WAMU 88.5 : Metro Connection

D.C. Dives: Rocking Out And Wrestling At Phase 1

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Phase 1 is located in the Barracks Row district of Capitol Hill.
Trey Pollard
Phase 1 is located in the Barracks Row district of Capitol Hill.

Phase 1 is the oldest lesbian drinking establishment in Washington. In fact, this dive bar may be the oldest of its kind in the country.

"It opened in 1970 in this exact location [with the] same owners," says bar manager Angela Lombardi. "One of the owners did pass away around 5 years ago, but the original two gentlemen that owned it have been a part of it the entire time.

And who goes to Phase 1?

"The beauty of this bar is that since we have been open since 1970, is that we're kind of all over the place," she says. "On any given night, our clientele ranges from a packed house full of 22, 21-year-olds. Or occasionally when we open, we'll get a group of 60 or 70-year-olds that roll in here. One woman actually had an oxygen tank. That's the versatility and the beauty of this bar. You never know what you're going to get. It's a roller coaster ride and that's what keeps it interesting."

Bartender Krista Strong says despite that age gap, Phase 1's patrons have unifying tastes and attitudes.

"Drinks are cheap, people are friendly, and it's not too fancy," explains Strong. "You're not going to get a nice Cosmo with a twist here. I mean you will if you order it, but it's just not that place. You come and get a PBR and a shot of Jameson, and you're good to go."

Jean Homza is a prominent regular and bar manager at the 9:30 Club.

"This is actually where I got my start in the industry," remembers Homza. "It's home for me. I started at that door, working the door in 1984 or 5, and now have what a lot of people would consider to be one of the premier jobs in my field."

Back then, Homza says, Phase 1 was an important gathering place for a largely isolated lesbian community in D.C.

"This place survived times when not only was it impossibly uncool to be gay, but women were targets on top of it. Still are, I'm not denying that or negating it."

Changing attitudes

One constant reminder of that era is the front door of the bar. When you enter Phase 1, you don't really enter Phase 1. You have to pass through a sort of makeshift anteroom that acts as a barrier between the street and the bar itself.

"One of the reasons there's that partition there is because people would fling that door open and throw things inside," Homza recalls. "Milk shakes came in and things more intense than that — bullet holes in the window when you come in the next day."

And while many of the patrons and staff haven't forgotten the past, for many it's undeniable that attitudes toward the lesbian community have changed for the better.

"We're at this beautiful point in 2013 where as a lesbian, I can go anywhere in D.C. with my girlfriend and not feel awkward," says bar manager Angela Lombardi.

This ever-opening society has presented some surprising challenges for Phase 1.

"It's a feat for any business to be open for 43 years now, let alone a lesbian bar," says Lombardi. "So we're not only competing with gay bars and lesbian bars anymore, I mean we're competing with straight bars."

Creating a safe community

In this newly competitive market, Lombardi has gotten creative to keep her patrons coming back. "We're always on a train to do whatever is new and weird," says Lombardi.

And tonight is no different. It's Jell-O wrestling night at Phase 1.

DJ Jay Von Tease has been spinning dance songs all night long, but tonight she's pulling double-duty as the designated Jell-O maker.

"It's like sand," she says. "And once you add hot and cold water, it turns into little tiny jelly balls that you can eat if you want to, but there's no flavor to them. They don't taste good but they won't kill you."

Each bag contains 25 gallons of Jell-O, and they use two of them. But 50 gallons of Jell-O still won't break a fall.

"The worst thing about Jello wrestling, because I've done this myself, is the next day, because the next day you feel like you've wrestled a polar bear," she explains. When asked if she won, she exclaims "No!" in a fit of laughter.

But it's not all Jell-O at Phase 1. Angela Lombardi says the most important thing about the bar is its continuing commitment to providing the lesbian community of D.C. with a safe and friendly watering hole it can call its own.

"It's not about just making money, it's being proud how you made the money," explains Lombardi. "We will never sell out. We're not trying to imitate or replicate. We're our own thing."

And after 43 years, it can safely be said, this dive bar is anything but a phase.

D.C. Dives: Phase 1


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