Private Pandemonium

As Clubs Flounder, Clandestine House Parties Flourish

Moby sees house parties as antidotes to the sterile conformity and lack of personality of the mainstream clubs and lounges, where buzz, money, and celebrity are valued above creativity and originality.

"The reason most of my friends like house parties is they know Donald Trump isn't going to be there," he continued. "House parties are the antithesis of trendy lounges. You go up in a freight elevator. You pay five bucks or nothing to get in. No one asks to see your ID or if you're on the list. Most people are dressed down. And everybody is sweaty."

But not all house parties are created equal. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the bare-bones affairs that Moby is talking about to elaborate costume extravaganzas like the hoity-toity Goth galas that House of St. Eve sometimes throws, where a select group of invitees sip absinthe while dressed as romantic characters from myth and legend; or the nouveau riche blowouts that playboy-millionaire Jonathan Leitersdorf used to stage in his swanky Lower Broadway penthouse apartment, where monied party freaks sipped champagne and danced until dawn under the chandeliers of the impressive Mediterranean-style villa-cum-disco—complete with gardens, swimming pool, and spectacular wraparound views of Manhattan—that Leitersdorf thoughtfully constructed on the roof of his cavernous bachelor pad.

Of course, house parties have always been around—but a few years back, they began to occupy a bigger part of the nighttime landscape. For a while, the dotcom bubble financed this trend. "The Internet expansion fueled the bigger parties," says DJ Sean B, whose well-regarded Freeskool parties are a regular pit stop on the current scene. "You had all these young, creative people with money in their pockets. That was a big spur," he said. While Pseudo, for instance, eventually went bankrupt, the parties at the start-up's offices—multimedia orgies of drugs, technology, and too much cash that sometimes lasted for days—proved a far bigger hit than the service (Internet television) the company was supposed to provide.

But Moby is right. Most of the current parties are resolutely low-budget, underground events. "It's all about building these small communities," continues Sean B. "Each party has its following, which is built by e-mail and word-of-mouth. You need people who support you and feel strongly about what you're doing. It's the same spirit as the early rave parties."

The night before Machinelf's boat party, Blackkat, a DJ collective that sprang from the squats of the Lower East Side and which has thrown parties everywhere from East Timor to East New York, is staging a bash called "Depth Charge"—promoted on their Web site as "an up-all-night Mermaid underwater adventure"—in a large set-design studio at the unfashionable end of Park Slope. On the windy roof deck, with forks of lightning providing the dramatic lighting effects, a 30-foot-high homemade metal swing—held together with weights and bits of duct tape—spins brave party-goers in 360-degree circles, threatening to catapult them into the nearby Gowanus Canal. Inside, circus performers and break-dancers, anarchists and artists—folks generally tired of the commercialized nightlife scene—rub shoulders as DJ Chrome lays down the sort of experimental sounds not normally heard in mainstream venues. Suddenly, the surrounding streets are filled with flashing fire engines. The Blackkat crew has some unwelcome guests—firemen in heavy plastic coats and helmets, looking for code violations. Chrome escorts them through the throng, and after a brief inspection, the firemen decide everything is fine and leave the party undisturbed.

"We try to behave like responsible adults," says Chrome's partner, Jason Blackkat, also a DJ. "We work hard to create a safe and creative environment. We make sure fire exits are clearly marked, there's a working sprinkler system, and there's no flammable material in the space. And we're very respectful of the surrounding neighborhood."

Blackkat threw its first parties in 1996 at the 5th Street Homestead, between avenues A and B. The next year, cops raided the squat and allowed city workers to demolish the place. Blackkat sued the city and eventually won an out-of-court settlement. Forced out of lower Manhattan, Blackkat relocated to Brooklyn, where it now throws parties practically every weekend. "More and more, the parties have spread out from Williamsburg deeper and deeper into Brooklyn."

What Blackkat and their ilk do is illicit, but whether it's actually illegal is a moot point. They try to stay within the appropriate laws and ordinances. For instance, for each event, they purchase a one-night beer-and-wine license. But when does a private gathering cross over the line to become an illegal public assembly? "The laws pertaining to public assembly are deliberately vague," says DJ Chrome. "A lot of it is up to the individual policeman. Different cops tell you different things. Some say you need a public assembly permit or a cabaret license, other's say because it's private, you don't."

One argument that club owners use to protest the crackdown on their establishments is that it forces party-goers into illegal and dangerous spaces. Yet the atmosphere at the house parties feels a lot safer than most big discos. These are overwhelmingly peaceful and friendly events, where displays of excessive intoxication are relatively rare. But occasionally trouble rears its ugly head. This past May, Connecticut teenager William Jouannes was stabbed and beaten at one of the under-the-bridge raves in Washington Heights after he decided to confront a bunch of hooded party crashers who had just jacked his backpack. Despite a collapsed lung and internal bleeding, the lucky raver survived.

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