Two days before learning what would become of Norfolk’s embattled lesbian bar, a group of students and activists toured the city’s LGBTQ history.
It was filled with graveyards — a hotel that used to be a gay bookstore, a parking garage where drag queens used to dance.
When the group stopped at the Hershee Bar — Norfolk’s only dedicated space for bisexual, lesbian and queer-identifying women — the owners were packing up 35 years of history, piling it on tables around the bar.
The last of its kind in Norfolk and one of the oldest lesbian bars on the East Coast, the Hershee Bar was shuttered Oct. 31 to make way for a planned revitalization of the Five Points corridor. Last week, activists who spent months trying to persuade Norfolk officials to save the bar learned what would replace it:
A dog park.
“I love dogs as much as the next person,” said Barbara James, a founder of the Hershee Action Coalition, which has tried to save the bar. “But our 35-year history is being torn down in this way where the city is essentially saying we’re less than a dog.”
The announcement rattled those at a Norfolk City Council meeting who were prepared to continue lobbying city leaders for an alternative plan that didn’t involve razing the property. Several people cried.
“It means a little more to some of us than a place for people to walk their dogs,” said Jennifer Alomari, who stood before the council in a white T-shirt that bore the words “We are Hershee bar.” She took deep breaths to steady herself before continuing. “It’s a little more than a park. They closed the door to our home.”
Council members and Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander (D) didn’t respond to requests for comment about the bar, the park or redevelopment plans.
Activists who have lobbied them since June said they have been denied meetings with city officials. Until last week, they said, they didn’t know a plan was in the works.
Jackie Rochelle, who addressed the council on behalf of the Five Points task force, which has been forming a revitalization strategy for the area, said the dog park was “an accumulation of years of planning.”
“We did . . . decide that the property’s best use should be for all citizens,” Rochelle said at the council meeting last week. “A dog park, for our friends that have four legs and wear fur outfits as well, and for many of us who feel that this is also our family.”
In February, council members unanimously voted to purchase for $1.5 million the four-building lot where the Hershee Bar had operated since 1983. There was no discussion about the potential impact on Norfolk’s LGBTQ community.
There are three dog parks within three miles of the bar’s longtime home at 6107 Sewells Point Rd.
“First of all, that’s a really busy intersection to want to put a dog park there,” said Sarah Hustead, a member of the Hershee Action Coalition. “Two, I think we have enough dog parks. But we don’t have anything else like the Hershee Bar.”
Norfolk council member Andria McClellan wrote on Facebook that she was blindsided by the dog park announcement.
“For the record, I don’t support paying $1.5M for a dog park,” McClellan wrote. “I had not heard of these plans before they were presented this week and I don’t agree with this direction at all.”
Activists have called Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) office and sought input from groups that nominate places to become designated as historical sites. But according to Virginia regulations, a site must be at least 50 years old to be considered for historical designation.
On the LGBTQ history tour through Norfolk last week, the lost history was on display. Students from Old Dominion University and Virginia Wesleyan University were joined by activists, community members and historians.
They wanted the same thing: to see where their history once stood — even if all that’s left is a vacant building or an empty lot.
“One of those things that’s meaningful to people when we go on our queer history tours is they get to stand in the places where other LGBTQ people stood,” said Cathleen Rhodes, a professor at Old Dominion whose students orchestrated the tour. “We don’t have monuments. We don’t have museums. There really aren’t many places where we can go and stand in our own history.”
When they got to the Hershee Bar, the owners invited them inside. The place was dark and quiet. A heavy stillness hung in the air. The space, usually full of life, felt odd and eerie.
“One of my students said to me at one point, ‘I feel like I’m walking through a funeral,’ ” Rhodes said. “And we were.”