Does Roseland Ballroom’s Demise End the Era of the Manhattan Megaclub?


As ABBA’s “The Way Old Friends Do” fades out, the house lights slowly come up on a few hundred men (and a smattering of women) who remain on the dance floor. It is 6:30 p.m. on March 23. The 20-hour marathon that was the 35th Black Party is history.

So is Roseland Ballroom.

After Lady Gaga completes her sold-out run of shows — what she calls “a 10-day funeral” — on April 7, the owner of the cavernous old building, which stretches from 52nd to 53rd streets between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, hopes to replace it with an apartment tower.

Stephen Pevner, who heads the Saint at Large, which produces the Black Party, wanted this year’s theme, “A Ruined Paradise,” to evoke “a ruined temple in the jungles of East India” but also Roseland itself, which he calls “a temple of dance [whose] aura of grandness evokes a style of New York that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Ever since word of Roseland’s fate leaked in October, many people have denounced the venue’s owner, Larry Ginsberg, as just another greedy landlord putting profits ahead of preservation. What they don’t know is that Ginsberg had been keeping the increasingly decrepit dancehall on life support for years.

Roseland is the last undeveloped property owned by Algin Management, the privately held company Larry and his two sisters inherited from their father. Algin has built and now manages several thousand rental units in Manhattan and Queens. Pevner tells the Voice that the rest of the family would have been happy to be relieved of Roseland, but that Larry “loved hanging on to this last bit of his portfolio. It was fun for him.” In the 1990s, after a $1 million rigging upgrade, Roseland hosted top acts that included Nirvana, BeyoncŽ, Madonna, and the Rolling Stones. Superstar DJs like Victor Calderone, Tiësto, and the late Peter Rauhofer kept the joint jumping past sunrise.

It had become obvious, however, that Algin would either have to spend a huge amount to make the extensive structural repairs necessary to bring the building up to code or face heavy fines from the New York City Department of Buildings. Jason McCarthy, the longtime manager of the Black Party, recalls a night when he dodged chunks of plaster raining from the ceiling.

In September, Pevner was informed that Algin intended to close the club in early March. “This is something we’ve been living with every year,” the Saint at Large’s Mike Peyton tells the Voice. “This didn’t just come out of the blue. We’ve always known that any year could have been the last year.” Algin did not respond to requests for comment, but the company has purchased the air rights to two Broadway theaters, virtually ensuring that a new building will tower over the neighbors

Pevner scouted other venues, but the Black Party not only needs a dance floor large enough to accommodate thousands of people, but also an entire weekend to install its own soundsystem and light rigs. The Saint at Large, which has held the party at Roseland for a quarter century, had a two-year option extending through 2015. “I told my lawyer to write a letter to address that we employ a staff full-time to work on this,” Pevner says, “and if you’re going to renege, here’s the settlement.” Pevner insisted that Ginsberg keep the club open at least through the third weekend in March, the one nearest the vernal equinox, which the party celebrates. According to Pevner, “They didn’t want to end with the Black Party.” So Ginsberg ended up with a win-win: Gaga gets reams of publicity and the club goes out in a blaze of glory.

Still, serious dance enthusiasts will always remember the club more for its unobstructed quarter-acre dance floor than as a midsize concert venue. Everything about Roseland was outsize, right down to its 14 coat-check windows.

More than anything, Roseland’s closing marks the most painful sign to date that New York City’s big rooms have become an endangered species. That a luxury residential space will likely replace it confirms the main culprit: an insatiable appetite for upscale housing that has transformed Manhattan, from the financial district to Harlem and beyond — what Fordham professor Mark Caldwell, author of New York Night: The Mystique and Its History, has called “galloping gentrification.”

Years from now, April 7, 2014, may mark the date the big-room era ended just as definitively as April 26, 1977, the night Studio 54 opened, heralded its onset. The contrast between New York City then and now couldn’t be more striking. A 1975 Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” neatly summarized a city that had slid so deeply into chaos and insolvency that the president of the United States had written it off.

Two years later, everyone was listening to the Bee Gees’s “You Should Be Dancing.” Hundreds of people would beg to be admitted into the most famous nightclub in the world. In the wake of Studio 54’s phenomenal success, Bonds, Better Days, the Red Parrot, Xenon, and New York, New York turned west midtown into the epicenter of nightlife. Within a few years, club owners took advantage of vast empty spaces all over town and opened megaclubs that catered to every taste: Paradise Garage and the Saint for gay men, Area for performance artists and the avant-garde, the Mudd Club and Underground for New Wave fans.

