3 Dollar Bill opened this summer near the Montrose L stop as the largest queer venue in Brooklyn. “We should be proud of ourselves that we opened it, because a lot of people tried and didn’t succeed,” co-owner Brenda Breathnach said. She and her partners, who also own the East Village gay bar Phoenix, spent two years trying to get the new venue up and running.
“Up until the last day, we weren’t sure whether this place could open.”
The launch came after a spate of closures in recent years in Brooklyn, including Sugarland Nightclub, This N’ That, Veronica’s, and Lovegun. The problem is not just high rents, but conservative community values: the Greenpoint bar Lulu’s closed after a clause in the lease prevented the owner from converting it to a gay bar. Breathnach and the other owners took this into account when scouting for 3 Dollar Bill, for which they secured a 25-year lease.
“The big thing is, there’s no neighbors, and you’re not getting the calls from the neighbors to turn down the music.”
The new venue– located in a former brewery with stone floors, high ceilings, and a big outdoor space– holds 625 people. Its entrance sits under a logo of a trinity of hairy white legs next to a large graffiti piece by Coro Crew.
Greg Barker, a 3 Dollar Bill patron who describes himself as a faggot, appreciates that ambiance. “Being in queer communities and gay bars surpasses what I felt growing up in religious communities — the sort of transcendence and connection– and 3 Dollar Bill’s physical space lends itself to that feeling,” he said.
The owners hope the venue will become a gathering place for artists to teach and practice during the day–a bigger version of Arlene’s Grocery, the music venue they also own. Breathnach points to An Beal Bocht, a queer-friendly Irish cafe and music venue in the Bronx, as an inspiration.
Magic Butler, a self-described queer boy and holistic healer, went to 3 Dollar Bill on a recent weekend night and said the large space meant the room was nicely filled but not packed. “In most bars you’re sort of up against people and you can’t really check people out or dance by yourself, and the space allowed you to move around and see different people,” Butler said.
3 Dollar Bill hosts drag, comedy and other events. When you enter, staff puts your phone into a bag sealed with a magnetic strip, and you have the option of either carrying the sealed bag around the bar with you, or checking it. The policy was inspired by a bar in Berlin that does the same thing.
Barker noticed the lack of phones changed the way people interacted at the bar.
“Instead of going to a club and getting nervous and going on Grindr where people feel more anonymous and therefore safer, instead we’re being asked to connect with people around us, which is actually a really important part of gay history, but is really affected by the way we use sex and dating apps,” he said.
3 Dollar Bill represents a shift from the ubiquitous “gay bars” dominated by white gay men and addresses the lack of spaces for LGBTQ people in general with a venue dedicated to a broader range of customers.
The Yelp reviews of Phoenix, 3 Dollar Bill’s sister bar, include multiple reviews by straight women complaining about poor treatment at the bar. Gay men complain about straight women dominating the space.
“It’s a nightmare because when there’s too many women in a place the gay men don’t wanna be there,” said Breathnach, who is gay. “But gay bars are a safe place for straight women…and gay bars are usually more fun.”
The issue, she says, are “the straight women in the high-heeled shoes…sometimes they’ll be getting married and making a joke of the bar, of the whole thing.” But the owners expect to avoid such a complaints at 3 Dollar Bill.
“It’s big enough for a mix of people,” Breathnach said. “I’m trying to make it a place for everyone.”
That includes the gays who have left the East Village for Brooklyn and “don’t have a lot of places to go,” she said. “We want to reach out to all the gays and build a community here. There’s a big opening for the gay community for all of them to come together here and for all of them to have a safe place.”
Barker looks forward to seeing a variety of events at the venue. “I’m hopeful they’ll have parties that will cater to everyone at the same time, a place where i can go with my gay and my lesbian friends,” he said.
“Having events where there is more than just drinking and dancing–which are things that I love–means that this venue is opening itself up to more parts of our community for whom maybe those things aren’t of primary interest.”
They plan to start serving Mexican food this week, and Breathnach hopes to see queer wedding receptions there one day.
“Right now we’re just slipping and sliding, but you know, when you’re young you get up and try again.”