Gay Migration or End of an Era?
The announcement that Splash, the bar most closely associated with Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, would close this month put a period not only on the area’s transformation but also on the ideal gay male type in the popular imagination. The end of an era.
San Francisco’s the Eagle, which closed two years ago, signified a similar sea change in SoMa, as the once-rough-edged area south of Market Street is now known. When Nation in Washington, D.C., closed its doors in 2006, it left a still-unfilled hole in the city’s gay nightlife scene.
One by one, the traditional gayborhoods in major cities across the country have become victims of their own success. As in Chelsea, skyrocketing residential rents and home prices are forcing longtime gay residents out of Miami’s South Beach, Boston’s South End, the Castro in San Francisco, L.A.’s Silver Lake and many other such communities, while commercial rents have forced the closing of bars and clubs considered institutions by their patrons.
The passing of Splash, however, has particular significance because of its close identification with the stereotypical "Chelsea Boy."
When it opened in 1991, Splash immediately became identified with the neighborhood; it even solidified Chelsea as the gayborhood. If its West 17th Street location just barely falls within Chelsea, its unabashed celebration of manicured good looks, no body hair and hard muscles helped propel the term "Chelsea boy" into popular use.
From its decor to its hiring practices, Splash was unlike any bar that had come before it - in New York or anywhere else. How they looked, clad only in tighty-whities, meant more than mixing abilities when staffing bartenders. The bar’s calling card was a shower placed on a stage where the bodybuilder go-go dancers would publicly bathe. That, along with its ultra-modern spare design and a sexually charged vibe, became the template for bars around the world.
By the time Splash opened in 1991, Chelsea, along with South Beach and West Hollywood, had become nationally recognized as the locus for a new breed of gay man. Far from being shunned in corporate suites, these high-powered professionals had become valued for the new Fortune 500 mantra of employee diversity.
At the end of the workday, they brought their focused determination to their workouts, diets and sex lives. They worked hard and they partied hard. And in Splash, they found a place where they could show off their physiques with others who shared their aesthetic.
The bar was an immediate success. In one anecdote, a deliveryman for a beer distributor learned that "show muscles" doesn’t necessarily mean "use muscles." Having balked when he was told to carry his cargo into a storeroom, the manager on duty at Splash contacted his boss, who warned him, "This is my second-biggest customer on the East Coast. You’ll do what you’re told."
A GENESIS, AN EXODUS, A GAY UTOPIA IS BORN
Like the Castro, Chicago’s Boystown, Miami’s South Beach, Boston’s South End and just about every other gayborhood, Chelsea’s indigenous population was working-class, most of its residents descendants of one striving immigrant group or another - in Chelsea’s case, the Irish who fled the Great Famine in the mid-1800s.
Actually, Chelsea could be considered a second-generation gayborhood. Until the early 1980s, gay life in New York City centered on Greenwich Village. Long a haven for bohemians who stood outside of the American mainstream and criticized conformity, the Village provided a haven when gay men were treated like criminals. Gay bars ran the gamut from the formality of Julius and Fedora, where patrons were expected to wear business suits and not show too much outward affection, to seedy dives like the Stonewall Inn - a sweatbox that, unusual for the time, welcomed the transgendered, women and minorities alongside white gay men.
Ironically, by June 1969, when Stonewall erupted in the riots that ignited the modern gay rights movement, young urban professionals who collectively came to be known as yuppies were already supplanting gay men. The Village was one of the first older inner-city neighborhoods fundamentally transformed from rundown de facto ghettos for one ethnic group or another into enclaves for the privileged few.
Faced with the yuppie onslaught, gay men gravitated north of 14th Street, then (as now) the dividing line between Chelsea and the Village. Best known as the author of the poem "The Night Before Christmas," Rev. Clement Clarke Moore founded Chelsea as New York’s equivalent to its London namesake. For a while, it grew wealthy, with splendid brownstone homes dotting its side streets. But then came factories and, with them, the worker bees who filled working-class tenements.
Attracted by rents far cheaper than those found in the Village, gay men filtered into the neighborhood in the early ’80s. They put up with brownstones and walk-up tenements subdivided into notorious government-subsidized housing known as SROs (for "single-room occupancy"). In a pattern repeated in city after city, these newcomers set about remaking what they found.
The first sign that something was definitely happening came in 1983, with the advent of the area’s first trendy restaurant, Man Ray, and the über-gay health club, the eponymous Chelsea Gym.
Named for the surrealist photographer, Man Ray was the first restaurant in the area that didn’t serve food - it served cuisine. Around the corner, the Chelsea Gym molded the Chelsea Boys’ bodies. Hard as it is to believe now, gyms had been out-of-the-way, dingy spaces where men gathered to smoke cigars and make bets on the prizefighters who were the only ones to lift the scattered weights or jump rope. Ads that read "No potted palms" and a young bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger clad in short shorts and a wifebeater proclaimed that this was a no-nonsense temple to real-life classical statues. After a hard workout, patrons socialized in the steam room, which became so associated with gay life that, when a local newspaper wrote that there were plans to landmark it after the gym closed decades later, many rushed to sign supporting petitions.
In another pattern repeated from Boston to San Francisco, bars quickly followed the crowd. The Ramrod, which opened in 1977, was an old-school leather-and-Levi’s dark space. Next came dance clubs like the Roxy and Sound Factory Bar. As gay men bulked up, gay clothiers like Ramon Dragon and Nasty Pig provided body-hugging clothes that clung to their musculature by day and the "slutwear" for playtime at night. Boutiques like Rainbows and Triangles were all-purpose gay emporiums whose merchandise ranged from sexy clothing to naughty greeting cards, ironic knickknacks and, somewhere in the back, porn videos.
Like its viewers, porn had come out of the closet. Men no longer had to patronize unmarked stores dominated by sleazy backrooms. The Blue Store was a porn supermarket. Far from trying to keep its purpose from the public, it beamed a light so bright, it was said to be seen from outer space. Its front windows displayed Hollywood-type posters of the latest releases with glamour shots of the cast.
Instead of blackout tape covering the windows of gay bars to prevent patrons from the gaze of passersby, bars became as out and proud as their customers. A giant window fronts G Lounge, where simple cocktails like whiskey-and-sodas and dry martinis are replaced with such elaborate blender confections as frozen cosmos, which became the signature drink of Sex and the City.
If Chelsea had become a gay city-within-a-city, it had its own town hall: Big Cup. One cup of coffee was all that was needed for an afternoon of trading gossip or glancing at gay magazines while ensconced on a comfortably worn sofa.
Neighborhoods, however, are not static. People used to say that New York "would be a nice place, if they ever finished it." That rings equally true for places like Harlem, which went from Jewish to the epicenter of black culture in America to white homesteaders. But it rings equally true for a once-dangerous area like Southeast Washington, recently "discovered" by middle-class families; or SoMa, where high-tech startups have converted old factory lofts alongside anomalous (for San Francisco) luxury high-rises. As in SoMa, Chelsea’s perceived hipness and the influx of highly educated resident have brought with them tech companies - including Google, which has converted a mammoth office building into its East Coast headquarters.
So it’s inevitable that affluent, straight young professionals and well-heeled families "discover" neighborhoods like Chelsea, once we’ve done most of the heavy lifting. By the late ’90s, young gay men who rejected the whole Chelsea Boy lifestyle made a virtue of necessity by moving into outlying neighborhoods like the East Village and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, now the epicenter of the 21st-century "hipoisie."
NOTHING SUCKS LIKE SUCCESS
In retrospect, there’s always one identifiable moment when a neighborhood goes from a gayborhood to an expensive neighborhood with gay residents. In the case of South Beach, it came with the revelation that the Versace mansion’s price was "reduced" from $100 million to "only" $75 million. In Chicago’s Boystown, the Kellogg mansions were razed for a yet-to-be-built high-rise.
Chelsea’s defining moment had to be opening of the Chelsea Mercantile Building in 2000. From the Whole Foods on the ground floor to the capacious apartments where bold-faced names like Penelope Cruz (and, most famously, Katie Holmes, who decamped here with daughter Suri after her breakup with husband Tom Cruise) take residence, this luxury high-rise could compete with anything on Park Avenue.
