By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Near the eastern end lies the VIP club, an upmarket strip joint recently closed down by the city, but set to reopen with a 40 percent prefab-titties/60 percent regular-bar split. In the middle of the block is Lava, a Soho-style lounge whose well-groomed customers line up like obedient dogs waiting to be ignored by the snooty doorman. And at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 20th Street stands the deconsecrated church that houses the Limelight where trendy Japanese tourists regularly stop to snap photographs of a piece of New York nightlife history, a stone monument to an era of decadence now past.
Adjacent to Lava, and a few doors down from the Limelight, lives Laura Michaels, the 34-year-old graphic designer and former club kid who has led the fight against Peter Gatien's flagship venue a place she used to visit while a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Jack Newfield honored her as an "everyday hero" and "mom taking on the power elite" for her efforts. The New York Observer compared this smart, aggressive, politically connected neighborhood activist to a younger Michelle Pfeiffer.
It was the Flatiron Alliance, the organization Michaels founded in the mid '90s, that helped drive Madonna's crony, Ingrid Casares who wanted to open a New York version of her flourishing Miami nightclub, Liquid, on West 22nd Street back to South Beach. Michaels also led the campaign to shut down Vertigo, the infamous hip-hop club on her block that was the site of multiple stabbings and shootings. (Her crusade to keep Puff Daddy's restaurant, Justin's, out of the neighborhood failed, however.) She's been a constant thorn in the side of Gatien, whom the Flatiron Alliance's secretary, Susan Finley, refers to as "the John Gotti of Discos." On January 5, Michaels wrote to Bruce Allen, the judge in charge of Gatien's tax case, asking him not to issue a certificate of relief. "The law may have put a hit man back on the streets because he gave up John Gotti, but they didn't put a gun in his hand and put him back in business to commit more crimes," she protested. (Is Gatien supposed to be Gotti, or Sammy "the Bull" Gravano? Or both?) At the same time, she publicly supports VIP, despite the perception that strip clubs in this city are mob controlled.
"Laura Michaels has her own agenda," said one neighborhood activist, who requested anonymity for fear of offending her. "She's got a personal vendetta against Peter Gatien."
"It's frightening that, having addressed all the tangible concerns of the community board, Laura Michaels is now trying to deny me the ability to make a living based on something as intangible as character," Gatien complains. "She isn't interested in coexistence. Michaels won't be happy until I close the Limelight and enter a monastery."
Michaels claims the Flatiron Alliance comprises 3000 residents and businesses. But some on the block claim she greatly exaggerates both the strength of the organization and the extent to which it truly represents community sentiments. "If there are 3000 people in the Flatiron Alliance, Laura Michaels must have got their names from the phone book," scoffs Heidi Fenster, a jazz singer, who lives with her ailing 78-year-old husband in a loft apartment opposite the VIP club. Hy and Heidi, who have lived on the block for 26 years, accuse Michaels of ignoring their persistent complaints about the noise and traffic generated by VIP.
"They talk about the effect that the Limelight has on the neighborhood, but what about VIP?" says Hy Fenster, who runs a small rehearsal studio out of his residence. "What is being done to Peter Gatien is discriminatory. Laura Michaels only cares about clubs that affect her, or her friends."
Michaels wasn't always so hostile to Gatien. In 1995, she approached the club owner for a donation to pay a lawyer to shut down the troublesome Vertigo. Gatien wrote out a check to the Flatiron Alliance. Michaels claims the check bounced. (Gatien says it was cashed.)
"I want to make it really clear that I have nothing personally against Peter Gatien," says Michaels. "I'm not anticlub per se. I'm against the oversaturation of clubs in the neighborhood." She says she would like the beleaguered neighborhood to adopt a one-club-per-block rule.
Michaels is no fan of the current Community Board 5, either, even though she's a member; she accuses the board of selling out to the nightclub owners. "There are people now on the board who make it very difficult for the community to be heard," she claims, charging that the board's staff released to Gatien's people the names and addresses of locals who complained about the Limelight. Conyers Thompson, the club's community liaison, confirms receipt of the information. Kyle Merker, cochair of the community board's Quality of Life Committee, says he regrets the release of the addresses, blaming it on a junior staff member.
Cloaking herself in the mantle of counterculture social activism, Michaels says of her fight: "This is like back in the '60s, when people said here is an industry that's polluting the water and polluting the air, enough is enough. So that industry was regulated. It's the same with nightclubs. Nightclubs negatively affect a neighborhood with trash, noise, traffic, and drugs."