The Sources of Segregation in Nightlife Culture

By Gamal Hennessy

Influential writer E.B. White once said there are three types of New Yorkers; the natives, the commuters and the migrants. In New York nightlife culture, the number of groups and subgroups we have is impossible to count. There are so many little “New Yorks” that it often feels like every taste, preference and orientation has its own scene with its own players and venues. How did this happen? How long it last?

The Major Divisions

There are easy ways to understand what the different scenes are in New York nightlife. The music you listen to, the people you hang out with, what you do and how much you spend all help define your experience. You might like that underground lounge in Chinatown that “no one knows about” but you’ll probably abandon it when the B&T crowd finds it. Similarly, the hipsters don’t mix with the house kids, the jazz crowd doesn’t drink with the rockers, and the pub crawlers wouldn’t be caught dead with the model and bottle crowd. New York City has plenty of generic venues, but it’s big enough and diverse enough that everyone can party separately without ever being exposed to another lifestyle

The divisions go much deeper here than just the major demographic groups. There are also multiple sub cultures within each set. For example, hip hop has mainstream industry spots like 40/40, old school spots like bOb Bar and your occasional hipster rap party in Brooklyn. Lesbians can be broken down into butch, femme, older and minority scenes. Someone once joked that if you’re an Asian woman looking to only drink cosmos and watch True Blood with gay Brazilian men, there is a bar in New York for you.

The different scenes are affected to different degrees as changes occur in the city as a whole. Just consider the recession as an obvious example. There are some people who were all about bottle service before the sub prime fiasco and they will still be buying bottles this weekend. There are other people who were in that scene but abruptly left it when their hedge fund or investment bank fired them. Then you have the scene that wasn’t buying bottles before, isn’t buying bottles now, and wouldn’t buy a bottle if they won the lottery. Your nightlife depends on how you define your experience.

Universal Separation

The fragmentation of nightlife groups mirrors a similar dynamic in the wider spectrum of mass entertainment. Before the rise of cable in the 1980’s, we only had a handful of television stations to watch. Now we can have more than 500 channels. In addition, sites like YouTube allow you to have more focused interests, watching hundreds of hours of video without ever turning on your TV. During the 80’s you listened to FM radio or watched MTV to get your music. Now digital music, streaming radio and iPods give you the ability to ignore mainstream radio altogether. We live in a time of limitless choices when it comes to personal entertainment, so isn’t it natural to have hundreds of choices in our nightlife entertainment too?

Terrorist Segregation

Not necessarily. Some nightlife operators point to more sudden and sinister reasons for segregation within nightlife. Tastemaker Roxy Cottontail has noticed a significant division into niche groups since 9/11. The ever-present icon Steven Lewis calls this the concept of Safety in Numbers or SIN.  

“9/11 had a major psychological effect on nightlife culture. 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.”

Segregated Collapse

The danger of all these different niches is that they might not be able to remain viable. As the local economy grew more spots could open catering to smaller crowds. If that group becomes more and more fragmented the clubs that cater to them might not survive. Lewis has predicted a shake up in the market, with a lot of venues folding or changing hands as economic forces separate the well run clubs from the transitory spots. A recent article in Elite Daily predicted that New York will die a slow death caused by oversaturation.

Nightlife culture is not a single monolithic concept. It has always had its divisions but modern factors have created scenes that are smaller and more fragmented. It is unclear whether this segregation can thrive long term. But the strength of nightlife culture is its ability to entertain diverse groups and feed different needs. Every scene is valid. Every scene contributes something, positive or negative, to the vital dynamic that drives the city.

Have fun.
Gamal