Friday, May 16, 2003

Lost Leatherspaces

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #208, May 16, 2003)

When I think of all the famous and fabled places of leather’s days gone by, and I realize that I will never (or never again) be able to experience them, it makes me a little sad. This was brought home to me quite vividly on a recent trip to New York City. My host (and former partner) Ken Binder, who moved to New York several years ago, pointed out to me that the leather scene in New York City, at least for gay males, is in a period of either decline (pessimistic view) or transition (optimistic view).

Much of New York’s leather scene has historically been in and around the notorious (and appropriately named) “meat-packing district,” which was the area south of 14th St. between 9th Ave. and the West Side Highway (now renamed the Joe DiMaggio Highway). The docks and piers that used to be cruising grounds have long been cleaned up, and the truck trailers that served as sex shelters haven’t been there for years. Fabled leatherspaces including The Anvil, The Mineshaft, The Ramrod and The Toilet (yes, it really existed) closed their doors long ago.

Until recently the meat-packing district still was home to several leather venues—but now all but one of these are gone, too. The Eagle and The Spike closed in 2000 (after 30 and 20 years, respectively). That left only Johnny-come-lately LURE (an acronym which stood for Leather/Uniform/Rubber/Etc.). But in April LURE also closed its doors after nine years of operation.

Recently, The Eagle reopened under new management a few blocks from its former location, making it currently the only leather bar in the area.

J’s Hangout, which recently closed, used to host a variety of sex parties; some of the parties have moved and some have disappeared with J’s. Neighboring establishments Hellfire Club and Manhole were forced out by their landlord, according to “Peter Boots’ Gay SM Leather Fetish Guide to New York City” ( Wallyworld, another sex-party venue, disappeared with the death in 1999 of local party impresario Wally Wallace, who was also associated with both The Mineshaft and later LURE. The meat-packing district has gotten so squeaky clean that, in Binder’s words, “Even the tranny hookers are gone!”

What happened? Until recently the answer was often politics, most recently in the guise of former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to “clean up” (his words) or “sanitize” and “Disney-ize” (some other peoples’ words) New York City by tightening and enforcing regulations on sex-related businesses.

Fighting political battles is tough enough, but it’s almost impossible for leather to win economic battles, and money is what was at the root of the most recent round of closings. As one of the last remaining “ungentrified” areas on Manhattan, the real estate in the meat-packing district became too valuable. Buildings that used to house bars, dungeons and playspaces are now home to upscale restaurants, clothing shops and art galleries. Millions of dollars are being spent to turn the meat-packing district into the next Tribeca, which itself was the next Soho.

New York, like any major city, is constantly changing, but Binder is one of many who aren’t sure they like these most recent changes: “Even if I didn’t spend a lot of time at LURE or J’s Hangout, those kinds of places were one of the reasons I moved to New York. I was just glad to know those places were there—and now that they won’t be there, I’ll miss them.”

It’s not just New York’s leather scene that has been changing lately. Christopher Street, the epicenter of the Stonewall uprising that gave birth to modern gay culture, is no longer the gay mecca it once was. The Leatherman store is still there, but many of the other gay shops have closed. After dark, Christopher Street isn’t even a terribly safe area anymore, according to Binder: “On weekend evenings, young street thugs come in on the PATH trains from Jersey and take over.”

The gay life that used to be on Christopher Street moved north to Chelsea (between 14th and 34th Streets around 7th and 8th Avenues), a neighborhood that then went from rough and raw to buffed and beautiful with the influx of the city’s most gorgeous gay men. But now even that neighborhood is changing. Binder, who lives in Chelsea, says his condo building was until recently entirely gay-owned, “but all the recent sales of apartments in my building, apartments that were bought and fixed up by gay men, have been to straight couples who are pregnant.” I asked him where he thought the next gay neighborhood in New York would be, and he told me that the general feeling among gay New Yorkers is that there might not be one: “Maybe the concept has outlived its usefulness. As we become more accepted and integrated into the fabric of society, that’s what happens—there’s less need for a gay ghetto or enclave.”

These kinds of things are not unique to New York, of course. On San Francisco’s Castro Street, which has long been one of the most visible gay neighborhoods in the world, area residents must share the sidewalks with gawking tour groups. Many leatherfolk moved from the Castro to the South of Market area in the early 1990s only to have that neighborhood then stolen from them by the dot-com crowd—who later slunk out of town once the dot-com craze bombed.

By way of postscript: The unfortunate fact is that nothing lasts forever, and I will never be able to visit legendary places like The Catacombs in San Francisco or The Gold Coast (in any of its incarnations) in Chicago. But we can all be thankful that leather historians at The Leather Archives & Museum (<>) and elsewhere have made it a mission to collect and preserve memorabilia and pictures and stories of these wonderful vanished places.

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