Villager photos by Q. Sakamaki
Clubgoers outside Home on W. 27th St.
With police on the beat, club beat still goes on
By Lawrence Lerner
Walking north on 11th Ave. near the mid-W. 20s on Saturday night, amid the gigantic former warehouses-turned-galleries, upscale condos and sundry businesses, the popular and much maligned West Chelsea club scene is barely discernible. At 26th St., it starts to take shape, as high-heeled beauties and young studs dressed in stylish suits emerge from taxis and livery cabs, while a half-block south a knot of police officers hangs in the shadows, petting their horses as they bray in their trailers.
Turn right onto 27th St., and the shadows give way to what could easily be misconstrued as a movie set blinding searchlights at each end of the street, a ring of metal barricades blocking through traffic and corralling a mob of clubgoers along the sidewalks, and cops in the middle of the empty street, monitoring the enormous crowd.
Over on 10th Ave., it’s a similar story. The thumping of house music merges with blaring car horns as a steady stream of auto and foot traffic creeps through the congested terrain. Police officers are confiscating open cans and bottles in front of Marquee, where a long line awaits entry in front of the velvet ropes. A mobile police command-and-control center sits across 10th Ave., its remote surveillance cameras hanging high on lampposts along 27th St.
To Chelsea residents, many club owners and patrons, the increased police presence is a welcome, if long-overdue, response to quality-of-life problems that have been exploding for the last several years in Chelsea, especially in the swath between 10th and 11th Aves. from 24th to 29th Sts., which has gained notoriety for several recent violent incidents and its sheer density of nightlife: more than 20 dance clubs, lounges, bars and restaurants with a capacity of more than 10,000 patrons. But despite the elevated scrutiny that the area has come under by the police, government officials and the press, the club scene in West Chelsea appears, for the most part, to be alive and well.
“There’s been immense foot traffic on weekends, almost like Bourbon St. and Mardi Gras,” said Jamie Mulholland, owner of Cain, at 544 W. 27th St. “Our overall business is not suffering, because Chelsea has become quite a destination, but some issues remain to be ironed out.”
Manager Patrick Robertson of Marquee, on 27th St., is also thankful that the Police Department and press have not scared away customers.
“Our business has been unaffected, knock on wood. We cater to a high-end clientele, 80 percent of whom we know personally, and they return frequently,” he said.
Marquee sits on 10th Ave., where the traffic may be slow but still flows.
However, two other clubs, Cain and its neighbor, Bungalow 8, are less fortunate, located on the side street on 27th St.
“Both of us have suffered, in that many of our clients arrive in limos or car service that can’t get past the metal barricades on weekends,” said Cain’s Mulholland. “No celebrity or high-end client wants to have to be escorted down the street through a mob of people just to enter our club.”
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn sympathizes with Mulholland’s predicament but hopes that West Chelsea club owners can keep the larger picture in mind.
“Sure, some kinks have to be worked out, but the best thing we can do for the nightlife industry in this city is to make it as safe and secure as possible and to make people comfortable coming here,” she said.
If Saturday evening was any indication, most West Chelsea clubgoers are proving Quinn correct. The majority interviewed for this article said they welcomed the police presence in light of recent events, such as a random bullet hitting two women inside Crobar, at 538 W. 28 St., on July 13, and the July 25 rape and murder of Jennifer Moore, the 18-year-old who had been drinking underage illegally at Guest House, at 542 W. 27th St., earlier that evening.
“I feel safer with the police here. Now I can take a taxi and walk here alone if I want,” said Justine Waldisberg, 21, a publishing intern who lives in Manhattan.
Anthony Czyz, a Bloomingdale, N.J, chiropractor, who had walked out of Home, also likes having the police near the clubs.
“It looks Gestapo-ish with the bright lights, but it’s safer and a lot more organized. People are a lot less likely to harass you, which makes it calmer and more fun,” he said.
The Police Department began blanketing the area after the Moore killing. According to Michael Petrillo, 10th Precinct community affairs officer, the Chelsea clubs police detail from Thursday through Saturday nights consists of 24 officers plus a mounted unit when it is available.
