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Gay bar starts from the ground floor

Ashland's Abajo opens its doors to everyone ' even straights ' in effort to carve a niche

Abajo is basement chic, overstuffed cushions, dim lights, a mosaic on the bar. The paintings were rescued from the Mexican restaurant that used to occupy the space upstairs where the restaurant Tabu is now. The artworks were displayed there without irony, but here the effect is high camp.

Mike South started Abajo, the first avowedly gay bar in the Rogue Valley in a long while, but he says his straight brother did the decor.

He's the one with the eye, he says.

South says he aims for a warm atmosphere that excludes nobody, straight or gay.

I want everybody to feel comfortable, he says.

Since opening a block from Ashland's Plaza a couple weeks ago, Abajo (Spanish for under or beneath, due to its spot beneath Tabu) has done a brisk business, South says. And that's being open Wednesdays through Saturdays before the Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its season and the tourists begin coming at the end of the month.

It's been great, he says.

South has promoted Abajo through the gay community. He has not yet advertised in the mainstream media.

But the crowd has been totally mixed, he says. People seem to like the atmosphere.

South, 43, was born and raised in Ashland and lived for years in the Los Angeles area. Gay bars have long been part of the gay community in big cities, he notes.

Gays have often been ostracized, he says. It's where they flock to. Gay Realtors, lawyers, whatever. It's where you can find connections.

Ashland police Chief Scott Fleuter says he does not expect a gay bar to be a problem in Ashland.

A couple of years ago we had an attack we thought might have been a hate crime, but we haven't had anything other than that, he says.

In the 2000 census, 455 Jackson County residents said they were living with same-sex partners.

But members of the gay community have had no central place to gather since the closure of the Abdill-Ellis Lambda Community Center in Medford in 2001. Created in 1996 after the 1995 murders of Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill, a Medford lesbian couple, the center ran 19 programs ranging from support groups to HIV education to a hotline. It has since operated on a smaller scale out of the Congregational Church in Ashland.

South says the spread-out gay community has needed a visible place.

This is a place for people to meet and mingle, he says.

The space was formerly used by Tabu for storage. Tables and a seating area by the room's small window are bathed in low light. There's a palm and a schefflera. The bar is full-service. The oversize jars behind the bar testify to the popularity of infused vodkas, anything from mango to jalape?o, the latter served with garlic and stuffed olive juice.

South plays recorded salsa music Thursday and Saturday nights and house and dance music Fridays. He's planning a Mardi-Gras/Carnival party in March. Food plans call for a ceviche bar serving shrimp, lobster and scallops in a citrus marinade.

South plans a Web site with links to gay sites and a rainbow flag or insignia.

He says almost anybody should feel comfortable in the mixed crowd he's been getting.

There will be gay people here, he adds. You might get checked out.

Later at night the mix and the vibe sometimes turns more noticeably gay. South says the only bad vibes came not from homophobic straights but from a lesbian couple who seemed to object to the presence of so many heterosexual patrons.

They haven't come back, he says.

He says the only thing that won't be tolerated in Abajo is hate.

If you have hang-ups, he says, take them someplace else.

Mike South has opened Abajo, an avowedly gay bar, in Ashland, but says that everyone is welcome, as long as they leave their prejudices outside. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven