“Gays love a recession!” said Robert Cogan, a 27-year-old patron of the brand-new East Village gay bar the Hose on the night of Feb. 7.
It was a Saturday night, and he was checking out the scene in the bar’s “back room,” which was, well, a room in the back. More later.
At a little after 2 a.m., the little room was packed. So was the bar. So was the dance floor.
Before Sept. 15, the day the economy was sort of officially declared dunzo, the bar’s location on Avenue B might have recommended itself to a trendy, starkly furnished Asian-fusion bar-resto for investment bankers with a little imagination or Queer Eye on permanent TiVo.
But walking in to the Hose was like walking into a time warp: an East Village gay bar from the last recession. Drinks were sloshing across the bar at breakneck speed; and there was nudity! And scattered smoking! (Though on one recent visit, a patron lighting a cigarette in the back room was told to put it out. “That’s so not sexy,” the bartender scolded.)
“A bunch of us noticed the same thing when we got together on Monday,” said Brian Moylan, the editor of Next Magazine, a gay nightlife guide in New York. “We came in, and we’re like, ‘I went to blah-blah-blah and everything was packed! And my colleague is like, ‘Oh my God! I went to so-and-so and it was packed! And we put it together. Everyone is fucking going out. It’s January—or February now! And the weather is cold. It’s not a time when clubs are full. And people are standing in lines in the cold! That’ll kill your party quicker than anything.”
“There’s something definitely happening out there,” he continued.
Meanwhile Mr. Cogan was continuing his proclamation.
“I’ll give up nothing!” he said. “You know what’s going to cure the world? It’s people going about their daily business!”
“It’s crazy here!” said Sean Bumgarner, a 34-year-old magazine art director, who is one of the creative talents behind Spank, a xeroxed gay art ’zine (remember those?) that was playing host to the night’s revelry. “We’re definitely in a downturn, and everyone is out.”
Outside these walls, all you hear about is the sagging economy and stimulus packages. Inside, things were … stimulated!
“Wait, is that guy naked?” asked Mark Damien, a 44-year-old writer, whose jaw dropped to the floor when he confirmed his first impression. “Uh, I guess things have loosened up a bit.”
The naked man was named Tony. When asked for two names, he offered, “Naked Tony.”
So, Tony, is the gay scene getting its edge back?
“There are pockets of it,” the 36-year-old murmured.
Over the past few months, while the straight party scene has been left for dead, gay nights and venues look like they are surviving, with new ones sprouting up everywhere. And, in some cases, like this night at the Hose, they really are Events (not vodka promotions!) with Themes! There is buzz! Costumes! Sleaze! There is planning, for a whole week before, aimed at getting into the right place at the perfect time of the night.
“Given the news about the economy that came out of the late summer and fall, when we were in November, I was saying that all of us have to hope for a mild winter,” said Bob Pontarelli, the longtime co-owner of Chelsea gay bar Barracuda and of the very gay-friendly Elmo restaurant on Seventh Avenue. “I was anticipating a perfect storm of cold weather and the economy. And then we had a worse winter than we’ve had in five years. So it’s been very, very, very cold and add to that the recession. But you know what? We haven’t been affected by a percentage point. In some places, we’re doing better. What I was worried about actually hasn’t happened, and it hasn’t affected us.”
According to some of his patrons, the downturn has, if anything, redirected their budgets to Going Out.
“I mean, we’ll skip going out to dinner and go out for drinks instead now,” said Christian, a 27-year-old in fashion PR, to his 27-year-old friend Jon at Barracuda on Friday night.
They both agreed, emphatically, that giving up on their night on the Crawl, whether it be on Eighth Avenue or Avenue A, was not an option.
Michael Formika Jones has been promoting gay-themed parties and nightclub evenings for 18 years in New York, but has found himself without much to do over the last three years.
“Oh I’m loving the recession!” he said. “I’m jumping on this recession bandwagon. I haven’t done a big party. Period. In three years.”
But in the next eight weeks, he’s booked three big events. One of them is at 55 Gansevoort, a two-floor restaurant and a loft apartment above it, as well as a basement bar. It’s always been one of those straight, bottle-service type clubs on weekends before.
“Buh-bye to that!” Mr. Jones chirped. “No more $15 drinks!”
He’ll be opening it up for a Saturday party.
“My take on all of this is after the crackdown with the Giuliani era, it affected the way nightlife was run. A lot of venues had to take the bridge-and-tunnel tourist dollar on Saturday night,” he said. “Now in recession big venues are losing weekend business, so they’re opening up their weekend business to promoters for stuff that wasn’t open to the gays before.”
“Hey, remember, a recession is a gay man’s vacation.”
BREAKFAST AT BERGDORF’S
“The bar scene hasn’t been affected at all,” said Andrew Suarez, a 25-year-old waiter and Marymount student whom we found shopping at Bergdorf Goodman Men’s on Monday afternoon who was telling us about his weekend of drinking in Hell’s Kitchen. “I was just partying this weekend for my birthday? And it was absolutely, completely, you-couldn’t-walk-through-it packed.”
Nor, he said, have he or his friends stopped shopping.
“I definitely still have to shop” he said. “It’s got to be done. We can’t let it affect the way we live. I’m a shopper, and most of my gay friends are.”
“I haven’t bought a full-priced piece of merchandise in the last two months because there are so many sales,” said trim 28-year-old Ken Gillett, who was shopping at Bloomingdale’s on Monday afternoon, where we heard a hyped-up remix of Madonna’s “Give it 2 Me” blasting over the store’s speakers. “I’ve actually been shopping more, I think!”