In the 1990s, Peter Gatien emerged as the king of nightlife with four huge venues that essentially functioned as drug bazaars. Theme nights like Club USA’s “Bump,” featuring a three-story slide called “the K Hole,” didn’t exactly play down the omnipresence of party drugs. In his book Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture, Frank Owen relates the night he went to the Limelight and watched as people did lines of coke in front of an unconcerned bouncer. After he “stepped over the prostrate body of a comatose partygoer,” Owen greeted the night’s promoter, Michael Alig, who immediately shoved a fistful of white powder onto Owen’s fist. Owen was researching a story for the Voice about recreational use of the anesthetic ketamine (known as Special K). Alig directed him to a dealer named Angel Melendez, who was dressed in a biker outfit and fluffy white angel wings.

Gatien’s clubs attracted nightly crowds but also the scrutiny of federal prosecutor-turned-mayor Rudy Giuliani. With the intensity of Les MisŽrables‘ Inspector Javert and aided by federal agents and the Manhattan district attorney, Giuliani pursued Gatien until he was finally convicted in 1999 for tax evasion. By then, however, the club king had been dethroned by a series of highly publicized ODs, ruinous legal fees, and the sensational murder of Melendez at the hands of Alig. But Gatien was only the most visible casualty of Giuliani’s war on nightlife. Police and a raft of city inspectors staged periodic raids, ostensibly looking for everything from safety violations to underage drinking.

When Michael Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, club owners hoped a fellow businessman would prove friendlier than his predecessor. Bloomberg made noises about repealing the Prohibition-era cabaret license (known as the “Footloose law,” after the 1984 film about a town that outlaws dancing): If a club lacks the license, an inspector can level a stiff fine if he decides people are dancing — as opposed to, say, swaying back and forth. But that went nowhere after club owners decided the nightclub license Bloomberg was proposing would prove even more onerous.

Despite fears it would decimate nightlife, the 2003 smoking ban didn’t do much damage. (More recently, the later the hour, the less it seems to be obeyed.) But a precinct captain in Chelsea was overheard boasting that he hated clubs and would do everything in his power to close them. On March 31, 2006, citing undercover drug purchases, police temporarily shuttered three megaclubs, two gay bars, and even a gym.

If Bloomberg was sympathetic to gay rights, his compassion didn’t extend to clubs. Consider the nuisance violations the police issued against Splash, which was world famous for the sculpted physiques displayed nightly by hunky, underwear-clad waitstaff: patrons not being offered a menu of prices when ordering drinks; bartenders not wearing shirts. (Curiously, the summons didn’t mention pants.)

Police seemed to take special pleasure in closing down clubs on the eve of the city’s annual Pride March in late June. In 2008, when Splash and Pacha were casualties, the Saint at Large had to relocate a Sunday-night benefit to Capitale, which ate up proceeds that would have gone to march organizer Heritage of Pride. Two nights before the 2011 march, in what many viewed as the supreme insult, at nearly the same moment as Governor Andrew Cuomo was formally legalizing same-sex marriage in Albany, police stormed the Eagle, a Levi’s-and-leather bar on West 28th Street, where several patrons said they had been roughed up and others made to empty their pockets.

In retrospect, it was probably inevitable that noise complaints would come to define the rift between dance clubs and their residential neighbors. For years, club owners had watched warily as developers encroached on their turf. One by one, marginal neighborhoods like West Chelsea and the meatpacking district fell to the pattern Paul Seres, founder and board member of New York City Hospitality Alliance, describes as “manufacturing moves out, nightlife moves in, then the shops and galleries.”

“There was a time when clubs came into barren areas, put in lights, security, helped make it safe,” agrees Alex Picken, a real estate broker who specializes in nightclubs. “Then they end up getting closed down.”

In a few cases, club owners made the mistake of opening in long-established residential neighborhoods, such as the ultra-exclusive Beatrice Inn in Greenwich Village that was forced to close after a long-running feud with its upstairs neighbors. But it’s hard not to see gentrification as resulting in most noise complaints, which dominate 311, the city’s quick-response service line.

Because 311 callers usually choose to remain anonymous, there’s no way to tell whether multiple complaints come from a single disgruntled neighbor or from the community at large. Not that it matters: Eventually the city dispatches an inspector armed with a decibel meter to take readings at a complainant’s residence while the music is on, and again (after visiting the suspect club and flashing a badge to stop the music) when it has been turned off. If the noise level exceeds the city’s code, a club is liable for fines that can run into the thousands of dollars.

