On Tuesday social media were abuzz after the iconic New York City gay bar Splash posted an online notice about shutting its doors after 22 years of go-go boys, stiff drinks, and general gay debauchery. It was a smart move to post the note online, as most of the folks kvetching about the pending closure would have never noticed the actual note had it been posted on the door of the West 17th Street club itself. Splash has had a great run in the fickle world of New York City nightlife, but as any gay man (and it is mostly gay men who frequent Splash) who actually resides in New York City could tell you (and boy will they tell you), the bar has largely fallen off the radar in the past few years. International tourists using dated (print) gay guides to Manhattan, slightly-past-their-prime visitors from the Midwest eager to go back to the '90s, when Splash (and they) were at their most powerful, and of course a steady stream of bridge-and-tunnel clientele kept the place in business, but actual New York gays had long migrated to Hell's Kitchen, Brooklyn and points far beyond the '90s gay enclave of Chelsea. This was the first reaction on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms on Tuesday: The closure of Splash is the final nail in the coffin of gay Chelsea following the recent and not-so-recent shuttering of other gay haunts, like Big Cup, the Roxy, Rawhide, Food Bar and [here is where Facebook commentators would insert their business of choice that reminded them of when Chelsea was less about women and strollers and more about vodka sodas]. The list of gay Chelsea casualties was matched in length only by the possible potential explanations for these casualties: mobile hookup applications like Grindr and Scruff; the recent explosion of gay watering holes in nearby Hell's Kitchen; the fact that a bartender at Splash was once rude to some drunken fool; the fact that so many men in Chelsea partnered up, settled in and stopped going out; and the lists went on.
As a resident of (West) Chelsea, I read the various commentary with some remorse. I wasn't sad that Chelsea was declared as "no longer gay" (trust me: I walk the streets of Chelsea daily, and its death certificate as a neighborhood populated by gay men has been prematurely issued); it was that so many people were focused on where the gay men were heading in Manhattan that they missed the connection to two far larger, and more critical, changes happening within the city and gay culture more generally. First, no one should be surprised that Splash, as a small business, is unable to compete with the megabanks, drug store chains, and big-box retail gunning for storefronts in a very competitive and very pricey commercial real estate market. As many folks speculated, a Duane Reade (now owned by Walgreens, but still thought of by some New Yorkers as their drug store) or an AMC Loews would fill the cavernous space once packed with sweaty gay bodies. Of course, this isn't a problem that's specific to gay businesses (though gay businesses do by nature tend to be small businesses owned by individual proprietors); all small businesses in Manhattan are increasingly threatened by skyrocketing rent prices that can only be absorbed by large corporations willing and able to take a loss or simply sustain the high prices. While those gays who were already residing in Hell's Kitchen couldn't "like" status updates declaring Hell's Kitchen the new epicenter of gay (night)life fast enough, they neglected to look over their shoulder as Times Square spilled west and the same commercial forces that have reshaped neighborhoods to their south spread northward. Banks and drug store chains won't stop at 34th Street in their quest to colonize Manhattan. The second point is that it seems juster to ask not just where the younger generation of gays will end up but where anyone who doesn't come from a seven-figure household will be able to afford a comfortable life in Manhattan. Housing costs in Manhattan have become so prohibitive for those just out of college and beginning their careers that the outer neighborhoods and boroughs are just about the only places where they can afford to set up residence. Moreover, as luxury rentals and condos begin to populate Hell's Kitchen, one has to wonder how long until the bars and nightclubs in that neighborhood can resist the pressure to ask patrons to "keep the noise down so that you don't bother our neighbors." Is Manhattan just becoming one very exclusive country club with asphalt? And what responsibility do gay men and lesbians who have fought so hard for their own equality have to help ensure equality for all?
Of course, this isn't about Chelsea versus Hell's Kitchen, or the East Village versus the West Village, as the gay neighborhood in Manhattan; this is about whether or not gay men (and the oft-forgotten LBT) need a neighborhood at all. At a time when gay men and lesbians can marry and serve openly in the government and are protected from systematic (if not random) discrimination in New York City, is there a need to cluster together for safety or a sense of community? When gay bars are a destination as much for (heterosexual) bachelorette parties as for gay men looking to stand and cruise, and when gay men can find their friends online as easily as they can at the coffee shop (obviously a Starbucks) on the corner, do we need a gay ghetto? This is a far more complicated question and, in reality, one that may be moot. The fact that there is no longer a frontier in Manhattan where gay men can go to gentrify, decorate and dance, and the fact that so many younger gay men and women simply cannot afford Manhattan, means that a more accepted gay culture also inevitable means a more dispersed gay culture. I don't think this is by any means the end of gay culture, just a transformed gay culture that looks a lot different from the one that so many of my friends in their 30s and 40s love reminiscing about with other friends in their 30s and 40s. In fact, it can be argued that for the first time in history, we have a truly multigenerational gay culture. It is not just diverse in terms of race and class and politics; it is diverse in terms of life experiences. I didn't enjoy doing the same thing in my 20s that my father did in his 20s, so I don't think we should be surprised that today's gay youth have a qualitatively different idea about what constitutes a fun Saturday night out. One gay bar experience clearly no longer fits all gays, and that is not a bad thing. That is evolution.
When Splash does close this month, I won't necessarily miss it (though I did have some remarkable times there). What I will miss is the New York City that it was a part of, a place where the fringes of our culture could come together and celebrate. Maybe gay men are no longer fringe, or maybe the fringe is simply not able to afford Manhattan. Either way, I hope that when they vote in the upcoming mayoral election, all the gay men complaining about another small gay business shutting its doors consider what they want Manhattan to look like and who can come here and leave their mark, start a life, dance, get drunk and still be able to afford breakfast the next morning.
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