The politics of dancing: what's behind the campaign to close the Limelight

On a recent bustling Saturday night outside the Limelight, neighborhood activists John Schachter and Bill Dubilier are discussing what effect the most infamous dance club since Studio 54 has been having on the Flatiron district since the disco reopened in early December.

Fifty-two-year-old furniture upholsterer Schachter— a Community Board 5 public member who bears a passing resemblance to Limelight operator Peter Gatien's journalistic nemesis, New York Post columnist Jack Newfield— has the unenviable task of patrolling the club every night it's open. He assesses the place for noise, litter, drug use, rowdiness, pedestrian congestion — the standard checklist of quality-of-life offenses. If the bass emanating from the club is too loud, he tells a member of the security team, who immediately gets on a walkie-talkie and instructs the DJ to turn down the sound system. If someone who appears to be stoned or drunk approaches the velvet rope, Schacter tells the bouncers not to let that person in.

"Compared to four years ago, when they would have spat in our faces, today the Limelight is complying with the guidelines of the community board," says Schachter.

"They're much better than they used to be," agrees market investor and fellow neighborhood activist Dubilier, who claims that in the old days, before the Limelight was closed by authorities in 1995, he was frequently awakened at four in the morning by window-rattling music. "But three months of good behavior doesn't make up for 10 years of hell. My greatest fear is that as soon as Gatien gets his liquor license back, he'll resort to his old ways."

Once again, it's crunch time for scandal-scarred club king Peter Gatien. His lucrative license to sell booze is currently up for renewal before the State Liquor Authority. And on March 19, he goes for sentencing on state tax-evasion charges like Studio 54's Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager before him. As part of a deal with the district attorney, Gatien pleaded guilty in return for a 90-day jail sentence (of which he will be required to serve 60 days) and a $1.9 million fine. In exchange, he expects to receive a "certificate of relief from civil disabilities," which would allow him to continue operating a liquor-serving establishment once he gets out of prison. This, despite his felony conviction.

The semisecret agreement with the state was threatened by the recent death of 18-year-old Jimmy Lyons from a suspected drug overdose at Gatien's other dance hall, the Tunnel, and the subsequent bad publicity the teenager's demise generated. The stone-faced Gatien hasn't looked this worried since his drug-and-racketeering trial last year.

Is Peter Gatien a reputable enough person to hold a liquor license? The "fitness standard" the SLA is supposed to apply in these cases goes beyond the question of criminal convictions. While Gatien was easily acquitted on all federal charges, the evidence presented at the trial painted a disturbing picture of the old Limelight as an out-of-control pills-and-powder circus where life was cheap and gun-toting thugs and antisocial club kids ruled the roost.

Among the local politicians who have written to the SLA opposing renewal are Public Advocate Mark Green and City Councilman Tom Duane; Manhattan borough president C.Virginia Fields and State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer have also come out on the record against Gatien's license. In a letter dated November 24, 1998, Green told the SLA: "Under the standards of 'public convenience' and 'public interest,' the documented abuses at the Limelight under Peter Gatien's management disqualify him from receiving a license regardless of the outcome of his criminal case."

To keep his permit, Gatien has assembled a high-powered team of expensive lawyers, political-influence peddlers, and publicists— including former Koch administration official Susan Wagner, high-profile defense attorney Ben Brafman, and lobbyists Sid Davidoff and Bob Malito. (Gatien originally hired PR supremo Howard Rubenstein as well, but he now says Rubenstein dropped him as a client on Newfield's insistence.) Gatien even persuaded former state attorney general Robert Abrams to call city officials on his behalf. A confidential source inside the Limelight camp estimates that the Canadian entrepreneur has a 6-4 chance of keeping his license. (Before Lyons's death, the same source estimated Gatien's chances as 8-2.)

Members of the Flatiron Alliance— the local community group in the forefront of the campaign to put Gatien out of business— claim the fix is in at the SLA. They say the SLA is deliberately delaying the decision until Gatien gets his certificate of relief, after which the authority will rubber-stamp his application. "If someone else with his past, but without his influence, was applying for a liquor license, the SLA would flat-out deny him," asserts Andrew Miltenberg, the alliance's lawyer. "But Peter Gatien has a very long arm in certain political circles."

Maris Hart, spokesperson for the SLA, denies that Gatien is getting special treatment: "Peter Gatien applied in a timely fashion, and he paid his fee to renew. The SLA hasn't made a decision yet. Until that decision is made, his license is deemed to be in effect."

All politics is local, they say. But the politics played out in the territorial conflict between community activists and nightclub operators in the Flatiron neighborhood is particularly sectarian. For some time now, the stretch of 20th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues has been on the front line of this ongoing struggle. The block— zoned for mixed residential/light manufacturing use— is an uneasy mix of loft apartments, photo-processing stores, and nightspots.

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