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Where Is Everybody?
A recent poster in New York's gayborhoods tells the tale: "MORE GRINDR=FEWER GAY BARS." This brief cri de coeur—spread, appropriately enough, via social media and on blogs like Joe. My. God.—cited hookup sites and rapidly proliferating mobile apps like Grindr for killing New York's gay nightlife.
It's hard to believe that a mere 10 years ago, up to 2,000 men were dancing into Sunday morning at the Roxy; in the '80s, 3,000 members were packing the Saint for 18-hour marathons. Today, the city's only dedicated gay dance club, XL, has an official capacity of 750, which along with a few smaller dancefloors in bars like the Ritz and Splash, is the only game in town. Meanwhile, Manhunt, the granddaddy of hookup sites, boasts 200,000 active users in the city. With more than 400,000 local log-ins a week, New York makes up 10 percent of Manhunt's user base.
Even John Blair, the veteran promoter behind Hell's Kitchen's XL, admits, "Even if you could build a club like the Saint, you couldn't get that many people. Back then, that's all their social life was. People don't need to go to bars to hook up."
On those rare occasions where they actually meet someone face to face, guys wait until they're home to seal the deal. "It's not part of the culture where, if you meet someone, it's even socially acceptable," notes Stephen Pevner, who, as head of the Saint At Large, produces one of the city's few remaining major big-room dance events, the annual Black Party. "They say, 'I'll see you on Manhunt.'" Hey, why go out at all when you can order in?
The reasons for what everyone agrees is a noticeable contraction in club life go way beyond the digital revolution into even more fundamental changes. Younger gay men might be more concerned about meeting Mr. Right to marry and start families than the perpetual search for Mr. Right Now. Even the ones still on the prowl have less expendable income after paying for a rabbit warren of a room in a shared apartment in a funky neighborhood far away from Chelsea, Hell's Kitchen, or the East Village. Who wants to be cooked at 4 a.m. while anticipating a long wait for a subway train and a longer walk from the station?
Besides, gay men don't define themselves by the clubs they frequent anymore. Nor do they have to. In the years after Stonewall, clubs like the Firehouse and 12 West represented safe spaces in a hostile world where we could flirt, make out, and hook up (usually on site). With gay men coming out earlier and being comfortable hanging out with straight friends, even Blair and his partner in life and work, Beto Sutter, disagree about whether an unspoken, discriminatory door policy still works. "At the Roxy, people complained about too many girls," Sutter says, adding, "eight girls for every guy! Now they want diversity on Saturday night."
Jake Resnicow, promoter of one of the few new franchise events in town, Matinee, which began on Ibiza, agrees: "Matinee has demonstrated that the boys appreciate a mixed crowd."
Blair, however, maintains that "the gay community wants to be around people like themselves. "If you have too many straights, there are complaints, a lot of complaints. If anything, gay men are segregating themselves into smaller groups." The bears have their club nights, like Joe Fiore's Rockbear and Blowoff, held periodically at the High Line in West Chelsea; the skinny young guys (a/k/a/ the twinks), the single-named HK bars (Barracuda, Therapy, Industry, et al.); the musclemen, the semi-regular Alegria parties. Even older gay men have their own dances, such as Sunday Teas at XL.
"Time was, the bears, like other subcommunities, didn't want to keep to themselves," Fiore says. "Currently, bears definitely prefer bear events. They don't want to be singled out as fat, hairy guys."
Smaller, more specialized events are also a result of the effects of Manhattan's skyrocketing real estate and high-end apartment buildings on the island's fringes. Today, there's only one dedicated big room, Pacha, by the Hudson River. The turnkey for a giant space like Chinatown's Capitale starts in the $50,000 range—prohibitive for a promoter who still has to set up a sound-and-light system. That's why Rica Sena, whose Alegria parties still pack in the hottest men, looks to the few remaining dedicated dance spaces. And it's getting more and more difficult. It's significant that successful start-up parties like Matinee look to smaller (but still respectably sized) venues like District 36. "It's incredibly challenging to find a big room home in New York," Resnicow says.
And that space had better not be geographically undesirable. Guys "won't go above 57th Street or below Canal Street," promoter Josh Woods says. "People here aren't adventurists compared to Rio or Berlin." Woods, one of the most successful younger promoters in town, keeps his regular events in smaller spaces like Hudson Terrace. "Real estate interests have closed big clubs for sure," Woods says. "So it tends to be a bottle service."
For many, "bottle service" represents everything gone wrong with New York's gay-club culture. "You were picked because you looked great," says Christina Visca, a longtime fixture behind the velvet ropes at legendary clubs like Sound Factory and Palladium, "not because you could buy a bottle of Gray Goose for $250. Bottle service has ruined clubs; you're a VIP if you order expensive alcohol."
When Blair instituted VIP tables at XL, he was roundly criticized. But it's the only way to make a gay dance club work these days, he insists. "Bottle service would never have worked back then, but we're multipurpose because we have to be. And it's sold out every Friday and Saturday."
That leaves promoters like Sena continually haggling with club owners who would much rather devote their weekend nights to free-spending straight crowds than to gay men, notorious for refilling their one purchased water bottle. True, the drug of choice for many younger gay men is alcohol; but juice isn't conducive to an extended dance experience.
"It's not a weekly experience for anybody," Pevner says with a sigh. "It's not part of the culture. The big parties nowadays are like Broadway—they're half-tourists."