TAKEN A STROLL down the Pike-Pine corridor lately? Despite rampant condoization and the occasional uppity furniture store, Capitol Hill's other main drag continues to flourish as a home to omnisexual hipsters and the people who love them. Neighborhood standbys the Cha Cha and Linda's consistently pack in a thrift-store-chic, I'm-with-the-band crowd, while the Baltic Room and Capitol Club cater to the more carefully groomed, and Manray, the Eagle, and the Cuff Complex span the rainbow of fruit flavors for gay men. (The Wild Rose remains the official lesbian outpost.) Last but certainly not least, superclub Neighbours welcomes them all—and their just-blossoming next generation—into its throbbing disco-ball love shack whenever the inevitable urge for late-night dancing or drag rears its tipsy head.
But if certain people have their way, the thriving ecosystem of Pike-Pine nightlife will soon find a new member near the top of its food chain, and a left-field member it is: the once-glorious, now-beleaguered space at 925 E. Pike. If you live or work in the neighborhood, perhaps you, too, have wondered at that oddly unknowable block of concrete, glass, and steel at the corner of 11th and Pike.
As a rock fan in the mid-'90s, it was nearly impossible to miss the space as Moe's—everyone from No Doubt to Pearl Jam took to its now-legendary stage, as well as countless local soon-to-be and never-quite-were stars. After a closing based more on management difficulties than falling-off attendance, the venue went to Jared Harler and Alex Calderwood, who together and separately helped create such local cultural markers as Tasty Shows, the still-thriving Rudy's Barbershops, and the Ace Hotel. Their prescient booking of acts like Air and Dido for debut Seattle appearances to the newly redubbed ARO.space (Arts and Revolution Organization) propelled weekly bread-and-butter DJ nights to a comfortable level of success through the latter part of the last decade. But since the unofficial demise of ARO in early 2000, the building became a vortex of confusion and uncertainty, a place where new incarnations came and went before passers-by could even register their existence.
Dennis Gibson, the most recent owner of the Venue Currently Known as Arena, seems determined to lift the dark cloud of bad juju. "I think this space has one of the most unique perception niches of any club I've seen in my entire career," he says. "Between [the original ARO. space ownership] and my acquisition, the two operators that were inside added to the confusion of what the place was really all about, and I think it's a long process to establish consistency."
The native Chicagoan is not new to the business, having worked for nearly 20 years as both manager and owner of gay-oriented clubs in several midsize American cities before bailing out in the mid-'90s. When friends lured him to the Northwest in 1999, he found himself unretired and brought on as a "party of interest" to help out a then-ailing Spintron (located directly across the street from his current space), but ultimately, he says, "the chemistry between the former owners and myself wasn't good." He turned his attention to the up-for-grabs ARO.space, but the club instead went first to the Kims, a Korean couple with restaurant interests on the Eastside, and then to a former owner of Giggles Comedy Club, before finally making its way to Gibson last March. "I really liked the basic shell of ARO.space," he says. "I thought there was a little bit of magic to the room."
Originally dubbed Paradise Garage, the newly anointed space struggled under a haze of bad publicity and confused management—a situation Gibson decided to remedy by once again changing the name rather than throwing in the towel altogether. "We had opened under such stress and duress, and we had such negative image problems," he says, "but there was still a core staff of very, very committed people, and we felt that the time and energy that would have been required to get it where we wanted it to be would be so much more than to simply try to achieve the same thing with a different name."
SO WHAT EXACTLY are they trying to accomplish? "What we're attempting to do," says Gibson, "is fill the room with cool-vibe people who are nonlabeled. We want people to come here and escape the problems of their gay/straight/ whatever world and get a little bit of a break, and to have a good time and go home safe." Exclusionary velvet-rope lounges and meat-market warehouses aside, that sounds like the idealistic mission statement of just about every major metropolitan nightspot, including the club's previous incarnation. From his new home in L.A., former ARO.space co-owner Jared Harler says, "We had more of a punk-rock aesthetic. We always wanted to do a mixed thing—there were certainly gay nights, but it wasn't just that. We were always [thinking of] ourselves more as a queer bar, because 'queer' could be gay or straight or anything—it didn't matter." In the end, though, he says, "It's about what people want in Seattle. There's a much smaller alternative gay crowd, and I don't know if it's big enough to support a club that size."
Gibson started slowly (some would say too slowly) with his newly rechristened Arena several months ago, building a roster based on two strong weekend nights: On Fridays, DJs popular on the Showbox/ I-Spy/Last Supper Club axis play to a decidedly straight, though not gay-unfriendly, crowd; Saturdays are a full-on shirts-off, go-go-boys-on-platforms all-nighter, with popular circuit DJs pounding out the Kylie Minogue remixes. Without the benefit of advertising or listings in local papers, the latter night often counts as many as 1,500 heads through its doors between 10 p.m. and the early morning hours (the club stays open, says Gibson, "as long as there are 100 happy bodies on the dance floor"). Still, the space continues to see less traffic overall than the average downtown outpost, and certainly far less than its Neighbour on the Hill. So when does the big takeover begin? "I've hired this week a manager, Steve Tracy, who managed Neighbours for 13 and a half years," reveals Gibson. "And, to cut to the chase, Steve is going to be doing deals that are comparative to what's going on there. It will be an easy choice for the customers in a brand-new space."
That's assuming such a nebulous thing as club chemistry is so easily captured. Neighbours is a peculiar success story, retaining a strong, steady client base with very few big names and even fewer lineup changes, sticking instead to a steady plan of cheap covers, late hours, and stiff drinks in a grubby but welcoming environment. If they offer analogous low prices and familiar talent, will the pristine, architectural Arena become the next all-purpose Capitol Hill dance destination? Perhaps—residents of the Hill seem to pride themselves on their willingness to try almost everything once. Gibson and his employees will just have to hope they keep coming back for more.