Monday, March 02, 2015

The Death of Chelsea's 8th Avenue

UPDATE: Read The Heyday of Chelsea's 8th Avenue HERE and The Death of Chelsea's 8th Avenue Part II HERE.

On Nov. 13, 1994, David Dunlap wrote in The New York Times
Gay Chelsea's role has solidified with the arrival of A Different Light bookstore, a cultural cornerstone that had been housed for a decade in an 800-square-foot nook at 548 Hudson Street, near Perry Street. It now takes up more than 5,000 square feet at 151 West 19th Street and its migration seems to embody a northward shift of gay life from Greenwich Village.  
Eighth Avenue, meanwhile, has supplanted Christopher Street in some people's minds as the main gay thoroughfare in New York. A map published this summer for gay and lesbian visitors highlighted 17 businesses on the five blocks of the avenue between 16th and 21st Streets.  
"The epicenter of gay life is at 18th and Eighth," said Pat Rogers, one of the proprietors of Food Bar, just south of 18th Street at 149 Eighth Avenue. This lively spot is the gay-oriented successor to a restaurant called Rogers & Barbero, which Mr. Rogers and Bob Barbero opened in 1983.
No longer is the epicenter of gay life at 18th and Eighth. Now I'll bet you're thinking this is another one of my posts bitching about all the Chase banks, Duane Reades and nail salons moving into the neighborhood. But it's really not. Some 20 years later -- 17 of which I have lived smack dab in the middle of it all -- I understand the migration of gay life to Hell's Kitchen. First the fabulous gays spruced up the gritty Village and the young gays fled to Chelsea. Then the fabulous gays spruced up working-class Chelsea and the young boys fled to HK. I get it. But now that I have to travel uptown to get my assless chaps and cutaway undies, what remains unclear to me is this: If the outrageous rent hikes drove out all the mom-and-pop hardware stores, coffee joints, funky card (Roger and Dave) and home furnishings shops (Eclectic Home) and bookstores -- and some chains have bombed in the 'hood that once thrived on one-of-a-kind stores -- what type of business can survive here? So far, everything that's attempted to move in has gone under, including two sushi restaurants, a tea/coffeehouse and a pizza parlor. Last week I took a stroll up Eighth Avenue from 14th to 23rd streets, and I counted a shocking 16 empty storefronts. Sixteen empty storefronts where Chelsea Boys once strutted their stuff at everything from the Big Cup, Bright Food Shop and Bendix Diner to 18th & Eighth. Rawhide, and the Break. 

Here's what I found:

Roy's Pizza: This is the former home of my local newsstand -- 18th Street Magazines -- but I was OK with a mom-and-pop pizza joint. It didn't last. 

Boom Sushi: This opened and closed in less than a year. It's the former home of Paradise Cafe, which threw in the towel when the landlord doubled the rent.

Cola's: The intimate and always reliable Italian joint closed at the end of 2014. Word is an all-breakfast sandwich place is moving in, but for how long?

Teaffee: I had never even been in this coffee-tea joint before the owner decided it just didn't make financial sense to stay in business.

What made him think it would work is anyone's guess -- Chelsea Roasting Company and UR Cup were the two previous occupants and neither worked -- but its closing quickly reduced the area down to two Starbucks and not much more.

Rainbows & Triangles: Funny to read about the arrival of A Different Light in Chelsea -- long since shuttered -- and now realize we don't even have the books section at this card store, let alone the big Barnes & Noble on Sixth Avenue. With both Rainbows & Triangles and Universal Gear (now a Just Salad) gone, the Starting Line and Efor are the avenue's only remaining "gay" retailers.

Camouflage: The men's clothing store was a fixture in Chelsea for 38 years -- once occupying two storefronts -- before closing in 2014. The second shop is now a Subway sandwich franchise -- one if THREE in a few-block radius -- and the corner store remains vacant.

TomYum: Although it's hard to keep track of all of these restaurants, pretty sure this was the home of Cuba Libre back when I moved here in the 1990s. When the partners separated, I think it was rechristened Cuba Cafe. That lasted for a long time, but once it closed, it's never been the same. First it became a sushi place. And when that didn't work, it became -- like most other things on Eighth Avenue anymore -- a Thai restaurant, which has never caught on.

Tello's: This was the former seafood restaurant Mare -- which was a cute bakery when I moved here -- before the Italian place Tello's around the corner moved in. They claimed they were only closing for renovations, but clearly it's never coming back. 

