10 Bars for 2020: Black Hart of Saint Paul

A Midway institution navigates uncertainty, loss, and the path towards better allyship

Wes Burdine poses for a portrait at Black Hart // Photo by Tj Turner

This article is part of our “10 Bars for 2020” feature. Read more stories of bars that are defining this moment in drinking. 

It’s weird to be grateful that it’s not terribly busy,” says Wes Burdine, owner of The Black Hart of St. Paul. “The really tough part is that in order to keep our business going, we need to make some money. But the whole point of this period is to not do things like open up bars. I don’t know how to navigate the feeling of, almost, the guilt of needing to do what we’re doing, but also knowing that the crazy times we’re in right now call for everyone to behave differently.”

When he assumed ownership of the former Town House bar in 2018, Burdine understood its significance to the Midway neighborhood, as one of the oldest LGBTQ+ bars in the Twin Cities, home to legendary drag and burlesque shows. Burdine, a Midway resident, endeavored to keep the bar as unchanged as possible while making room for supporters of Minnesota United FC, who play their home games just across University Avenue.

Trying to bolster and expand the reputation of a neighborhood institution is difficult—much more so in the midst of a pandemic. Once Black Hart secured a PPP loan, he was able to bring back a handful of performers for “curbside drag” delivery of food, beer, and wine to-go. But like for all bar owners, the administration of that money became a horrible guessing game.

“Once I realized that the shutdown and everything was going to last so much longer, it was hard to figure out how much money to sit on and how much money to make sure got out the doors to our employees,” he admits. “It was a lot of difficult decisions there that I really don’t feel equipped to make […] We’re maybe a third of the way through [the pandemic]? I have to believe that there will be more bailout and support coming, but it’s hard to bank on it.” 

Black Hart bar in Saint Paul // Photo by Tj Turner

Now that Black Hart is open, with more limited hours for the sake of safety and efficiency, he’s seen firsthand the void that the shutdown had created. “We had three regulars who passed away, not from COVID, but during the shutdown,” he says. “One of our regulars put up pictures of them, kind of a memorial. It was really tough being closed when you are a place where people would normally come together and grieve and remember their friends.”

And beyond just safety concerns, Burdine is navigating the tension that comes from being a cisgender straight man in charge of an institutional gay bar. “There has been a big response from the BIPOC community and queer community and performers calling for places like Gay 90s, Lush, and Black Hart to really reconsider things, and how we do what we do,” he says. 

“And that’s led to really good conversations […] How can we make sure when we come back things look different? And make concerted efforts to put people of color at the forefront and support them, and make sure we’re really doing the work, actively, to make everyone feel comfortable? Some of those tough conversations are not always comfortable and aren’t always easy, but it’s been very positive for me to get the chance to listen to that feedback and figure out how to make the bar a better place for everyone.”   

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.