Unless you live in Harlem and care about such things, chances are anything you know about its gay scene was gleaned from Jennie Livingston’s 1990 drag-doc, Paris Is Burning, or perhaps The Young and Evil, an unrepentant, surreal novel of arty homosexual doings in 1930s New York by Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford. But neither of those gives the full picture of gay Harlem, then or now—it’s not all drag, drugs, and rough trade. Accompanied by my intrepid drinking buddy, D, and stoked with a brace of bubble teas from Saint’s Alp in the East Village, I headed north one evening for a night of Harlem gay-bar hopping.
After some confusion over routes (has anyone ever actually seen a B train?) we found ourselves seated at Billie’s Black ( 271 West 119th Street), a newish restaurant-lounge on a spruce block off St. Nicholas Avenue. The stately proprietress, Harlem-born Adriane Ferguson, has made her establishment—named for her beloved mother, Billie—a comfy haven for locals gay, straight and non-disclosed; the décor is casual and funkily elegant, the food soulful and abundant (the unsweetened corn bread is sublime), and drinks range from affordable well and call-brands to pricey, sugary potions such as the Sexy Mexican (Gran Centenario Tequila and Sprite), the Billie’s Kiss (gin, peach schnapps, pineapple and cranberry juice), and other exotica. D and I lingered at our monogrammed table, casually eavesdropping on a neighborhood Sybil doing the astral charts of another young woman at the table next to ours, while almost-inaudible jazz and dance classics oozed around us. Billie’s has a good dinner crowd most nights, and a festive late-night weekend throng at the bar.
Shooting further north, we emerged from the subway and ambled into the garish netherworld of No Parking bar (4168 Broadway), a smallish space tricked out with a retro-90s luxe-minimalist décor, sporting a glowing horseshoe bar, faux-Chanel accessories, and a chrome mobile twirling dangerously over the lone bartender, who seemed to ignore our inquiry into drink specials. Perhaps he simply couldn’t hear over the distressingly loud, generic reggaetón and Latin radio pop booming from the speakers. The vibe was cruisy, a little wired and not terribly erotic, as the patrons tended toward the self-consciously young, showily attired (label-laden sportswear is still very popular) and the overly groomed. Save for the music, D likened it to a Jersey sports bar, what with all the threaded eyebrows and gelled, upswept coifs in evidence. One overpriced weak drink was enough for us; we clasped our hands over our bleeding ears and southward we fled.
Infinitely more salubrious were the kitschy, relatively benign comforts of
Suite (992 Amsterdam Avenue), which felt like a rec room for Juilliard students, Broadway gypsies and other showtune queens. The perfectly mixed (gay/straight, black/white/brown, uptown/downtown, male/female/other) crowd all seemed to know (and like) one another, and gleefully joined in the karaoke fun, which happens several times a week and is hosted by fierce vocal stylist, Miss Jackie Dupree. I offered my companion a double sawbuck to sing “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” but he graciously declined. After a rousing version of “Bring Him Home,” a curiously mimetic take on “Music of the Night,” and several perfectly respectable (i.e. cheap and strong) V&Ts, down into the subway D and I went, homeward bound.
Though the much-lauded new Harlem (with luxury condos starting at $500K-plus) seems a million conceptual-aesthetic miles away from Paris is Burning or even Showtime at the Apollo, there’s something to be said about gentrification. What that is, exactly—other than new sidewalks— escapes me: I live in Bushwick.