March 18, 1996: Portland's gay youth culture comes of age in the fight to save its only home...

CLUB KIDS: A crowd at the City Nightclub.

When Lanny Swerdlow opened Portland's only all-ages gay nightclub back in the late '70s, he figured he was doing the city a favor. The only place for young gay people to congregate at the time was the cruising spot on the corner of Southwest 3rd and Yamhill. After Swerdlow established his club, the cruising spot cleared out practically overnight.

Instead of receiving a medal of commendation, Swerdlow was vilified. He was accused of indoctrinating teens into the homosexual lifestyle and hounded by church groups. The worst thing he did, though, was undercut the Police Bureau's ability to bust kids for curfew violations.

"That began the war between me and the cops," Swerdlow says.

The conflict would play out over the next two decades, in several different locations and iterations and it would culminate in a protest march to City Hall. In 1989, Swerdlow moved the club, by then called the City, into a warehouse in the pre-Pearl District, and began drawing crowds of 2,000 on weekends. Swerdlow enjoyed antagonizing the authorities: He ran TV ads boasting of "violating traditional family values" and sold shirts declaring "I Had Sex in the Bathroom of the City Nightclub." But for regulars, the club wasn't just a staging area for wild nights out. It's where they learned to feel comfortable in their own skin.

"I longed for the weekends so I could escape to the city, to see and meet more fun, young, alive people, gay youth my own age," says Kevin Cook, known in the Portland drag community as Poison Waters. "I craved it: the dark club, the pulsing beat of the music, the stench of clove cigarettes—all of it. The club represented my rebirth."

At its height of popularity, the City was the focus of constant police scrutiny, under the pretext of pervasive drug use on the property. In 1996, the city attempted to use its drug-house ordinance to shut down the club. On March 18, nearly 500 supporters marched from the club to City Hall, waving signs and chanting, "Save the City!" Even MTV covered the protest.

By year's end, though, Swerdlow was too exhausted, financially and mentally. He closed the City and later moved to Palm Springs. Today, the club has faded as an icon of Old Portland. But for those who were empowered by those nights on its dance floor, and politicized by the battle to keep the doors open, the club's legacy is part of them.

“I can’t imagine my life without the experiences of the City nightclub,” Cook says. “My life is exciting and plentiful, and I doubt it would be such had I not walked into that club almost 30 years ago.”

From the Archives:

"In the City", August 27, 2014: A ten-year retrospective on the City Nightclub closing

1974: Mt. Hood Freeway Killed    

1975: Soccer City, USA  |  A Vet Shuts Down Nuclear Power 

1976: A Home for Refugees  |  Intel Changes the Economy 

1978: Bill Walton Sits Down

1979: Busing Ends in Portland Schools | Oregon Wine Gets Famous

1982: Courts Pave Way for Nudie Bars | The Other Daily Paper Folds

1984: Satyricon's First Show | A Bartender Becomes Mayor | The Air Jordan Saves Nike

1985: First Female Police Chief Ousted | Wieden+Kennedy's Most Important Ad

1986: Dark Horse Comics' First Issue 

1988: Inaugural Oregon Brewers' Fest | Rise of Hate Groups

1989: NW Rowhouses Burn  |  Gus Van Sant's Portland Hits Screen

1990: Our First Great Restaurant  | Oregon's Longest Tax Revolt

1991: Cleaning up the Willamette

1995: Bicyclists Sue Portland

1996: Vera Katz Builds a Wall | March to Save City Nightclub  | Powell's Rebuffs Amazon

1997: Path Cleared for Pearl District

1999: Stumptown Coffee Opens  |  Fight Club Hits DVD

2000: Largest Union Pension Fraud Ever

2003: Fred Meets Carrie  |  Suicide of Elliott Smith

2004: Gay Marriage Legalized (Briefly)  | Goldschmidt Exposed  | Eastside Portland Rises

2006: The Death of James Chasse Jr.

2008: Our Fanciest Restaurant Ever Bombs

2009: Sam Adams Admits Lying

2011: Occupy Portland 

WWeek 2015

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