After 71 years, oldest U.S. gay bar to close
Cedar Brook was 'center of Fairfield County gay life"™
The Cedar Brook Café's status as the oldest gay bar in the United States will come to an end on June 26 when the 71-year-old institution closes.
Clem Bellairs, who has owned the club for 12 years, said his reasons for closing the Cedar Brook were financial.
"The landlord died and the people who bought it doubled my rent," he said. "I can't afford it anymore."
Bellairs, 57, bought the club in 1998 after going there since he was 21.
"It was closing down and they were going to turn it into a strip mall," he said. "I wanted to see it stay alive."
According to Dan Woog, author of School's Out: The Impact of Gay and Lesbian Issues on America's Schools, the Cedar Brook has played an important role within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community for many years.
"In the early days, when bars were the only place gay people could congregate, it was a refuge," he said. "In the 1970s, when gay people came out more publicly, it was the center of Fairfield County gay life. In the 1980s, when more women started going, it helped bring the gay and lesbian communities closer together. Always, it was a rite of passage for young people -- for many, their first introduction to the gay community."
But Woog said the club was important to more than just the LGBT community.
"When it closes, there will be one less club in Fairfield County," he said. "So it's a loss for anyone, gay or straight, and one more indication of the dwindling night life in this area."
Woog described his first experience at the Cedar Brook as "eye-opening."
"For a long time, the Brook had a mystique for gay teenagers growing up in Westport," he said. "You wanted to know what it was like inside, but you didn't want anyone to know you wanted to know. I saw so many people having a great time, being themselves. I never knew there were so many gay people in Fairfield County!"
Recently, the club has become a social gathering place not just for the gay community, but also for racial minorities, according to Bellairs.
"Racial minorities are having a hard time being accepted, so it's a safe haven for them," said Bellairs. "It's Latin night every night."
Bellairs described the atmosphere of the Cedar Brook as "comfortable."
"There were never security incidents," he said. "It had a very homey atmosphere."
Erik Anderson, 24, of Norwalk, said that the Cedar Brook was "not your typical gay bar."
"It's got a lot of character to it; it's very unique," said Anderson, who has been to the Cedar Brook several times in the past year. "Other bars all kind of have the same feel to it, but the Cedar Brook is very distinct; I know I'm there."
Anderson described its closing as "extraordinarily sad."
"It's sad to see it go because it means so much to the older generation, and to the newer generation who doesn't really know it as well," he said. "I hope something new comes to the area, but you can't truly replace the Cedar Brook."
Bellairs said he is going to miss everyone who used to frequent the Cedar Brook.
"They weren't customers, they were friends," he said. "The people who went there were extraordinary."
Woog said that the Cedar Brook "represented a little bit of gay history, right here in Westport."
"I found it intriguing that for many years it was located directly across from the state police barracks [now Walgreens], and that it flourished in suburbia, with no adversity beyond a few homophobic remarks yelled by passing teenagers," he said. "I thought it said a lot about Westport that we had a gay bar here."
A closing party featuring local musicians will take place on June 26. Admission will be free.