Defining the Three Nightlife Operators. Type 1: The Retro

By Gamal Hennessy

On Realists, Rebels and Retros (Part 1)

When I was writing my book on New York nightlife, I described three categories of patrons; amateurs, fanatics and natives. After the book came out and I continued to talk to different operators around town, I began to see that operators themselves came in different varieties too.

Beyond the good and bad operators that are often confused by the community boards and the public at large, there is a difference between operators based on their general perspective about the industry itself. The more I understood what made each type of professional different, the easier it was for me to understand what was going on in different parties and venues. It became easier to read the New York nightlife press, since each one caters to a different type of operator. I have found that they come in three basic flavors; retros, realists and rebels.

Retros are characterized by their experience in nightlife’s past and their contempt for nightlife’s present. These operators worked and played when venues like Studio 54, Palladium and Limelight were in their prime. They have personal connections to the infamous and legendary people and places that defined New York the 80s and 90s. They had sex on the dance floor of Paradise Garage. They remember CBGB when the bathroom was almost clean. They woke up naked on the beach in Ibiza and still can’t remember how they got there. To put it simply; they were around for the things we only hear about on VH1.

Retros also saw changes in nightlife that were anything but positive. They saw AIDS cut down many prominent members of the nightlife community. They saw real estate prices skyrocket and push many venues out of business. They saw a succession of mayors attack nightlife with abusive regulations, taxes, police squads and political attacks. They saw community boards rise up and gain the power to close a club or keep it from opening in the first place. They saw the changes to nightlife and came to a conclusion that can be described in four words:

The party is over.

To a true retro, modern nightlife is a waste of time and energy. From their perspective, it can’t be like it was, so why bother? Their view of modern patrons is a mix that is equal parts pity and disdain. They feel like nightlife has passed New York by and anything the industry does now is nothing more than a watered down version of its former glory.

The benefit of the retro comes from the connection they have to the pioneers of clubbing. Their focus and their passion is on nightlife culture. They remind us that nightlife didn’t always include bottle service, Facebook promoters and niche venues. They are the first modern nightlife natives and they knew how to party.

But when I talk to retros, I often get the same feeling that kids from every generation get from the people who came before, namely, “My time was great, and your time isn’t like my time, so no matter what you do or how much fun you have, your time still sucks.” Most of them have more time for nostalgia than for change. They see problems, but they feel like there is no credible way to make things better so they have no interest in trying. Many of them have left the industry altogether, making space for the other two nightlife operators.

Coming up next, a look at the realists and the rebels…

Have fun.