Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Endangered New York City Nightlife?

In the past few months there as been much talk of an anti-nightlife campaign being waged in the city, with gay venues especially being targeted. Is this an exaggeration or are gay New Yorkers really in danger of losing a lot of their homo-friendly spaces?

Last March several clubs in Chelsea, including gay bars Splash and View, were raided, along with several non-gay establishments, a few of which held gay parties on occasion. Drugs were cited as the reason for the raids. Back then several owners of gay bars in Chelsea, as well as a representative of the New York Nightlife Association [NYNA] told The New York Blade that gays or gay clubs were not being targeted. Despite highly exaggerated accounts of the places being shuttered for good, most of the clubs were re-opened within days.

The problem was not just drug use, but the fact that residents of the area dialed 311 to complain of the noise generated by bar patrons lounging on the sidewalks to have a smoke. This is a problem for straight bars as well as gay. According to Robert J. Benfatto, Jr., the president of Community Board 4, which oversees the Chelsea area and determines which establishments will be granted liquor licenses, "The clubs can’t control the crowds once they leave the bar."

The situation was not helped when Splash and two other bars that had planned to hold Gay Pride events were again raided over Gay Pride weekend. The timing understandably engendered much suspicion and paranoia. However, Splash was the only gay bar out of the 13 establishments to be hit over that weekend. Nevertheless, given the negative history between gay bars and the police, gay activists are quick to investigate any possibility of discrimination.

Much of the controversy recently centered on the Roxy nightclub on West 18th Street. The
Roxy was not a gay place, but had a popular gay night on the weekends. Suspicions were fomented when the Roxy reapplied to Community Board 4 for a liquor license and the hearing was delayed on more than one occasion. On August 12th the application for a license was withdrawn by the club itself, and they will probably not reapply. Robert J. Benfatto, Jr. told me "it is my understanding that something happened between them and the landlord."

According to Benfatto, the problem with the Roxy and other clubs has little to do with an anti-nightlife attitude in Chelsea or anywhere else. "Years ago The Roxy was in a manufacturing area that was approved for big clubs. Re-zoning has turned the area into a residential neighborhood." It is no longer a good mix.

Many of the people who seethe when the noise level of the street smokers goes too high don’t necessarily have anything against nightlife and may even enjoy it themselves. It’s when they’re trying to sleep and have to get up early on weekdays to go to work that they reach for the phones. Some bar owners in Chelsea have gotten together to address the problems. One solution was to hire off duty cops to stand outside the bar in their uniforms and keep order. Unfortunately, the city doesn’t allow "pay detail" – the name of this program – for establishments that have liquor licenses, with the exception of large venues such as Madison Square Garden. As for the drug issue, the Roxy went so far as to hire undercover agents to make sure their employees weren’t dealing.

The New York City Council introduced a Nightlife Security Initiative to address some of the problems. Their suggestions included changing the shift of the cabaret unit of the police to last until 5AM instead of four, so that they could deal with the noisy flow of often drunken patrons coming from the bars. Responding to the death of bar patron Imette St. Guillen, who was killed by a bouncer with a criminal record at The Falls, bars were to do background checks on all employees – this was also supposed to help deal with the drug problems as well, which persist.

Nightlife – gay or straight – isn’t going away any time soon. Benfatto told me that "most applications that come before this board are approved. Very few are turned down." But the larger clubs with the noisy smokers and drug deals in the bathroom will have to take more of the initiative in policing their establishments and patrons – and cooperating with the police and State Liquor Authority – or the raids will undoubtedly continue.

As for the Roxy? The beloved club appears to be gone for good. However, some people aren’t willing to let it go. Or at least let our nightlife go without a fight. Ryan J. Davis, who headed a "Save the Roxy" campaign, told The Blade "We’ll be turning the 'Save The Roxy' nightlife movement -- and it is a movement, with over 300 people activated -- into a committee as part of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club. There, we'll be able to provide oversight of New York City's Appointed Community Boards."

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