NOLA to the north

Posted on 15 Apr 2009 at 5:44pm
By Arnold Wayne Jones Staff Writer

OK, that may be overstating it, but Shreveport on Louisiana’s ‘other side’ can make for surprisingly gay weekend getaway for North Texans


LAISSEZ LES BON TEMPS ROULEZ: Bret Malone, director of the Philadelphia Center, and Jake Toloso, who works with the Pink Party, pose before a Mardi Gras parade float. Shreveport has two gay krewes among its parade participants. ARNOLD WAYNE JONES/Dallas Voice

If you’ve never been to Shreveport-Bossier City, you might believe the image of the city as a backwoods Vegas, as middle-aged hetero couples in campers with NASCAR bumper stickers order domestic beer while sitting for hours on end at the roulette wheel table.

Well, yes, there’s that.

But the smallish twin cities in northwest Louisiana (just three hours east of Dallas), have unexpected appeal for gay travelers as well, especially for a long (or even short) weekend getaway.

So, is it fair to call SBC "New Orleans lite?" Hardly. Even residents here speak fondly of trips to the Crescent City to explore the wild underbelly of the Bayou State. And gay residents privately lament a conservative thread that dominates the local government and attitudes of community leaders that in many ways keeps its outlook very "small town" (though the metro population is about 400,000).

But this is also where "Sordid Lives: The Series" was filmed; where the Mardi Gras celebration includes several gay krewes as well as a faboo dress-up dog show to rival Dallas’ Pooch Parade; where the AIDS-fundraising Pink Party — now in its 16th year — has become a major social event. Shreveport may not be as outlandish as its larger sister cities, but many people here cleave to the unofficial motto of the state: Laissez les bon temp roulez!

Although SBC has no gayborhood to speak of, the Historic Highlands district is home to many "guppies," with grand Victorians, charming colonials and B&Bs dotted along Pierremont. The city also supports four gay clubs, several within a brisk walking distance of each other. During the day, Central Station — a refurbished train depot — looks like an abandoned blighted building, but late-night it becomes a high-energy dance club with music pouring out. The Korner Lounge is a friendly video bar and Never Never Land offers karaoke Saturdays. The newest entry is Club Hush, primarily a bar for African-Americans on the down-low.

Like its hurricane-prone neighbor, Shreveport-Bossier knows how to do Mardi Gras right. This year’s gala, spread out over several weekends, featured hours of floats parading along the riverfront (including the 22-year-old gay Krewe of Apollo and the very new gay Krewe of Atlas) and a pet-centric dog show that saw bichons to boxers bedecked in lavender tutus alongside their masters. There are king cakes and booze aplenty, though the outright nudity and sexual freedom is kept in check.

The Philadelphia Center, the region’s major AIDS services provider for 20 years, is a major beneficiary of the Pink Party, which takes place May 2, 2009 at the Municipal Auditorium (where Elvis Presley got his start). What began with a few friends has grown into an event attended by as many as 1,500 revelers among the DJs and drag queens, almost all in Pepto-colored duds. In 2008, it raised $15,000. In the fall, Shreveport welcomes a mini gay film festival, with six movies screening over a weekend.

Many non-gay-specific activities in and around downtown offer queer appeal. ArtSpace (comparable to the McKinney Avenue Contemporary) boasts a rotating slate of exhibits, some fairly edgy, like a recent show highlighting the history of tattoos. You can also grab a bite at the Café @ ArtSapce, run by gay chef Michael Chisum, whose dishes are designed to draw in people from the street who wouldn’t normally enter a museum.

The Robinson Film Center across the street from ArtSpace opened less than a year ago and is still "finding its audience," according to Chris Jay, its communications director. A large part of that audience is proving to be gay, as the center was the only theater in the region to exhibit "Milk," which it did to sold-out houses for weeks. ("It was nominated for eight Oscars and no one in town was going to show it? It was the subject matter, I’m sure," opined one liberal local.) Like Planet Hollywood, the center also displays actual, authentic props from movies ("Harry Potter" to "Titanic") and shows classic films in repertory ("The Wizard of Oz" was a big hit recently).

The Multicultural Center of the South opened in 1999 (it moved into its current digs downtown in 2005) is an EPCOT-like tour of various cultures, and you can soak in the outdoors by taking guided boat tours along the river.

The Boardwalk in Bossier, a fancy outlet mall, offers the best views of the city; at night, you can even see the main bridge outlined in dramatic red neon. It’s a good one-stop location for shopping and dining at tasty chain restaurants like Saltgrass.

If you want to try a more authentic local culinary experience, pop into Southern Maid Doughnuts, a tradition that outshines Krispy Kreme in customer loyalty and offers yummy jelly-filleds. The Soumas Heritage Creole Shop, run by its charming proprietor, Panderina Soumas, offers the opportunity to bring home a taste of Louisiana with her packaged goods and recipes, along with a generous dash of history and gifts (including voodoo dolls, if there’s someone you need to cast a spell on).

For more substantial on-site food, try a bite at Bistro Byronz, which could double for a New Orleans eatery. Serving French-Creole cuisine (staples like milk punch, grits & grillades and cassoulet), it sends out a neighborhood-y vibe and is priced accordingly — nothing on the lunch/ brunch menu exceeded $16, with most under $10. Don’t miss the sweet corn and crab bisque (spicy and rich) and order some blue cheese chips (house-fried potato slivers with heady gorgonzola slathered on).

For those who enjoy games of chance, riverboat gambling was legalized in the 1990s, with all five of the hotel-casinos clustered on the Bossier City side of the Red River. But don’t expect vast gardens of one-armed bandits over acres of floor space — the casinos are low-key … much like the city itself.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 17, 2009.

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