Alan Fierstein, an acoustical engineer who founded Acoustilog, Inc. — a consultancy whose client list reads like a history of nightclubs, from Studio 54 to Sankey’s — says that in his experience, “Higher-income people like to complain.” That’s certainly the case at 199 Bowery, an upscale condo where residents are fighting to revoke the liquor license of the club at its base, Finale, which boasts of a soundsystem that’s “the biggest and loudest in Manhattan.”

As Fierstein confirms, big rooms have turned up the volume to earsplitting levels. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration caps acceptable industrial noise levels at 85 decibels. Some clubs have returned readings as high as 120 decibels.

Nor are the clubs always paragons of peaceful assembly. The long list of incidents, from beatings to murders, includes bouncers killing patrons (Chelsea lounge Opus 22 and Soho lounge the Falls, both in 2006), patrons killing bouncers (East Village lounge Guernica, 2003), and patrons killing each other (Chelsea lounge BED and Flatiron lounge Duvet, both in 2007).

Donald Bernstein, an attorney who has represented many clubs, says a few bad owners have made things difficult for everyone.

“You get some good operators who are inheriting the history of the neighborhood that they have nothing to do with,” says Bernstein, referring to the Flatiron, which endured crowds massed outside the Limelight, owners who opened a restaurant that quickly morphed into a lounge, and incidents like the one earlier this year when one man allegedly used his arm cast to beat another in the bathroom at Bounce, a sports bar and lounge on West 21st Street. “The community is up in arms,” Bernstein says. “They’re saying, ‘We’ve been burned so many years, we don’t want anybody in the neighborhood.'”

Every source interviewed for this article points to an increase in community boards’ influence on the New York State Liquor Authority. In Gatien’s day, notes Picken, “Once you had a license, you were golden.” No more: In recent years, community boards have succeeded in imposing restrictions from midnight last calls to requirements that clubs serve food as well as alcohol.

Much of the boards’ power derives from a vaguely worded rule mandating that a club opening within 500 feet of three or more existing businesses with liquor licenses must demonstrate that granting a fourth license would be “in the public interest.”

Nor does it help that many of the people willing to spend countless unpaid hours in meeting after meeting are local activists hostile to nightlife. “Community boards don’t necessarily represent the community,” Picken complains. “They’re often retirees who don’t like clubs.”

The NIMBY contingent, coupled with zoning regulations that, in the words of the Hospitality Alliance’s Paul Seres, “lean toward residential developers,” have effectively relegated big rooms to Times Square or the westernmost reaches of Hell’s Kitchen.

But club owners no longer can afford Times Square, which in its current incarnation is geared to family-friendly megastores, not megaclubs. (“You can get approvals in Times Square, but no one wants to be there,” says Bernstein.)

That leaves Hell’s Kitchen west of Eleventh Avenue, where Stage 48, Pacha, Pier 92, and Terminal 5 will eventually be joined by Space Ibiza. Another international club brand, Sankey’s, had considered renovating the cavernous building fronting the West Side Highway at West 50th Street. Instead, Sankey’s opted for a do-over of District 36, which had closed after a patron died, apparently from falling off a balcony.

After the media attention surrounding its originally announced opening on Thanksgiving, Space Ibiza has been close-mouthed about its plans. Several sources tell the Voice that the company, which opened an outpost in Brazil in 2012, wants to ensure it has sufficient funding to complete the gut renovation of such a large building. Already, there’s a new staircase, a domed roof, and new plumbing and electrical wiring, but a recent peek inside revealed an interior that’s still pretty raw.

Although the zoning on Hell’s Kitchen’s western edge doesn’t allow apartment buildings, it does permit hotels. “With a shortage of inventory,” Seres says, “hotels are coming up right and left.”

“I’m seeing more hotels there,” Picken affirms. “The clubs are in the hotels.”

Bernstein goes so far as to call hotels “the new club. Developers opening hotels want rooftop bars.” The Standard’s Le Bain and Gansevoort’s Plunge, both in the meatpacking district, are as exclusive as any standalone lounge — and offer something lounges can’t: breathtaking views, like the ones from the Press Lounge atop ink48 on Eleventh Avenue and West 48th Street.

One glorious survivor remains from the era when enormous dance palaces weren’t confined to the island’s edge: Webster Hall, which, thanks to official landmark status, can’t be demolished. Rich Pawelczyk, Webster Hall’s chief operating officer, attributes its longevity to a total restoration completed in 1992. What had been the Ritz, a showcase for rock bands, became a big room for dancing and three smaller rooms for live acts.