Minor incidents have persisted during this time, however, including a fight that broke out inside Sol, at 609 W. 29th St. at 11th Ave., two weekends ago.
“Fortunately, it wasn’t terribly serious,” said Petrillo.
As for how long the police will remain, that’s up to the Police Department, said Quinn.
“I’ll leave that up to their best judgment,” she said. “They were quick to respond to our request and know when it’s best to pull out of there.”
One party that is grateful for the police presence is Community Board 4, which has been at the epicenter of the battle between area residents and clubs for the last several years.
The board’s new district director, Robert Benfatto, says the complaint level has decreased markedly from when he first started the job in August, in the wake of the Moore incident, when he says, “the club issue was peaking.”
“We’re not getting the same volume of calls now. The only clubs we’ve gotten complaints about have been in the 50s, and those have been strictly noise complaints,” he said.
Many West Chelsea club owners also welcome the police presence, at least publicly.
“Myself and other owners on the block agree that, to a certain degree, the police helped clean up the block,” said Oliver Hoyos, owner of B.E.D., at 530 W. 27th St. “Initially, it was a shock to us. They issued lots of tickets for minor things, and the metal barricade initially went all the way from 10th to 11th Aves. But now police have loosened up and people who need help are getting it. And there have been lots of undercover police checking for underage drinking and drugs, which has been good.”
Yet Robert Bookman, attorney for the New York Nightlife Association, is skeptical of such public pronouncements, seeing them as a classic go-along-to-get-along tactic.
“Of course club owners are going to show appreciation to the press. They’re trying to preserve their businesses,” he said. “But I know for a fact that many of them are unhappy. This is not a cooperative response showing we can manage the situation together. We’ve got immense policing in West Chelsea now, and it’s inhospitable for folks,” he said.
Benfatto certainly agrees that the city has turned up the heat on club owners since Moore’s murder.
“It’s not just the police but various city agencies as well,” he said. “Several have followed up with us on clubs, looking into taxes and a host of other issues. There’s definitely more scrutiny from all around the city now.”
That new scrutiny isn’t only from city agencies and the press, but also government officials as well.
Quinn, whose district includes Chelsea and the Meatpacking District, introduced legislation in May making it easier for city officials to shutter bars and clubs that hire security personnel who are unlicensed, have criminal backgrounds or carry unlicensed weapons. The “Bouncer Bill,” which Mayor Bloomberg signed into law in late August, came after bouncer Stephen Sakai shot four people killing one man and paralyzing the dead man’s brother outside Opus 22, at 559 W. 22nd St. again in West Chelsea.
On Aug. 8, Quinn also proposed a legislative package requiring clubs to use scanners to detect fake I.D.’s, install security cameras at club entrances and exits, and hire independent monitors approved by the Police Department if slapped with serious or repeated violations. On Wednesday, the City Council formally introduced the package of legislation, adding a requirement for better training of club employees.
Last Thursday, Quinn’s much-anticipated Nightlife Security Summit was held at John Jay College, bringing together the nightlife industry, community groups, law enforcement, other government agencies and elected officials to devise solutions to nightlife safety issues. The press was barred from the meeting, although there was a brief conference beforehand at which Quinn said the press may be allowed to attend future meetings.
“We’re going to play it by ear,” she said. “This is not the last meeting. There will be more meetings.”
The State Liquor Authority also got into the act on Sept. 6 when it issued a moratorium on liquor licenses for new Manhattan bars or clubs within 500 feet of three other licensed premises. The S.L.A. also set up a task force to examine the liquor licensing process throughout the state, with a special focus on New York City. The task force will issue its recommendations by Dec. 5.
Meanwhile, as city residents, the bridge-and-tunnel crowd and tourists demand their slice of New York hedonism, the West Chelsea club scene continues to thrive.
Chuck Scott, who has sold hot dogs to the late-night club crowd on 27th St. for the last four years, understands the dynamic as well as anyone.
“Nothing going to stop a clubgoer. You hear? No amount of police nothing,” he said. “Hell, no. They won’t go. This place is hopping all the time.”