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Back in the Day

by Cody Lyon  Apr 26 2010
A New Yorker’s reflection of an earlier time in Manhattan, back when nightclubs were more than $300 bottles of vodka and when restaurants weren’t part of chains. Now, those were fun times.

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Empire Diner

The Empire Diner, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, is closing after more than 30 years in business.
Image: jpchan on Flickr

Agroup of people are out cocktailing at one of Gotham’s countless bars, when suddenly, someone let’s out a loud “New York is so much fun!” Chances are the person doing the shouting is either young, new to the city, or simply here on vacation.

Invariably, you’ll see someone at another table (or possibly someone else in the same group) offering an eye roll, a chortle, or just a sigh. This, they’re suggesting, is nothing. New York City used to be much, much more fun a decade or two ago. There was a time in New York City when spontaneity permeated the air. Fun, or for that matter danger, lurked just around the next corner. Sometimes the two were one in the same.

These were the days when an artist, actor or writer could find a $500 studio apartment on the far reaches of Manhattan, like Alphabet City or the Lower East Side. Today, these are the neighborhoods New York magazine calls the most livable in Manhattan. And that studio now costs $2,000 a month, if you’re lucky enough to find it.

What I’m really talking about is New York City before Rudolph Giuliani became mayor in 1994 and made it his mission to install a series of quality-of-life laws upon the city. These measures eliminated spontaneous window washing by scary squeegee men on 9th Avenue, forced the X-rated shops along 8th Avenue to shut down, and increased the police presence throughout the city.

Before Giuliani, a sense of organized chaos ruled the street. Times Square was a risky-yet-thrilling proposition and the “Disneyfication” of 42nd Street had yet to take place. Manhattan was first and foremost a playground for adults, which meant that for the over-21 crowd, fun came out at night.

Everyone knows about Studio 54—that celebrity-driven, cocaine-fueled super club. That venue spawned others that didn’t seep into the general consciousness but were highly popular with New Yorkers. Clubs like Tunnel, Palladium, Limelight and Club USA, each with their own people at the door who would pick out and choose among the eager crowds who got in and who didn’t. They were looking out for those who were beautiful, striking, important, or who might add some freakish character to the cocktail of madness once inside.

Today, club owners are catering to those who can drop a few hundred dollars for a bottle of vodka and a collection of mixers. Or they’re finding other uses for the real estate. Studio 54 long ago became a legitimate Broadway theater. Palladium was torn down and became a New York University dorm. Limelight, a club set in an old Episcopalian church that opened in 1983 and became a symbol for Giuliani’s crackdown on nightlife, this spring is becoming the Limelight Marketplace, a mini-mall for artisans.

The clubs and bars are also dealing with a 21st Century reality their predecessors couldn’t fathom: a smoking ban. Earlier this month, police showed up at Manhattan’s last mega club, the Club M2 Ultralounge in Chelsea, with “nusiance abatement” papers ordering its temporary shutdown. Mind you, the police said that over the years they’d witnessed drug dealing and violence in the spot, but news reports also pointed to a rift between the club and the city over the nightspot’s flagrant violation of the city’s 2002 anti-smoking laws. The club reopened—a weekend without business cost it $250,000, according to a spokesman—only to be raided againby police as it was about to kickoff the NFL’s official draft party last week. This time, authorities said security was an issue.

But it’s not just the club scene that has changed. What passes for fun in New York—and how someone finds it—is a different game in 2010. Forget about looking online, or checking an iPhone to find party dresses, shoes, or illegal substances. A decade or so ago, the best bet for finding anything was experiential shopping, the discovery of new neighborhoods replete with their own smell, vibe and look.

The East Village with its edgy selection of combat boots and black leather motorcycle jackets found at Trash and Vaudeville on St. Marks Place was a universe away from the well-to-do shopping for fresh vegetables at the gourmet Fairway Market on the Upper West Side, where an affection for designer wool and loafers ruled the streets. Neighborhoods like Chelsea, home to a gay leather bar called Rawhide, or Tribeca, with its chic Odeon restaurant that drew artists and Wall Street brokers alike, were uniquely New York. They weren’t chains. They were run by local business people who had dreams of tapping into the city’s zeitgeist to strike it big.

Both the Rawhide and Odeon remain, largely unchanged by time. But with each passing day, it seems another story surfaces of some Manhattan institution’s closing, relocation or flat out shutting down due to the old adage of high rents. For example, after 34 years, “the hippest diner on Earth” will serve its last chicken fried steak on May 16. After negotiations with the landlord fell through, the Empire Diner, a 24-hour retro looking rail car diner where many club goers had a sobering breakfast, is calling it quits.

Entire neighborhoods where avenues and streets were dotted by Mom and Pop stores with names like Bright Food Shop or Food Bar, all festooning local flavor, have disappeared, replaced by more widely known names like Subway, Chipotle or another bank branch of Chase or HSBC.

But enough of this complaining. New York’s bars and restaurants remain packed, the shopping is still the best in the nation, the streets are vibrant (and much safer they than used to be). Truth be told, that person among the group of drinking friends who shouts about how fun New York is will probably be the one doing the sighing or glancing or complaining of their own in ten or twenty years, provided they stick around. I’ll drink to that.

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Written by codylyonreporter

January 28, 2012 at 1:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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