Aware of the pitfalls of operating on a side street in the East Village, Pawelczyk says he “takes an extraordinary amount of time at community relations. Myself and the general manger attend every board meeting, every police precinct meeting.”

Webster Hall’s status is unique. With so few Manhattan options, some are looking across the East River. Seres sees the vacant warehouses and factories in Gowanus, only a few subway stops from Manhattan, as a prime location. But how might residents who spent a decade fighting against a Whole Foods, the area’s first big grocer, greet thousands of night crawlers?

Output, Verboten, and the Wythe Hotel have already turned North Williamsburg’s Wythe Avenue into a destination. Even Susanne Bartsch, doyenne of the demimonde, promoted an event at Verboten in March. She says she was inspired after seeing so many acquaintances making the reverse commute on the L train one weekend night.

Picken says he’s brokering some deals in Brooklyn but confides, “I can’t see Manhattanites getting on trains to go to the outer boroughs.” And after 20 years living in Williamsburg and touting its virtues as the next East Village, über-gay promoter Daniel Nardicio has conceded defeat. “I love the vibe out there,” he says, “but it’s never going to be a cheap bohemia.

“Ironically,” adds Nardicio, “I’m moving to Chelsea, because it’s cheaper than Williamsburg.”

For several years, West Chelsea and its environs were club central. Today, Tunnel, the Roxy, Twilo, Crobar, Octagon, the Copa, and many more are gone, casualties of the High Line, art galleries, the gargantuan Hudson Yards project — but above all a 2005 rezoning that encouraged luxury residential development. If anything, the pace is accelerating. One developer paid $65 million for an abandoned scrap yard near the huge vacant lot where Crobar once stood. Across the street, a new luxury rental building takes up nearly the entire block.

Even before the boom, intimate lounges were taking over the meatpacking district and West Chelsea. These so-called “models and bottles” bo”tes use promoters to bring in attractive young women. Men — not necessarily young or attractive — willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for booze are whisked inside while the less-moneyed masses cool their heels. When it works, the profits are astronomical: A Harvard Business School professor analyzed the old Marquee and concluded that 40 percent of patrons provided 80 percent of income. There’s also the promise of partying with a P. Diddy or Alicia Keys. “If there’s a celebrity,” Bartsch laments, “people are just as excited as if there’s an outrageous event.”

At lounges like these, dancing is secondary (at best) to S/M: standing and modeling. Despite that, hip-hop DJ Whoo Kid of G-Unit, former resident DJ to 50 Cent, says he loves his gigs at such venues.

“You have an option to be creative in a smaller situation,” he tells the Voice. “In a big room, it’s a vibe connecting with 3,000 people going off their heads. You don’t want to be cheesy. You have to somehow understand the culture of each club you go to.

“I would rather DJ at Greenhouse because you get the rich people but the mixed crowd,” he adds. “At least there’s more of a dance situation. At 1Oak, nobody’s moving. At the end of the night, people will tell you, ‘This was the best night ever.’ A lot of DJs don’t enjoy that. But you’ve got to understand that culture.”

Says Picken: “The tides always change. But the days of the big nightclub are not coming back. There won’t be any more huge clubs operating at full steam.”
“This is not the New York I grew up in,” Seres agrees. “It’s never going back to the way it was.”

Two years ago, Whoo Kid was spinning at W.I.P. when Chris Brown and Drake got into an epic bottle-throwing melŽe over Rihanna’s affections. The club sued for defamation, but a judge threw out the case. “Unfortunately” he wrote, “brawls in bars and nightclubs are commonplace.”

Far more serious than celebrity dustups are widespread allegations that doormen are refusing admittance because of race. Door discrimination is nothing new. Everyone always knew gay clubs like the Roxy and Splash restricted the number of women, but in an article published last month in Daniel Magazine, Asian-American writer Jack Lee wrote of a black security guard at one gay club telling him he’d once been instructed to adhere to a 10-10-10-70 rule: 10 percent Asian, black, and Latino to 70 percent white.

Last summer, Keith Boykin, a black TV commentator, author, and former White House aide, complained to the city’s Human Rights Commission after he was turned away at the door of XL, a gay nightclub in Hell’s Kitchen. Management (which has since changed, as has the club’s name) agreed to retrain its staff.

