By Gamal Hennessy
There is a consistent narrative in the recent writing about New York nightlife. Many essays and blog posts include some form of pessimistic nostalgia as a mandatory element. Critics bemoan the closed venues, NIMBY gentrification and the alleged loss of diverse community. Nightlife, the critics say, is dead.
In many ways, the gloomy picture of modern nightlife culture has facts to support that image. But those facts are only valid when taken out of historical context. Those facts also ignore the adaptive, nomadic and reactionary nature of the nightlife native in the past and in the present. It is true that a particular era of nightlife has passed. However, nightlife culture itself is still very much alive and immune to any artificial attempts to destroy it.
The Dark Age of Nightlife
When we compare the current landscape of nightlife to the recent past, it’s easy to see why some people pine for “the old days”. Iconic venues have become college dormitories, shopping malls and boutique shops. Laws against dancing, smoking, noise and a host of other activities encroach on nightlife’s inherent pursuit of individual freedom. Skyrocketing costs in terms of rent, materials and legal fees have turned many venues into establishments that suppress creativity for the sake of higher revenue. The current crop of nightlife patron is often more interested in going online and projecting the appearance of having fun instead of actually engaging with their environment. If this condition described all of nightlife culture, then pessimism would be the only logical response.
The Circle of Nightlife
But reactionary nightlife nostalgia is not unique to the 21st century. It is a cyclical response that repeats itself every generation.
When jazz became popular in the nightlife culture of the early 20th century, critics attacked it because it was associated with illegal speakeasies and encouraged racial integration. People longed to go back “to the good old days”. (See Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns)
When DJs and disco began to replace live music, supporters of traditional bands attacked both the homosexual aspects of dance music and the connection to drugs and promiscuity. There was another call for “the good old days”. (See Last Night a DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster)
When hip hop and house came to dominate nightlife culture, the critics came out again. (See Groove Music by Mark Katz)
When bottle service replaced dancing as the primary activity, when large venues gave way to smaller spaces, and when twenty dollar craft cocktails became the norm there was new ammunition for critics to seize. In fact, every generation finds a reason to look down on the people who come to nightlife after them. The current wave of nightlife patrons will do it when they get older and the generation after that will repeat the ritual for as long as we have young adults in cities who decide to go out.
Doing Not Debating
It is fortunate that the people who create and enjoy nightlife culture consistently ignore attacks on its quality and viability.
While bloggers post pictures of another venue closing, dancers are sweating at long running parties at places like Roots or the Freedom Party.
Discussions about the lack of venues persist even as spaces like Sankeys and Output spring up and strive to make their mark.
As writers discuss the lack of nightlife options in Midtown, parties and venues migrate out to Astoria, Ridgewood and Park Slope.
Critics turn up their noses at modern nightlife music while artist continue to push boundaries and expectations from Arlene’s Grocery to Littlefield and beyond.
Perhaps none of these parties or venues have the cache of a Studio 54 or a Limelight, but nightlife culture doesn’t require a lot of attention. In many nightlife circles, the party is more important than the posturing.
Out of the Ashes
Creators of nightlife culture have always had an intuitive understanding of the relationship between innovation and rebellion. Many of the artistic and entertainment legends that came out of nightlife were born from a rejection of the prevailing ideology.
Minton’s Playhouse became the cornerstone of jazz in response to the lack of support the artform had in the 1940’s. (See Seize the Night: The Business and Culture of New York Nightlife by Gamal Hennessy)
Punk music grew in bars on the Lower East Side as a reaction to watered down pop music of the 1970’s. (Seize the Night)
Afrika Bambatta forged the Zulu Nation as a way to draw men away from gang culture. (Seize the Night)
The Club Kids from the Roxy and Twilo pushed back against the prevailing homophobia of the early 1980’s. (Seize the Night)
While all of these movements affected different subcultures and struggled against different forces, they all shared two common traits. First, they all found their home in nightlife culture. Second, these nightlife movements were based on action, not passive critique.
Perhaps We Protest Too Much
The persistent critique of nightlife culture may have nothing to do with the longing for a beloved past. In many cases, the agenda is more subversive. When we depict modern nightlife as bland and unworthy of attention we create powerful excuses for our own ambivalence. We can argue that it is not advanced age, reduced energy or social discomfort that keep us from going out, it is the lack of quality in nightlife itself. We can assign blame somewhere else and maintain our illusion of being young, hip and vital. If we decide there is nothing there, then we don’t have to go out and look for it, create it or support it.
Modern nightlife is not a universal utopia of creative pleasure. The fact is that it was never perfect and it never will be. Nightlife culture has always been driven by a spirit of creativity and rebellion. Some of the results of this liquor soaked sexual energy have been wildly positive. Other incidents have been tragically negative. Some nights have been both. In many cases, we won’t understand how a particular movement affects us until it is over.
Nightlife today has a lot of issues and problems. It also has no shortage of critics trying to tear it down. But nightlife culture will continue in spite of what anyone says to try and stop it or support it. The new creators of nightlife don’t have time to compare themselves to the past because they too busy are enjoying their present.