Before the building even opened, a gay broker, angry about a couple’s decision to buy in Chelsea Mercantile (thereby depriving him of his commission), sent a scorched-earth email warning that the neighborhood was a haven for the drug dealers catering to gay men, "S&M torture and fine cuisine." They wouldn’t be welcome because they weren’t "male and under 25 years old," he added.
When Big Cup closed in 2005, one of the increasing victims of soaring commercial rent increases, gay residents bemoaned the takeover of "our" neighborhood. It’s a lament echoed in nearly every trendy gayborhood - although some have wryly observed that gay newcomers themselves dislocated long-entrenched residents.
Two other seismic developments have forever changed the landscape in Chelsea: West Chelsea’s emergence as the center of the contemporary art market, and the High Line.
Priced out of SoHo, art galleries have displaced the patchwork of marginal businesses on Chelsea’s western edge. The High Line is an innovative park created from a long-abandoned elevated railroad along Chelsea’s far western spine. Together, they have made West Chelsea a magnet for development. As a result, today the Eagle is surrounded by new construction. And the Rawhide, unable to afford a rent increase, shut its doors earlier this year.
THE HEGIRA TO HELL
In New York at least, history has repeated itself in the past couple of years as gay men have once again transformed a marginal neighborhood - and, once again, it happened immediately to the north of the traditional gayborhood.
Hell’s Kitchen begins where Chelsea ends. Its name speaks to its history as a low-income haven for gangs like the Westies, so trigger-happy that even the Mafia were said to fear them. It has also been called Broadway’s Bedroom because of all the actors, dancers, chorines and playwrights who lived (or at least slept) there.
Although this included a lot of gay men, Hell’s Kitchen wasn’t known as a gay enclave. That began to change with an influx of young gay men who put up with dingy walk-ups and a high crime rate in return for cheap rents. The very few pre-existing gay bars were mostly dives - long, narrow and dark. Perhaps reflecting the neighborhood’s tough reputation, the slew of bars that have opened in recent years share an affinity for edgy one-word names like Hardware, Therapy, Barrage and Industry. Straight-friendly gay restaurants like Vinyl are packed nightly.
After a costly false start, Boxers, the superpopular Chelsea gay sports bar, finally opened its long-awaited satellite here. It joins the city’s only gay-specific hotel (the Out), a gay-dedicated dance club (XL), a new megaclub (a rarity anywhere in real estate-crazed Manhattan) that does gay parties on Saturday and often other nights as well (Stage 48), and other newly opened nightclubs (e.g., Hudson Terrace) popular with gay promoters.
The opposite has happened in Chelsea. This month, after Splash closes, only five gay bars will remain open. Compare that to the 18 gay nightspots in Hell’s Kitchen, with new ones opening every few months.
Hell’s Kitchen has become "HK," and, like SoMa, there’s no better sign in New York that a neighborhood has "arrived" than when it’s shortened to an acronym. Especially now that young professionals are willing to pay seven figures to buy an apartment in one of the new apartment buildings
Even so, it’s far too early to write off Chelsea as a gayborhood. It is still home to two of the most important gay-related health service agencies in the city. Gentrification has brought in its wake cultural institutions like the Joyce Theater (next to Gym Bar) and Dance Theater Workshop (next door to G Lounge), important venues for contemporary dance troupes. The Kitchen is the city’s leading performing-arts space.
Although many have left, plenty of gay men and lesbians still call Chelsea home. A stroll along Eighth or Seventh avenues reveals not only world-class restaurants, chic boutiques and happening bars but also plenty of hard-muscled men walking their dogs or checking out the action.
Even so, nobody any longer can dispute that the action has moved several blocks north. Now that HK is too expensive for many of us, what happens next is anyone’s guess. Past experience would indicate a move to the next neighborhood up; except that, this time, the neighborhood is the Upper West Side, already one of New York’s most expensive places to live.
After I told a friend in his twenties about my own apartment history, he sighed: "No matter how much I earn, I’ll never be able to afford to live in Manhattan."
He may well be right, but wherever New York City’s next major gayborhood springs up, it’s highly unlikely that it won’t be in Manhattan. If Splash’s closing marks the end of the Chelsea Boy, it may also herald the beginning of a new gay identity that emphasizes friends, family and spirit instead of muscle, good looks and money.