New York Press
July 8, 2009
Traffic halts while the five blondes flash their popsicle-colored thongs as they drunkenly pile into a cab on East Houston Street. Car horns blare. Wolf-whistles and shouts pierce the air as a FDNY truck zooms close by.
Adding to the carnival-like feel, the air is thick with the smell of vendors barbecuing street meat at nearby pushcarts. Standing here, watching scores of barhopping twentysomethings stagger around bleary-eyed on a warm Friday night, the deep recession looks like it might be over.
A close-up on these chicks reveals they are definitely nocturnal members of a suburban species, with hair color from a bottle and a skin tone just a tanning-bed shade too much. One of them has a pink sash slung over a zebraprint dress that reads: QUEEN OF BACHELORETTES.
The group just left Element, a dramatically lit brick-and-concrete former bank turned mega-club on the corner of E. Houston and Essex streets. The girl with the sash was one of dozens of honored guests at “Hunk-o-Mania,” a male strip show that claims to be “New York’s #1 Bachelorette Party Destination!”
A chunky brunette in a short pink cotton dress runs out of the club toward her slender friends, who are off to Penn Station on their way back to Jersey. Throwing her arms out, she yodels: “Heyyy-eyyy!” The baby-faced girl gets the attention she desired.
A similar scene goes down every weekend when hundreds of mostly white girls from Long Island, New Jersey and the outer boroughs fork over $20 or more, plus a two-drink minimum, to party with a multi-racial cast of male strippers.
In the 1970s and ’80s, this 19th-century building housed Jasper Johns’ studio. In the ’90s it was the Goth hangout the Bank. Earlier this decade it was briefly a strip club. Element and the surrounding Lower East Side area has steadily been losing its cool for a long time, but this display of glistening muscle and tasteless trampery truly spells the end.
Later that same night, a strikingly beautiful dark-skinned black girl in a black tube minidress and heels—flanked by two plain-looking gal pals—steps behind Element’s frayed velvet rope for the next event. A crew of three guys with gelled hair falls in behind, chatting in Spanish. This is the club’s second shift: the outer-borough ethnic partiers that keep the place hopping through the night. Like virtually all of the club’s parties besides Hunk-o-Mania, it’s promoted along ethnic lines. This one may be geared toward Hispanics, but Caribbean, Hip-Hop, Asian and Bollywood-themed events also occur.
A bushy-haired Puerto Rican manager looks over at the growing line and strides over to a white bouncer with a crew cut. The manager wants to start letting people in. The bouncer, who resembles a burly cop, arches his jaw in the direction of three police cruisers at the curb. Bushy-hair walks off.
Security has been extra tight since April 17, when three girls started screaming at a manager, claiming a hunk in a naval costume had violated a bride-to-be in the multi-stall men’s room. Unhappy with the manager’s response, one of the girls called the police. The NYPD later stormed the place, 20 strong, and shut it down for the night.
“The girls didn’t think the manager was taking them seriously,” a source within the club tells me. He adds with a laugh that even after the cops came, the promoters, “wanted to stay open.” It was one of a string of sexual assault allegations in Manhattan clubs during the last few months, occurring just before excon bouncer Daryl Littlejohn was found guilty in June of the 2006 murder of Imette St. Guillen, an event that effectively signaled the end of much of Manhattan’s nightlife.
Armand Peri, the Brazilian ex-dancer, bodybuilder and entrepreneur behind Hunk-o- Mania, claims he wasn’t too concerned about the allegation. “It’s highly unlikely for a goodlooking guy to rape someone,” he says in rapid Portuguese-accented English when questioned about the incident. “Women about to get married break loose. It’s the one night they allow themselves to be promiscuous.”
Just last year, the Lower East Side appeared to be on the cusp of full Chelsea-style gentrification. Tenement buildings had been torn down to make way for sleek new condos like Avalon Chrystie Place and The Ludlow. More of the hardscrabble little businesses that had survived the depression—tailors, paper goods, inexpensive underwear stores—were replaced by upscale boutiques, salons and dubious nightspots. Now those rapid changes feel like they belong to another era.
Construction crews have packed up their jackhammers and cement mixers, leaving immense concrete aeries that cast shadows over the streets. New condo towers such as The Ludlow, located next door to Element, have few tenants and are still lacking commercial anchors on the ground floor. Most of the new yuppie businesses are gone.
