Can North Park’s Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center be saved?

Alma Rodriguez, the owner of Queen Bee's Arts & Cultural Center in North Park
Alma Rodriguez, the founder of Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center in North Park, sweeps the floor of the main ballroom on Thursday, January 21, 2021.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

After more than a decade, the grassroots venue in North Park launches fundraising drive and online benefit shows to help it weather the pandemic shutdown

Can Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center in North Park regain its buzz as a lively hive for music, poetry, dance, spoken-word and comedy events?

Or has the 13-year-old grassroots community center — shuttered since March because of the coronavirus pandemic and struggling to stay afloat — shut its doors forever?

Those questions are growing more pressing by the day for Alma Rodriguez, who founded Queen Bee’s as a labor of love, and for the many seasoned and aspiring San Diego artists who have found an inviting home there.

In February, some of those artists — including poet Rudy Francisco, comedian Walter Ford and jazz artists Charlie Arbelaez and Gilbert Castellanos — will perform a series of livestream benefit shows to help Rodriguez raise the $40,000 she needs to help the venue ride out the pandemic until at least summer. A GoFundMe crowdsourcing campaign was launched this week and, by late Friday afternoon, had raised $2,070.

“My vision has always been to empower the community through the arts,” Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico, said. “My landlord has been great, and I’m going to do everything in my power to continue Queen Bee’s. But I can no longer afford to keep paying out of my savings, so we’ll see.”

Covering mounting rental and utility bills for the empty, 300-capacity venue, which — pre-pandemic, also hosted weddings, quinceañeras and private parties — is not the only challenge.

Allen Hitch Jr., the owner of the 90-year-old building that houses Queen Bee’s, told the Union-Tribune he was recently approached by an outside party seeking to obtain the lease for the dormant site and turn it a childcare facility.

As a childcare center, it could begin operating almost immediately as an essential service provider. That option that does not apply to Queen Bee’s or any other live events venues in California.

“The monthly rent for Alma was $4,500,” Hitch, 79, said.

“After COVID began, I reduced it to $3,500 and then to $1,000. I really love and admire what she has done with Queen Bee’s. But I didn’t think the pandemic would last more than three to six months. And I can’t keep the building empty, because it’s too costly, and I bought it as one of my retirement investments.”

My vision has always been to empower the community through the arts.

Alma Rodriguez

Alma Rodriguez, the founder of Queen Bee's Art & Cultural Center in North Park
Alma Rodriguez, the founder of Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center in North Park, is determine to keep her grassroots venue afloat so that it can re-open once live events can safely resume.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

From Hot Monkey Love to Queen Bee’s

Rodriguez operated the Hot Monkey Love Café at two locations near San Diego State University for nearly a decade before relocating to North Park. She opened Queen Bee’s in late 2008 with the expressed goal of providing a platform for creative expression that could serve accomplished and budding performers alike.

“Alma does a lot of good there and I have a lot of respect for her,” said Hitch,
the son of former San Diego City Councilman and North Park Business Association President Allen Hitch.

“Before the pandemic closed everything down, she was doing concerts, small weddings, art and salsa dance lessons. She even had small church services on Sundays, so she had all the bases covered! Alma’s also been a mentor for for young people getting started in the music business.”

Rodriguez worked with Hitch to significantly upgrade the once-ramshackle venue, which had been the site of North Park’s original Dixieline Lumber Company building.

Together, they added a small recording studio, a large new dance floor, upgraded the bathrooms and added improved amenities throughout. Largely through word of mouth, Queen Bee’s developed a loyal audience for its proudly diverse offerings.

“It’s been an amazing resource,” said Rudy Francisco, who began hosting the weekly San Diego Poetry Slams at Queen Bee’s in 2015. He will perform a livestream solo poetry reading on Feb. 11 on behalf of the venue.

“Queen Bee’s has become a home for me and so many artists,” Francisco continued. “Alma has made a huge effort to provide a space that artists, no matter their skill level, can engage in it.”

Queen Bee’s may be the only venue in town that serves quite so many purposes. The venue is equally at home hosting poetry slams, dance classes (including hip-hop, salsa and pole), the annual San Diego Beatles Fair, spoken-word performances, comedy, local bands of all musical persuasions and national touring acts, such as Lake Street Dive, whose subsequent concert here was at the much larger North Park Theater.

“It would be a devastating loss for the community if Queen Bee’s closes,” said jazz trumpeter Castellanos, who will perform a Feb. 10 livestream fundraising concert with noted saxophonist Charlie Arbelaez’s band.

“I have a lot of respect for Alma because she’s not a show horse, she’s a work horse, and she’s put a lot of time and effort into making a place that offers so many things to the community.”

Those sentiments are shared by comedian Walter Ford, and by Jessica Aceret, the co-founder of San Diego Bgirl Sessions, which hosted weekly Sunday breakdancing lessons at Queen Bee’s from 2016 until the pandemic-fueled lockdown began.

“I moved here from Indiana in 2016 and Queen Bee’s is the first place I performed, at an open mic night” said Ford, who is producing and appearing in the venue’s comedy live stream fundraiser. “Queen Bee’s literally breathes life into the community. At times like these, we need that more than ever.”

“It’s a one-of-a-kind hub,” Aceret said, “for so many different kinds of artists and communities. If we lose that, we lose the heart and soul of North Park and what was going on there.”

Rodriguez, a divorced mother of four adult children, moved here from Los Angeles after attending the 1998 edition of San Diego Street Scene. She had been a concert promoter in Florida before coming to California and opened Hot Monkey Love Café here in 1999 to further her love of music.

With Queen Bee’s, she sought to offer San Diegans a resource for personal expression and shared experiences that was not available to her growing up in the Bronx in New York.

“I wanted to unite people through the arts and make Queen Bee’s a place where people have the opportunity to create, whether as a performer, a producer, a sound engineer, a promoter, or a visual artist holding their first gallery show,” Rodriguez said.

“If it puts a smile on somebody’s face, that’s the biggest joy you can have.”

SAN DIEGO, CA - JANUARY 21: Queen Bee's Arts & Cultural Center in North Park
The building that houses Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center in North Park was opened in 1931. It was the site of North Park’s original Dixieline Lumber Company.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Queen Bee’s livestream fundraisers

Feb. 10: “For the Love of Jazz,” with Charlie Arbelaez & Friends, featuring Gilbert Castellanos (7 p.m.)

Feb. 11: Poetry reading by Rudy Francisco (7 p.m.)

Feb 13: “Black Lives Laughter: A Valentine’s Show,” hosted by Bilal Young, featuring Teddy Ray, Pink Foxx, Orr Mash, Max Manticof and Walter Ford (7:30 p.m.)

Tickets: Available now at queenbeessd.com