By Gamal Hennessy
Steven Lewis has been a fixture in New York nightlife for more than 30 years. He has gone from managing golden age venues like the Limelight and Palladium to designing venues like Butter and Marquee to writing for the influential nightlife blog Good Night Mr. Lewis to performing as a DJ with the 4AM DJ collective.
NCI: What attracted you to New York nightlife when you started back in the 1980’s?
SL: I went out looking for sex. What I found was sex and characters. When I was working on Wall Street, all the people I met there were mundane. When I went out at night, the people were exciting. They had personalities, vision and creativity. When I started to run clubs I made sure to create a space that would attract those same characters. The clubs I envisioned were like Rick’s from Casablanca. I modeled myself and a lot of what I did based on that concept.
NCI: How do you see the nature of nightlife culture today?
SL: The dominant theme today is the niche market. In the past, a lot of different crowds and scenes came together in one massive space. Each one of them would have their own room or their own section on the dance floor, but there was still a lot of cross pollination between the groups. Now each group tends to discount the other groups. Fewer people go out to meet and hang out with different people. Nowadays, people go out to meet and hang out with their friends or people who are similar to them. There is more focus on your space, your group, your table. You are isolated even if you are out with hundreds of other people.
NCI: What do you think contributed to this change?
SL: 9/11 had a major psychological effect on nightlife culture. We collectively embraced the concept of Safety In Numbers or SIN. Instead of feeling confident about interacting with people who were very different, we began to huddle up with their own kind. Now most of us are more nervous hanging around anyone who isn’t like us in ways we think are significant. The growth of bottle service is a direct by product of people’s need to be separated. It’s not that each group of people is doing radically different things. They are drinking the same drinks, dancing to the many of the same songs and still trying to have sex with each other. They are just less willing to mingle with other people.
NCI: So it wasn’t higher real estate prices, smaller venues, tougher laws and more fragmented musical tastes that were detrimental to New York City nightlife.
SL: All those things had an impact, but they were minor. The SIN effect caused by 9/11 caused a seismic shift that overshadowed all those other things. And keep in mind that in many ways, nightlife culture is as good now as it has ever been, it’s just very different than it was before. If you look at every element of the nightlife experience, you’ll see operators becoming more and more specialized. Each one does their separate job better than it was done in the past. They have to. Patrons feel more and more alienated from their governments, their jobs and their lives. They are looking for more and more distraction and they get that from New York nightlife. More and more tourists are coming to the city for our dance clubs and cocktail lounges. Venues are spending more and more on music, design and food. The stage is set for a new golden age of NYC nightlife.
SL: Who do you see as the next major player in nightlife culture?
The celebrity doorman, DJ, and bartender have all had their time in the spotlight. The cocktail waitress/ bottle service girl is the next big thing. She is the one people interact with the most. She can put on a show and entice people into having a good time. In the past the waitress was a model or an actress waiting to be discovered. Now, the best bottle service girls already know that the job is an end in and of itself. They can make big money, work in any major city and mingle with a very exclusive crowd in the process. Don’t be surprised if schools pop up to teach this skill set, the same way it did for mixologists and DJs. The better clubs are already teaching these skills. Everyone is more specialized now, bottle service won’t be an exception.