On a recent Saturday, over 25 derelict storefronts—some stretching a half block— were counted in the two square blocks southwest of Element, which includes the northern section of Ludlow and Orchard Streets. Signs above abandoned construction jobs optimistically proclaim: STORE FOR RENT.
In what was once the center of the gentrification goldrush—the section between the Bowery and Essex Streets north of Delancey— most of the businesses left from the boom are nightspots catering to less-sophisticated outer-borough and beyond patrons. Fat Baby, Mason-Dixon and R Bar, along with restaurants that serve over-priced drinks, like Stanton Social or Spitzer’s Corner, dominate. Residents recently suffered the final affront when Zagat ranked the Lower East Side the city’s “hottest nightlife neighborhood,” replacing its more upmarket rival, the Meatpacking District, already renowned for its annoying nightlife clientele.
Susan Stetzer, the district manager for Community Board 3 and a long-term resident of the Lower East Side, says that the area is now an “entertainment center” for the bridge-andtunnel set. “Residents have given up if they still live there,” says Stetzer. She and other residents complain that the streets, shorn of businesses, are empty during the day because the tenants couldn’t pay rents inflated by the influx of nightlife money. Then, at night, it’s wall-to-wall yokels from the suburbs, which, according to Stetzer, “is really depressing.” She’s an advocate of vanishing mom-and-pop shops and dive bars, and says no one who lives in the LES goes to the clubs and lounges. “If they do, they don’t tell me,” she says. Others claim it’s impossible to find a quiet place to have a conversation and a drink.
One of the last bustling pieces of the LES is an especially club-heavy strip centered around the intersection of Ludlow and Rivington— where Fat Baby, Libation and the Hotel on Rivington are located. Andrew Krucoff, the 38-year-old proprietor for the Young Manhattanite website who has lived nearby for 14 years, calls it, “Just the fucking worst block on the Lower East Side.”
Lockhart Steele, the 35-year-old entrepreneur behind Curbed.com, lives in an apartment that looks out on the Hotel on Rivington. Since Steele started blogging in 2002, he’s breathlessly chronicled every new restaurant opening, condo breaking ground and store changing hands in the LES; almost always optimistically. But the LES club scene depresses him. Steele, for his part, says he’s lucky to live in the back of his building since no one renews their lease in the front apartment due to the throngs that turn the neighborhood, according to him, “into a shitstorm, three nights a week from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. It’s like trying to live over the streets of Baghdad.”
When asked where they still go in the area, Krucoff and other young residents say they prefer Barramundi, an Australian-themed bar that moved from Ludlow a few years ago to Clinton Street to escape the former location’s rising rents. “There’s really nothing, and on the weekends, forget it,” says Krucoff. After a long sigh, he adds, “I’m starting to understand the appeal of Brooklyn.”
Although Pianos and the Living Room remain, another LES resident in her late twenties, who asked that her name not be used, grumbles there’s no place for locals anymore, with the exception of a few dive bars. Wincing when I mention that Pianos was a cool spot five years ago, she says, “Oh man, not anymore.” Krucoff agrees, saying he doesn’t go into
those places but, “the crowds out front look pretty unappealing.”
Element has been around for three years in its current incarnation. Although they
host the odd demimonde-themed party (DJ Larry Tee is playing there July 9), the promoters are dedicated to their main revenue stream: outerborough and ethnic groups, coyly referred to as “urban.” A source familiar with the club, who wishes to remain anonymous, is familiar with the ethnic balkanization of Element’s parties.
He says that Asian nights, for example, are a favorite among employees. “They tip well and are gone by 2 [in the morning].” It’s impossible to know what strategy Element’s main owner—an enigmatic young man who club employees only know as Brooke— originally had when he booked Hunk-o-Mania. A man who answers the phone at Element, and who refused to give a name, says no one from the club would cooperate with the story.
Three years ago—an era by nightlife standards—Stanton Street didn’t look like a college-town strip yet.
Other LES venues that opened the same year—205 Club, The Box— attempted to recreate Warhol myths to attract sophisticated, bohemian clientele. But Element’s race-to-the-bottom strategy has paid off, and other
Downtown clubs are playing catch up. For example, R Bar, which opened last year on Bowery, has installed stripper poles in a reservable private backroom. The Flatiron club Duvet, which was trendy during the
Chelsea bottleservice days, has since started a party called Hunkmania that also boasts male strippers and sexy surroundings—that include the eponymous bedding—for bachelorette parties.
