As I look at things from across the river, it becomes more and more obvious that downtown culture will merely be a warm, nostalgic conversation piece in just a few years. As rumored and reported everywhere, the closing of such places as Max Fish, Pink Pony, and the threat to Mars Bar are just a few more nails in our cultural coffin. At this point, downtown nightlife doesn’t seem to be doing much more than going through predictable motions. Even though it fell way short of it’s dreams, life as we (creatures of black leather and forced sunrises) know it probably had its last fling when Collective Hardware roared. At least they tried. News comes of a return of Culture Club, that Jersey-Shore-in-Manhattan, theme-scene nightspot. This joint, famous for the hair do’s and don’t of its patrons and it’s classless kitschy décor, will occupy the former 39th Street home of Speed, a club that couldn’t close fast enough. Over the years I’ve looked at the space with operators who saw it as a gay club, a dance club, and a hybrid model/bottle house space. One gentleman caller saw it as a sort of midtown Soho House. In the end, a combination of high rent and community board frowning tempered interest.
Robert Watman is the main man here. He was reported to describe the Culture Club experience as follows: “Good, clean fun” and “It’s a safe, easy place, non-threatening.” Having opened 30 joints in 30 years, Mr Watman says, “It’s not my first rodeo.” His liquor license was approved unanimously by the Public Safety Committee of Midtown’s Community Board 5. It’s ironic that the loudest objections come from the neighboring Elite Day Spa. A day spa complaining about a nightlife spot seems to be a reach, as the two should be operating at very different hours. Maybe it’s the “elite” thing, as Culture Club promises to be anything but.
I have no objections to Culture Club. It’s a sort of “is what it is” place. The problem is that the Disneyfication of Times Square, hotly debated years ago, has become a city-wide cancer. Good clean fun in safe, easy, non threatening places is getting fast-tracked, while anything edgy is struggling to survive, or get a license to operate. The same goes for the new Bowlmor in Times Square. It’s absolutely wonderful, and is to be celebrated, but it must be understood that they are paying a rent equal to my neighborhood. They are, to their credit, providing much needed jobs, and are excellent at providing good “clean fun.” With 50 lanes and a better location, Bowlmor seems to be in a position to take out Lucky Strike Lanes on 42nd street and 12th (or is it 16th?) Avenue. It’s so far west you feel like you’re in Colorado. Bowling at the new Times Square Bowlmor will cost me and mine about 70 bucks an hour on the weekend, and 60 during the week. A cheeseburger will run me 13 bucks. You do the math. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Vegas everywhere I go. Except in Times Square, where the hookers have been banished. New York seems destined to become a Disneyfied Vegas.
Both the Culture Club and Bowlmor are banking on the bankers and other normal, routine types that live in the hampster habitats built for them over the last decade. The crossing of our great river divides all the peeps who used to be called “Bridge and Tunnel” into the high-rent high rises in our beloved hoods. Over time, franchise stores that catered to these non-trendy types displaced low-rent boutiques and mom-and-pop places that made our streets quaint and hip and unique. The chain stores followed the Starbucks, and soon Brooklyn was our only hope. The tantrum thrown by locals over the new Duane Reade, which opened on Bedford Avenue, seems silly until you realize what it will eventually bring.
The opening of Culture Club shows New York culture in its worse possible light. Tourists, a revenue stream that will keep this joint, Bowlmor, and the entire city afloat, will get their “New York experience” without ever meeting a New Yorker (who isn’t serving them). From their hotels, to Broadway shows, to the landmarks, they will be hanging out with people from all over the world, but none from here. We are designing our “New York” to cater to their needs, and losing our edge in the process. Just as buildings have a Landmark committee, culture certainly needs one. Maybe developers must preserve the Mars Bar just as it is, with its wonderful warts and all, if they are going to be allowed to build up 12 stories. Maybe the community boards must realize that if they don’t allow the edge to survive, they’ll just be left with communities bored.