reunion at Rotture this week, the club was more than just a staging area for wild nights out—though that’s certainly part of its legacy. It was where an entire generation learned to be comfortable with themselves.
“Going to the City was like an escape to another planet,” says Kevin Cook, known in the Portland drag community as Poison Waters. “I was where I belonged for those few hours, where I felt like a visitor in my ‘real’ daily life.”
If the City lives mostly in infamy, though, that’s fine by owner Lanny Swerdlow.
A government biologist-turned-KBOO gay-issues commentator and then marijuana activist, with a prominent mustache and kooky-uncle demeanor, Swerdlow is a natural-born antagonist. In the beginning, however, he figured he was doing the city a favor. He opened his first all-ages club in 1977, with the intent of giving the dozens of teens who used to hang around a well-known downtown cruising spot something to do other than stand on a street corner. “Overnight, the area was emptied out,” Swerdlow says. “You’d think the city would have appreciated that.” Instead, he was accused of “recruiting for the gay community.” Rumors swirled of older men peering through the windows, preying on young boys as they exited. Church groups gathered in protest across the street. But what annoyed local authorities the most, according to Swerdlow, is that he had given shelter to one of the police’s favorite targets. “The cops were furious because I completely obliterated one of the major ways they used to bust kids,” he says, referring to curfew violations. “That began the war between me and the cops.”
The first iteration of the City opened in 1983, in the carcass of an old motel on Southwest Morrison Street. “It wasn’t fancy, by any means,” Schaefer says. “It was just sort of thrown together.” Still, kids came out in droves, dancing to the Pet Shop Boys and Dead or Alive and more specialized selections, like singles recorded by the drag star Divine. “I used to sit in the club in the corner by myself,” says Alex Broderson, who ended up becoming the City’s in-house DJ. “I’d listen to the music and go home. I did that for three or four months.” It wasn’t the only entertainment option in town for the under-21 crowd. But for Portland’s outcasts, the club was less a nightspot than a second home—and in some cases, their only home. “Lanny treated everyone like they were his own kids,” Schaefer says. “Sometimes, if we didn’t have a place to go, or it got bad enough, he’d let some kids stay in the club overnight.”
In the early ’90s, the City moved to a warehouse on Northwest 13th Avenue, put in a light-up dance floor and began drawing crowds of up to 2,000 on the weekends. As the club’s popularity exploded, Swerdlow seemed to take delight in prodding the conservative establishment. He recorded commercials boasting that the club has been “violating traditional family values since 1983.” He sold shirts declaring, “I Had Sex in the Restroom at the City Nightclub.” Another ad played off Mayor Bud Clark’s famous “Expose Yourself to Art” poster, which, given the underage clientele, had particularly transgressive connotations. But Swerdlow refused to pretend he was running a Bible camp.
“You go to any nightclub, it’s infused with sex. And the club was very sexual,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, and I didn’t apologize for that. It didn’t make people comfortable.”
But out of the fog of adolescent hormones, a true art scene developed. Every Saturday at midnight, the music would stop for live stage shows—slapdash vignettes that ranged from bizarre art pieces to beauty pageants to detailed, lip-synched re-creations of famous Madonna performances. “I literally had never heard the term ‘drag queen’ or saw one, to my recollection, before entering the City Nightclub,” says Cook, who credits one particular show, involving “four black queens” in white gowns doing a routine to songs from the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, for changing the direction of his life. The club’s impact reverberated beyond just the gay community: John Darnielle, of acclaimed band the Mountain Goats, frequented the City when he briefly lived in Portland as a teenager, and says that, in some ways, his career as indie rock’s poet-laureate was shaped by his experiences there. “The City taught me that it was OK to be who I am,” he says. “There isn’t any more important gift you can give to an artist, or to a person.”
When it was open, the City led a tenuous existence. “We were in fear of losing the club constantly for a good five or six years when I was going,” Schaefer says. Police were a constant presence. In 1996, the city attempted to use its Drug House Ordinance to shutter the club, prompting a 400-person march to City Hall and a short MTV documentary. Eventually, Swerdlow, who’d been battling the cops for 20 years, grew too exhausted to go on. “Trying to fight it was going to cost a fortune, which I didn’t have,” Swerdlow says. “It was cheaper just to close down and reopen.” But his new club in the North Park Blocks, called the Rage, wasn’t open long before an after-hours incident involving a DJ, a 16-year-old and a video camera led to a raid of both the club and his houseboat. Though he was never charged with a crime, Swerdlow had had enough. He sold the club (which continues as Escape, even using the same dance floor) and moved to Palm Springs, where he is a leading figure in California’s pot legalization movement.
It was almost just as well that the City petered out when it did, at the dawn of the Internet era, when people could begin to find community at the click of a mouse. Many of its regular patrons, including Schaefer, Cook and DJ Alex Broderson, had already turned 21 and moved on to the bar scene. But if a club like the City isn’t as crucial today as it was back then, that is perhaps the greatest testament to why it mattered in the first place.
“You were almost never home,” Schaefer says. “My family was like, ‘You’re not just coming home and showering and changing your clothes and going back out.’ I’m like, ‘You guys don’t realize. There’s a revolution going on at this gay club.’ It was like a whole world inside these two buildings.”
SEE IT: The City Nightclub Reunion is at Rotture, 315 SE 3rd Ave., on Saturday, Aug. 30. 9 pm. $12. 21+.