Club owners are even laying the groundwork so they can build more venues. A new lobbying group called the Nightlife Preservation Committee held its launch party June 22 at M2, the beleaguered Chelsea mega-club nightspot that was formerly the location for Miami-based Mansion and Crobar before that. Back in December, they won a major victory when the “500 foot rule,” which prohibited two establishments that sell liquor from opening near each other, was effectively struck down. The buoyancy of
the industry—as compared to the sluggish economy—makes these owners a force to be reckoned with in post-recession New York. And they want to flex their muscle.
Former nightlife impresario Steve Lewis, who designed Limelight and Life back in the glory days of Clubland as
well as Aspen Social Club most recently, is nightlife’s avuncular patron saint. He’s been brought on as spokes-chair for NPC. He recently wrote on his Blackbook.com blog: “Nightlife attracts more patrons than
the Yankees, Mets, Rangers, Knicks, Devils, Islanders, Broadway shows and the opera put together.” That might sound like a wonderful manifestation of the city-that-never-sleeps, but given the state of the
LES, this proposal for increased nightlife might not be seen in such a positive light—even by those not aligned with the stodgy community boards. Indeed, the organization’s platform sounds a little menacing:
“…the long-term goal of the NPC is to have a cooperative effort like Las Vegas has with its entertainment community.” Lewis admits that more than half of the NPC members hail from outside the five boroughs, which
leaves only a small percentage who could potentially live in the neighborhoods in which clubs operate.
The complete suburbanization of city nightlife is the culmination of a squeeze on club owners that began before the recession. But now, extremely desperate for bodies to fill their venues, owners and promoters are turning their back on city residents. A recent wave of thefts and rapes, however, has shaken the already tenuous truce with
residents who see nightlife as a breeding ground for violence—as well as a threat to peace and quiet. “Times are rough. Urban crowds are being turned to [by owners] because they pay at door and spend money,” Lewis explains when asked about the theme nights. “But there is an inherent danger in embracing it.”
Element is only linked to the city’s club scene—the imagined multiracial utopias of 1990s clubs—by a red
velvet thread. Like the LES, it’s just the empty hull of a cool past. As much as a nightlife booster as he is, even Lewis has no kind words for Element. “That’s one of those clubs on the fringes where no one knows what’s going on,” he admits. He says clubs like Element, that rely on bottle service and gimmicks, will always cause problems, and he is lobbying (along with the NPC) for a paid security detail, wherein off duty cops would work at clubs as bouncers. He says there’s no contradiction there, and clubgoers would get used to it.
“They [the off-duty cops] are at the Garden when Phish plays,” he explains. “Everyone is smoking pot, but they don’t arrest you; they’re there to protect you.”
The April 17 incident at Element played out like an ethnic comedy of errors. The alleged victim’s pals were convinced that
their friend’s attacker was Asian, while the victim claimed he was Hispanic. Ultimately, the charge was dropped, according to Lt. Liu, the officer of the 7th Precinct in charge of the call—but a marriage was ruined and the man who was accused had his first night, as well as his last, as a paid stud at Element.
Peri, the guy behind Hunk-o-Mania, admits that some of the girls don’t stop at $20 to see dancers. “Sometimes they hook up afterwards,” he admits. “But that never happens in the club.”
Just how successful Hunk-o-Mania is—compared against the Lower East Side’s declining fortune—was thrown
into stark relief this past holiday weekend. Even for July 4th, the bars were empty. A guy in an Iron Maiden T-shirt wandered around Rivington Street Saturday night with a couple of friends. “This is the
fucking worst,” he said, complaining about how dead the bars were. “I don’t even know where to walk to.”
Inside the expanse of Element, however, it was a different story. Folding chairs were set up in the
main room for the Hunk-o-Mania main event. A crowd of women—a few wearing balloon penises around their heads like tiaras— whooped and hollered as oiled hunks strode the stage. Employees encouraged the
women to stuff money in jocks, as well as spend it on lap dances, massages and photos with dancers.
“Come and get what you want,” a darkly tanned dancer shouted. “Yeah, you want that.”
Clutching one of the prettier women in his arms, a dancer started making out with her. The mastermind behind it all, a youthful looking Peri, eyed the scene with avarice. His elderly mother-in-law sat sedately behind him,
clutching a cane. They didn’t seem to see the girls slobbering over greased up muscles. It was dollar signs everywhere.