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

Malcolm Grant, a 20th Street resident and a member of the Flatiron Alliance, had some serious complaints about the new Limelight at a meeting of the borough president's Nightlife Task Force February 18. Grant claimed that since the Limelight reopened, he has regularly observed open drug dealing and consumption of alcohol from open containers on the sidewalk outside the club, rowdy club kids creating a public nuisance, and broken glass and other debris.

To thoroughly test Grant's assertions, the Voice sent a team of eight interns to the club and the surrounding area. Given a catalogue of quality-of-life violations to look for, over a three-night period they monitored both the front and inside of the establishment, meanwhile patrolling nearby clubs like VIP, Lava, Ohm, and Tramps for comparison. The results were predictable, and indicative of the homogenized state of late '90s New York nightlife. Call it the call of the mild: a couple of minor drunken scuffles and the faint smell of pot smoke aside, the team found nothing that could offend even the most rabid club-buster. "Pretty tame," "not much really happened," and "nothing to complain about unless you had nothing better to do," interns reported back. The garbage trucks in front of Laura Michaels's apartment were far louder than the barely audible thump of the music seeping out of Gatien's club.

The old Limelight was a pop-cultural petri dish that threw up some strange organisms indeed. There was party planner Michael Alig, who, before he dismembered his drug buddy Angel Melendez, invented the vibrant and demented club-kid subculture in his own image.

And there was techno promoter Lord Michael Caruso, who behind the scenes led his merry band of Ecstasy bandits on a crime spree that included extortion, kidnapping, wholesale drug dealing, and armed robbery, but who was also a key figure in the dissemination of rave culture in America. Prior to their arrests, both were directors at the old Limelight. As in the days of Baudelaire, evil deeds and far-reaching artistic trends seemingly walked hand in hand.

By contrast, the new Limelight is so sanitized it comes off as an artier version of Disney World. Like Times Square, the Limelight has been transformed from a place of illicit pleasures into a theme park. Gone are the drugged-up club kids, out-of-their-heads ravers, and shrieking drag queens wobbling on unsteady heels. They've been replaced by a somewhat older, more conventional crowd— aspiring yuppies and dressed-up bridge-and-tunnel couples out on a date. The legendary poly-drug-use and polysexual high jinks of the past have been usurped by more normal pleasures like drinking and necking. You could die of alcohol poisoning before you scored a line of cocaine.

The Limelight crowd's new attitude was captured well by one young stockbroker sitting in the VIP room, specially designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger: "I hate The Village Voice," he spat. "Businessmen will be running the world before you know it." (Aren't they already?)

Gatien has adopted what he calls "a zero- tolerance drug policy" at the Limelight. Throughout the club, signs warn patrons that if they use illegal substances on the premises, they will be ejected and handed over to police. To augment the regular bouncers, Gatien employs an undercover team of former law-enforcement agents who patrol the maze of claustrophobic tunnels and dimly lit side-rooms that used to make the Limelight such a perfect setting to take drugs. Only one person per stall is allowed in the bathrooms.

Despite a deluge of angry letters and petitions that flooded the community board last year when news leaked out that the club was set to start up again, in the last two months the board has received no complaints about the Limelight. The police have made no arrests on drug, drinking, or public nuisance charges since the club reopened.

Gatien has gone to unprecedented lengths to clean up his notorious hot spot. He's quadruple-glazed the windows to prevent disturbing local residents. He's installed a 24-hour hotline for neighborhood complaints. Throughout the night, Limelight security patrol up and down 20th Street on the lookout for potential trouble. A team of sidewalk sweepers keep the area around the club spotless.

Flatiron Alliance lawyer Andrew Miltenberg couldn't care less: "The current state of the Limelight is not the issue. Of course the Limelight is squeaky clean now. The real issue is Peter Gatien's history and his character."

"It's easy to bandy about salacious and unsupported accusations," counters Gatien lawyer Susan Wagner. "We'd be out of our minds to permit what the Flatiron Alliance says we do. Peter has woken up to the issue that New York is not the city it was when he first opened the Limelight."

Additional reporting by Lou Bardel, Hillary Chute, Vrinda Condillac, Camila Gamboa, Tien Lee, Kandea Mosley, Yael Schacher, and Ioana Veleanu.

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