Going Back in Time at Manhattan's New Gay DiscoS

Last night was the opening party for XL, the new nightclub in New York's embarrassing (and dirty) soon-to-open gay hotel The Out NYC. The club is absolutely gorgeous. But it's never going to be cool.

Yes, I weaseled my way into the "friends and family" preview of the space last night, anxious to check it out. As far as large nightclubs, it's quite lovely. Upon entering the club, patrons can either go right, towards a large sunken dance floor surround by (I was told by the lighting designer) about $100K worth of lights (which are controlled by a $50K lighting board). There's a good sized stage on the floor for performances which is backed by a giant LED screen that was playing some sort of fire graphic all night long, like it was the all-seeing eye of Mordor. Though the crowd wasn't full and it was early in the evening, I didn't see one person on the dance floor all night. It was more like a pool party, everyone standing around it and marveling at it, but no one wanting to take a dive. There's two bars on either end of the dance floor, naturally staffed by boys whose muscles were threatening to render their tight XL tank tops asunder.

Back down the hallway toward the entrance you pass the strangely-situated VIP room, which offers a good view of the dance floor but no proximity to it. Following that is the XL cabaret space, which features a circular bar much like the one at classic Chelsea watering hole G Lounge (except there is actually room to walk around the bar). Along the windows facing the street are some comfy banquettes and between that and the bar plenty of cabaret tables with high stools. On the bar were several huge flower arrangements that looked like something your gay uncle would have in his foyer in Wilton Manors, Florida. They are obviously pandering to the lowest common gay-nominator.

Downstairs, grasping a rather groovy light-up railing, you'll find the bathroom, a unique two-story structure with urinals upstairs and two rows of stalls (for all sorts of misbehaving) downstairs. All the surfaces are burnished black, like something out of Less than Zero. While I was down there, Crystal Waters "100% Pure Love" was playing. I was officially back in the '90s.

That's the thing about XL, is that everything it represents seems to be out of a forgotten era. John Blair, who designed and is promoting the club has a long history in New York gay nightlife (as pointed out by the NY Times yesterday) and he wants to go into the modern era, but kicking and screaming. There is a yet-to-be-completed bank of iPads directly inside the front door so that party goers can sign up for John Blair's infamous mailing list. It's the modern equivalent of Blair standing at a table with a clip board getting people to sign up to come to his parties. Maybe he'll finally be taking email addresses?

Going out to a large dance club and the sort of burnished spectacle that goes along with it seems like something out of the past, possibly because it reminds me of going to Roxy and Limelight and Twilo and all those other cavernous clubs back in the day. XL isn't nearly as large, but that's what it seems to be aiming for. Gay New Yorkers don't seem to go out like that anymore. The bars are smaller and more intimate and usually cater to a really specific crowd ("Come to Fire in the Hole: our night for redheaded twinks and the men who love them") rather than the big tent of the old club that attracts the entire gay rainbow. When gays do want to dance, they go to places with small, packed dancefloors where they can rub all up on each other with their shirts still on and nary a tribal tattoo in sight. How un-Chelsea.

I had a chat with Michael Musto, the famous Village Voice gossip, who has seen more gay clubs come and go in New York than just about anyone else. He says the whole thing is cyclical. We went from big clubs and shiny Chelsea lounges (like the original XL which closed in 2006) to the more niche market and now, with XL opening, we're going back to the big club thing. I argue that there is nothing about XL that seems new. "That it's even here, is new," Michael said. "We've been conditioned by the city to not want to go to a big club." It's true, there are fewer of them, and they're harder to open in this town, so it is a feat that Blair managed to pull this off. But is it a quixotic quest to bring what once was back again?

Musto is right, everything does go in a cycle, but the thing about this cycle is, in the past decade, gay people have made great strides in acceptance and the generation that is clubbing now is different from Michael and me. Many of them live in Brooklyn or Queens or the reaches of Manhattan that make even getting to Hell's Kitchen challenging. They are used to going to smaller clubs and they're used to going out with their straight friends to "mixed" parties. Last weekend I went to One Last Shag in Bed-Stuy, a "gay" bar that housed male and female, gay and straight, and everyone inbetween dancing their asses off to R&B remixes. I was the oldest person there by, what seemed like, a decade. This is the current reality of gay going out. Some of these kids still want an "all-gay experience," but they don't need to go to a gay club to be safe. It is also not their only venue for meeting other people like them.

No one seemed to be able to tell me what was new or original about XL. Most of the nightlife types I talked to were most excited about the party gonzo promoter Suzanne Bartsch would be throwing on Thursday nights, not John Blair's storied Saturday night party or Rockit, the Friday night event thrown by Blair's younger co-promoters Brandon Voss and Tony Fornabio. While Bartsch does keep things hip and avante-garde, even she's a very well-known quantity.

I ran into Ian Simpson Reisner, the founding partner and president of The Out NYC, and asked what he thought of the place. "It's great, I think New York needs a new disco," he said. What an interesting choice of words. "Disco." It makes me think of Studio 54 and Donna Summer and the '70s. It's not new, it's not modern, but it can be fun.

Yes, XL, with its well-designed opulence, will surely be a lot of fun for a lot of people. All the Manhattan queens will drop by in the next six months or so to see the space, but they'll quickly get bored of it. Then it will play host to tourists and the bridge and tunnel crowd that has kept Splash open for the past 20 years in Chelsea (in fact, XL looks sort of like Splash's sexy younger brother). It's never going to be cool. It will be like going to M&M World, waiting in line for cupcakes at Magnolia, taking a carriage ride through Central Park. That is what XL is. Like so much else in New York, it is the past as amusement park. Like all those other things, it will probably make a shit ton of money, but it won't revolutionize gay nightlife.