Ditto for Trois Canards, where Tello's used to be housed.

This shop on the corner of 15th and 8th was a long-running bodega, which along with the pizza shop next door (below), recently closed. 

Ironically, it was the nearby Muscle Maker Grill that had its storefront literally ripped off it in Hurricane Sandy -- since relocated to Seventh Avenue -- yet neither of these businesses were able to hang on.

Niso's: This corner Greek restaurant used to be Sam Chinita Cuban-Chinese, but has been vacant for years. There's a rumor that a Chinese restaurant is moving in, but that remains to be seen.

Rainbow Station: This sex shop has had its window bashed in repeatedly by rough trade hookers out front, but that's not what got them to close. A rent hike put the nail in the coffin, although they were able to open again a couple doors down.

Rawhide: Just across the avenue is the former home of Chelsea's oldest gay bar, rumored to be reopening soon as a "high end" lingerie shop, whatever that means.

The real estate firm MNS came and went from this spot.

This used to be the second home of Blockbuster Video. I don't remember when it closed, but I do remember thinking this clever -- but straight -- ad for the new tenant did not bode well for the neighborhood when they moved in.

Walgreens: This specialty pharmacy moved into the place GNC just moved out of, but a prescription for the greed that Bloomberg's New York has infected Eighth Avenue with remains elusive.

UPDATE: The following 8th Avenue businesses have gone under since this post originally went up:

A fork has been stuck in the Venus diner, which was rebranded The Fork Bar & Grill.

Koffeecake Cafe, which got off to a rocky start as some sort of local chocolate-themed joint, has already gone under.

UPDATE (07/08/15): Mary Ann's has closed, saying it will relocate to 20th and 2nd. It has NOT relocated anywhere.

UPDATE (02/04/16): Pounds & Ounces (former home of the Viceroy) closed, but appears to be reopening as Studio Kraut. 

Meanwhile, Banana Republic and the corner Citibank ATM are both gone, too.

UPDATE (03/15/16): Montmartre, which was Gascogne for ages before then, is gone.

UPDATE: (10/19/21): I haven't updated this post in a while because the heyday of 8th Avenue has long since passed. But I felt I would be remiss to not mention the closing of The Dish, once the heart of the gayborhood where throngs of hungover boys went for a cruisy breakfast the day after a night out at Splash, G and the Roxy. Truly the end of an era.


  1. I live in a whole 'nuther world -- a Midwest tourist trap town --, but the situation is similar in a way. The landlords keep increasing the rents for stores/businesses downtown, although there is usually no discernible increase in the owners' expenses to justify it. The idea seems to be to get all the money you can. As a result, shops last a year or two and fold. Another shop, often very much like the former, moves in and survives a couple of years until their rent is increased. Then they fold up their tents and move on. One sad result is that our downtown area looks so crummy that better businesses no longer even consider moving in. The only people who will rent space are basically fly-by-night vendors of cheap trash who only plan to stay a season or two, get rid of their stock and leave. Ironically (or karmically) these folks frequently leave the landlords holding the bag for two or three months' unpaid rent. Which makes the landlords increase the rent on the next folks, who cannot make a profit with such high rents and so default when they move out ...
    Shortsideness is the name of the game.

  2. Anonymous10:49 AM

    DC's Dupont Ciricle is a smaller version of what you are seeing, a well played out story. Dupont now seems to come and go every few years, but nothing sticks. Sad to know what it once was and see the evolution of the gay community into some else ... just not sure what that is beyond online hook-up sites.

  3. Anonymous12:25 PM

    Great article, Kenneth. I guess Universal Gear is holding on. And that tacky looking Thai place that used to be The View that used to be The Break. Remember that very weird holistic/crystal store that I think was next door to that space? Any idea how they stayed open as long as they did? I didn't seem like anyone ever bought anything there.

  4. Sadly, my understanding is that property owners get huge tax breaks with empty store fronts. $$$!!!

    Just seeing the word Bendix makes me crave French Toast!!

  5. @emPower: Universal Gear is now a Just Salad!

  6. Anonymous2:57 PM

    This pictorial really tells the story, as anticipated. It was worth snapping all those shots in single-digit wind chill after all!

  7. Anonymous4:45 PM

    You don't even see any gays on the avenue anymore. Now its Canada Goose twats in yoga pants pushing strollers with no clue how vibrant those blocks used to be. Sad.

