Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Christine de la Rosa at Velvet (2009)

Location: 3411 MacArthur Boulevard (between Midvale Avenue & 35th Avenue), Oakland, California, USA

Opened: March 17, 2007

Closed: Fall 2009

Velvet was started by "two straight guys and a lesbian"--Bob Huff and Adam Afuvai (along with Afuvai's wife Stephanie Sulivan). Okay, add a straight girl to the mix. All were veterans at the nightclub biz. As for the lesbian? That was Page Hodel, a longtime San Francisco DJ and party promoter. And as an August 2007 article on Velvet noted, Page also "had the street cred three straight people would need to pass muster with the dyke community."

Here's more about the birth of Velvet (from the same August 2007 article):

When they decided to buy the space at 3411 MacArthur Boulevard, it was a hole-in-the-wall best known as the now-defunct American Indian bar Merel's Hilltop Tavern. Before that it was a biker hangout, says Huff, who grew up in nearby Maxwell Park and remembers seeing all the Harleys outside.

Deciding that the space was well suited to serve a niche community, Afuvai did a little market research and found that the neighborhood housed a burgeoning population of lesbians who'd been priced out of San Francisco, but lacked their own watering hole. Huff corroborated his findings, and when Afuvai asked Hodel for input, she said the place was sorely needed.

Of course, reclaiming an old rundown biker bar required a lot of elbow grease:

Since the bar was a wreck, the partners gave it a facelift, straightened out the bar, added lounge furniture, erected walls, and installed Plexiglas barriers. Huff retiled the bathroom. "We called it the Extreme Dyke Makeover," Hodel says. "Like, fifteen of us went in and completely turned the place upside down. It had been a neighborhood bar that had never been cleaned, and you walked in and it smelled unbearable. We scrubbed it with Clorox." The owners invited local women to display their artwork at the bar.
Velvet patrons

But finally, Velvet was ready for her "coming out" party, which was an unqualified succcess:

When Velvet opened on March 17, the line wrapped around the block. "Around ten o'clock Adam went out and told people in the line we were at capacity, 'You can save your Saturday night,'" Huff recalls. "But people said, 'That's cool, we'll just hang out.' That showed there's a need for us."

Unfortunately, there were conflicts between the partners from nearly the very beginning.

The realities of running a business aren't so glamorous — and it wasn't long before things went sour. The male owners say Hodel resented them for, well, their unfortunate biological circumstances. She didn't want straight men going behind the bar, operating the cash register, or making decisions about how to run their own club.

"The crowd that came in there didn't think they were coming to Bob and Adam's club; they thought they were coming to Page's club," Hodel insists. She adds that she was dissed by some of the people the co-owners had hired.

There were also bitter disagreements on who to hire as staff (mostly lesbians? men?), dress codes (ban athletic wear?), and advertising. None of it really got resolved. Just a couple of weeks after the grand opening, Hodel "jumped ship," taking her sound system with her. And then the fur really started flying: who owned the Velvet name, whether Hodel was entitled to compensation for the money she had put into renovations, etc. Much of this conflict went public via Hodel's email list, so many patrons were mistakenly led to believe that Velvet had closed.

Velvet hadn't closed just yet, but the remaining owners took "a big financial hit." Plus, there was the problem of "outsiders" trying to cater to a "niche community."

By June 2008, there were public complaints about the male bouncer being physically and verbally abusive towards the women patrons, as well as the "3 men who run this lesbian bar." The "outsiders" were obviously floundering in unfamiliar waters.

At the beginning of 2009,  in what was obviously an attempt to make amends with the Oakland lesbian community, Velvet hired Christine De La Rosa as general manager. Once again, there was hope that Velvet could be brought back from the ropes--though De La Rosa's apparent peace overtures towards Page Hodel were unproductive. Still, there was a galliant effort. For starters, they spruced up the place a bit:

...Velvet is remodeling itself as a bar and club and community space due to De La Rosa, who took over management of the club at the beginning of the year. A network architect who recently relocated to the Bay Area from Dallas, De La Rosa was surprised by the lack of queer women spaces in the Bay Area. After hosting a few parties at Velvet, owners Adam Afuvai, Stephanie Sulivan, and Robert Huff decided to step into the background allowing De La Rosa to run Velvet, she said. But she said that she doesn't have plans to purchase the bar and club.

De La Rosa also brought in a lesbian DJ, which increased the bar's patronage:

Since De La Rosa took over Velvet and brought in DJ Olga T, whom she's dating, the club has received a surge of business with a steady flow of an estimated 150 women stopping in at the bar and club nightly, she said.

In addition, De La Rose attempted to refine Velvet as a queer women's "community space"--not as a lesbian bar run by a bunch of straight guys:

...De La Rosa perceives Velvet as a community space.

"I want people to own the space. It's really not my space. It's really a community space and night club," said De La Rosa.

She said that a turning point within the queer women's community came last month [January 2009] when Velvet hosted the benefit for Richmond Jane Doe, the lesbian who was gang-raped in Richmond in December.

"I want everybody to feel ownership of that place, so they can feel welcome there, they feel like they can come there and that they can utilize it," De La Rosa said. "I feel like if I can achieve that, women in the Bay Area and in the East Bay Area will have a place."

But it seems that all the effort was too little too late to save Velvet. At some point--around the fall of 2009?--Velvet closed. By the end of the year, Lounge 3411 was in business at that location.

Photo: Christine De La Rosa, manager of Velvet bar (February 2009), Velvet patrons

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