More typically, it’s difficult to prove overt discrimination. Plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit allege that in order to secure a table at 230 Fifth, they were strong-armed into paying $320 for a bottle of Grey Goose. When three of their friends joined them, the bouncer allegedly shook them down for another $320, and when the rest of the party turned up, they were denied entry; according to the suit, the bouncer called the new arrivals “classless black bitches” and complained he’d “let enough of you up here tonight.” Sal Rosenberg, a manager at 230 Fifth, declined to comment for this story.

The problem isn’t unique to New York. Two months ago, the owner of the Fridge, a London club in the rapidly gentrifying borough of Brixton, posted a Facebook rant blaming black patrons’ violence for 13 clubs that had closed their doors. That the owner herself is black isn’t surprising: Many allegations of racism in New York are directed at black door personnel.

Nor are European cities immune to “galloping gentrification.” Le Monde dubbed Paris the “European capital of boredom” as young people and people of color are pushed to outlying banlieues. Even in Madrid, a city that never used to get going before 3 a.m., the central area has been declared a “low-noise zone,” resulting in scores of nightclubs closing their doors.

There is one big difference, however, between the U.S. and Europe: the attitude of the media, the general public, and law enforcement toward what goes down in nightclubs, particularly when it comes to drug use.

In 2013, more than 100,000 people had attended Electric Zoo, an EDM festival held on Randall’s Island over Labor Day weekend, before two fatal overdoses caused the city to shut it down. “Death-Plagued Zoo,” blared the New York Post; the Daily News deemed the event a “Death Fest.”

Such sensational coverage is nothing new, says New York Night author Mark Caldwell, who dates it back to the 1830s, when reporters sat through night court looking for juicy arrests. “The press has always been a double-edged sword,” Cald-well tells the Voice. “It likes to titillate and morally condemn excess at the same time. It’s built into reporting about nightlife.”

Daniel Raymond, policy director at the Harm Reduction Coalition, says big dance events are a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition. “Politicians and the media hold promoters accountable for keeping drugs out of a venue altogether, even though they know it’s not possible,” Raymond argues. “Closing nightclubs to prevent drug use makes as much sense as outlawing liquor will prevent alcoholism. It didn’t work during Prohibition and it won’t work now.”

Says Caldwell, “If you try to enforce laws against drug use, you drive people away from treatment. It’s an inherently uncontainable and uncontrollable phenomenon.”

Attorney Donald Bernstein says he has “had clubs put in scanners, pat-downs, everything I can. But if someone puts a pill in her bra, the most diligent club owner is not going to find that.”

In Europe, authorities encourage peer education in nightclubs, as well as testing the drugs themselves. “These are realistic strategies,” Raymond says, “but nightlife promoters have a hard time, because that would be considered to send a message that they’re allowing substance use on their premises.”

When someone is having a problem with drugs in New York, clubs are caught in a catch-22. “Every time you dialed 911 and tried to save someone’s life, you also got a disorderly summons,” McCarthy says of his years managing the Roxy on Saturday nights. “I would have to go to court once a month, and it went against your liquor license. That’s why we started hiring ambulances.”

Amid the doom-saying, some, like Picken, are hopeful that a new, more progressive mayor will realize nightclubs are an essential part of New York’s DNA, and that tourists expecting to find the city that never sleeps won’t return to the world’s largest bedroom community.

“I’m still optimistic,” Picken says. “We have a mayor now who is more aware of the need Manhattan has for the nightlife element. Like everything, it comes in waves.”

Faced with the loss of its monopoly on gambling, Las Vegas put its faith in megaclubs, which are bringing in hordes of young tourists. New York, however, is different. “You go to a club in Las Vegas, no lives around there,” Bernstein says. “In other cities, the commercial areas are dead at night. Here, commercial and residential are side by side. The dynamics are very different. It’s not what happens inside the club. You could have 1,000 people coming back and forth over the course of a night.”

Stephen Pevner always felt the Black Party’s home in the theater district contributed to its longevity. “The fact that we’ve had Roseland is a real contributing factor to the Black Party’s success,” says Pevner. “Wherever we set the theme, there was always a distressed element to it. What made it so perfect is that it was within New York’s theater world. In a warehouse in Brooklyn, it would come off as pretentious.”

Not only that, but his contract with Roseland gave him the breathing room to install top-of-the-line sound and light systems, one of the party’s major draws. “We need the whole weekend,” he says. “What other venue is going to allow a two-day party?”

When Steve Weinstein made his debut in the Voice covering the Black Party in 2002, it was the first time the general public was made aware of the party; his story generated a heated discussion about unsafe sex practices and drug use in the gay party scene.