    1. That's the way I feel about the West Village, which was vibrantly gay in my youth. It's now an enclave of hetero young marrieds with 2.5 children.

  8. Anonymous5:22 PM

    New York is a LIBERAL STATE.. so why haven't those "for the people" Liberals CHANGED those evil tax laws??

  9. Robert6:42 PM

    Looks a lot like the castro c 2000 when I left. The rents were SO high, only Cliff’s and a few other stores remained. Walgreen’s expanded as did banks and other corporate interests. I think the idea of the gayborhod is dead.


  10. WHile I agree it is a big loss, I would argue with 18th & 8th "was the epicenter", and add 'For Some'. I think part of what destroys enclaves, in addition to the Giuliani terror campaign and ridiculous rents (which go to people who merely inherited, live upstate and vote republican) is the notion that any certain place is 'THE' place. Life and scenes were teeming in plenty of other areas of the city, which weren't as elitist or let's say, homogenized.

    IMHO, the abandonment of the West Village for the 'NEW' was just as ruthless and ill considered, as what has occurred now with the rush to HEll Kitchen or wherever else. And a lot of the Chelsea phase was reliant on fickle retail - and retailers. Commerce alone does not sustain a real community.

    A lesson might be taken from Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London', on the London side...what do you do with a group you don't want to have any real power or root? Keep them moving.

    1. Yeah, really. As I read the beginning of this excellent piece, I couldn't help but ask myself, "When will my gay brothers reach Harlem, in their ever-northward peregrination?"

  11. Anonymous10:59 AM

    Thanks for this terrific review of the rising and falling tides in Chelsea. My first apt in NYC was in Chelsea (1978), so i got to see both the gentrification of the neighborhood [conversion of the old shuttered Elgin movie theater to the Joyce, the arrival of Rawhide ("just another dark bar" as a fellow member of Chelsea Gay Association put it to the rest of us who had not yet been there; etc, etc] and now the boring-fication of the same neighborhood...and the city as a whole. First lesson to be learned: you can't just open a business - straight or gay - in the city anymore and feel safe. You have to buy the whole building, in order to have any control over your destiny.

  12. I moved to chelsea in the fall of 1967 when I was 19 lived with roommates on 19th street across from the elgin which is now the joyce. I could cry salty tears over the changes that I've seen. I then lived for 31 years on 27th st. again I could cry salty tears over the ruination of this once great area of the city. I remember when 8th ave was gritty with mom and pop stores left and right. A shame.

  13. I shot this a year ago:

  14. The gayborhood is dead. Long live the gayborhood

  15. Anonymous8:58 AM

    Very inspirational piece. Inspired us here to write a companion. Cheers to you, and to The Old Chelsea Yore:

  16. Bitter Queen1:22 PM

    The Rawhide has been a dump since the mid-90's will not be missed.
    Mare had terrible food as did Tello's, Cola's was indifferent. The new places on 9th and 10th are much nicer
    8th Avenue has always been trashy and smelly the only real loss is the rainbows and triangles book store, the rest good riddance.

  17. Raymond3:45 PM

    ...and yet the rents keep getting higher and higher and higher...

  18. Kenneth, I too miss A Different Light. They had lovely and important books that taught me a great deal. As a matter of fact, an adventure there one night has inspired a poem of mine, which has just been published in issue 8 of "Glitterwolf".

    Here are some beginning lines, if anyone is curious:

    A Different Light
    In Chelsea once did shine
    And there one night
    I took a boy of mine,
    On Seventeenth,
    Just two blocks east of Nine

    “Let’s go buy books”
    Was all I said to him.
    Why make detail?
    He was only fifteen
    And literature
    Was not his interest keen

    When in we stepped
    All eyes his way did turn
    As if announced
    The Messiah’s return.
    Pierced by stares
    Bright red his cheeks did burn!

    I did not see
    John bolting out the door.
    I only knew
    Gone was he from the store.
    In the cold street
    He trembled, plenty sore.

    To make amends
    I feigned total surprise.
    And swore to him
    I did not realize
    So many men
    Found beauty in his eyes

    Marvel you not,
    The gays are human too.
    Shunning young friends
    For fear of big to-do,
    They shave all over
    And then have to make do.

    I told John not
    His looks I meant to flaunt.
    Out of vain pride
    Those men I meant to taunt
    And show by fact
    What words could never vaunt. . .

    This is quite a long poem, these are just a few verses from the introduction.

    Andrew Calimach


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