“It’s a better time to shop,” said John Traynor, a 42-year-old human relations recruiter who lives on the Upper West Side. “You might as well buy stuff you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to buy.”
And the sales are everywhere: 40 percent off a John Varvatos white button-down listed at $225; 50 percent off a black Polo sports coat for $1,195; 40 percent off a Marc by Marc Jacobs $198 blue V-neck sweater; 40 percent off a $395 Michael Kors zip-up turtleneck sweater. And for the investment-minded, deep discounts on the coveted embroidered and individually numbered Vilebrequin seashell swim trunks at Barneys!
At the Bergdorf Goodman Men’s store on Fifth Avenue, sales associates in the building said the second floor, which is the Wall Street man’s floor of choice—full of trousers and suits and ties—has been a ghost town since the recession began. Meanwhile, the building’s third floor, which features labels like Alexander McQueen and Thom Browne—a salesman described the floor as being “owned” by the gays—has been bustling the same as ever.
“I just spent $2,000, but I’d like to keep that to once a month now,” said Paul Vinci, a 43-year-old insurance man from Chelsea who was shopping for himself and his partner. “It used to be $10,000 a month, so we’ve scaled back.”
Items included in his shopping spree: two black beaded bracelets for $750; a Jil Sander sweater; a Dolce & Gabanna sweater; a pair of slacks; and shoes.
RECESSIONOMICS FOR GAYS
The day Lehman Brothers fell, the downtown-demimonde nightlife promoter Chi Chi Valenti, the genius behind such New York legends as Night of a Thousand Stevies and Click+Drag, wrote a note to her message board.
“If there’s one part of this week’s economic implosion that sure smells like a silver lining from here, it is the prospect of we New Yorkers finally getting a few of our clubs and downtown streets back,” she wrote. “Some of New York’s most enduring clubs have been born in dark financial times indeed, from the Mudd Club during New York City’s near-bankrupcy [sic] to our own Jackie 60 during the LAST Bush Presidency/Recession. High commercial rents were among the prime villains that drove creative clubs and nights virtually OUT of Manhattan in the last five years, and hopefully a poorer city government will no longer have the resources to spend on venue harassment. Throw in almost certain Cabaret Law reform, and a sense of impending doom. Can a new Golden Age in clubs be far behind?”
During better times, Michael Formika Jones said, “they’ll fine you for everything. Booty on the bar. Having candles lit. Being overcapacity by 10 people. Not having paper towels behind the bars. If you’re a busy gay club, you’re getting fined for every little thing so should shut you down. But they’ve got other things to worry about. This is good times for us!”
We checked in with John D’Emilio, professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and author of Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, to see if Ms. Valenti might be proven right.
“In the ’70s, for the first time in New York, investing in gay businesses such as a bar or a disco or a bathhouse could actually be a profitable and an attractive investment for gay men because they’re not dealing with either the police or organized crime,” he said. “In New York, there were more gay bars opening and gay bathhouses and the disco scene develops by ’73 or ’74. The city was in economic crisis, but gay male society was thriving.”
And in Chicago and San Francisco, he’s studied surges in gay venues and drag performances during the real Great Depression. So, now?
“I’d say it’s intriguing, but I don’t know if you can draw a big conclusion about it.”
But outside of the strict historiographical constraints observed by Mr. D’Emilio, other parts of academe were giving us a little more love.
“During a recession, there’s a greater emphasis on tangibility,” said Richard Goldstein, a pop culture professor at Hunter and the former executive editor at The Village Voice. “When there’s money in the economy, you’ll take more chances and you’ll invest in things that are speculative. But everyone speculated! That’s why the banks crashed.”
To Mr. Goldstein, profiles on singles Web sites like Manhunt are a form of Internet speculation—that is, it’s virtual, it’s risky, you can’t really ever size up if that picture is really what that guy looks like. You know, like E-Trade, with the emphasis on trade.
“Now, there’s a need for things you can touch and see in front of you and whose value you gauge with your eyes and, you know, through the vibe one person gives to another which is physical, which you can’t get when it’s virtual,” he continued. “There have been too many thrills in the last decade, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the style of cruising is less virtual and more tangible.”
So, off the Internet and into the bars?
On Saturday night, a bit after midnight, two boys were testing out this theory at Cake Shop, a cafe on Ludlow Street that converts its basement into a gay punk party named Queers, Beers and Rears once a month. The two boys temporarily broke off a make-out session in order to chat.
“I think I go out more now!” said 24-year-old Josh Dull, who was wearing a Ghostbusters II trucker hat, a tight T-shirt and red suspenders fastened to skinny jeans. “I grew up poor, and this doesn’t bother me. Now everyone feels how I’ve felt my entire life.”
Around this time, the people running the door at Cake Shop wouldn’t allow any more people in—the basement had reached capacity. Near the bathroom, 24-year-old Max Steele, a hipster with a mop of red curly hair who was stripped down to nothing but a pair of black briefs, was waiting in an impossible line.
“Gays love a recession because we hate the capitalist economy that’s found in the hetero-normative patriarchy anyways,” said the young man, a law-firm drone by day and a performer and go-go dancer by night. “I say burn the motherfucker down! Right? Fuck Prop 8! Who gives a fuck? We should burn down Wall Street and take over New York.”
He took a sobering breath.
“Gays are the only people with dispensable money—dispensable income or whatever?” he said, telling us he was a Sarah Lawrence grad. “Well, not for me personally.”
So we wondered what he was doing out.
“I’m like $60,000 in debt from school,” he said. “I’m fucked anyway.”
Additional reporting by Joe Pompeo