By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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 Postcolumnist 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.
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."
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."