Gay Migration or End of an Era?
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.