Perhaps to many, this might seem a bit hyperbolic. To others, just another example of someone past their prime whining and bitching about how things aren’t what they used to be. For those that were there from the beginning, those that got into dance music before some idiot in a rat costume started making millions, the closing of Sullivan Room is the end of what made Manhattan what it was. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of fun and dancing to be had in this town; it’s just that it’s nothing more than just fun and dancing. There’s no more sense of meaning nor belongingness to it, you no longer feel like you’re part of anything special. While there are a number of great new clubs in Manhattan, with more on the way, the entire experience is different. Clubbing in Manhattan is just another commodity now, with Wall Street investors seeing EDM as the next big trend to make money on.
To those that haven’t been around long enough to understand why this is upsetting, let me explain it in terms of burritos. Chipotle runs a tight ship, with relatively good burritos, professional staff and an overall great customer experience. It’s hard not to enjoy Chipotle. Imagine that before one of their chain restaurants moved in to a new corner space, there was a locally run, hole in the wall Mexican place there. No one knew about it except people like you, that stumbled in one night and right away, felt at home because they instantly made the place theirs. What made you fall in love at first sight, made you feel like you’ve always been a regular is that the owner and the staff treated you like that from the first time you set foot inside.
Before long, you were there every weekend, bringing all your friends and making new ones while there. Eventually, it seemed as if every customer there knew everyone else. Like Cheers (yes, I know some of you are probably too young to even get that reference), this was a place where everyone knew your name. This was a place with a bunch of back rooms where you could sneak off to and do naughty things, this was a place where you didn’t get hassled and could just let go and have fun.
After over a decade of hanging out at your favorite place with your closest friends, you suddenly find out that it’s getting replaced with a Chipotle. Sure, their burritos are great. However, it’s just another Chipotle. There’s no sneaking off to a back room to do naughty things. Nobody at Chipotle knows your name. You no longer make plans to meet up with all of your friends at Chipotle on Friday night because it’s just another cookie-cutter chain restaurant with a cookie-cutter experience. While it’s perfectly good, it has no soul.
Enough about burritos though, if you can’t tell by this point, I’m writing this on an empty stomach. The reason why the closure of Sullivan Room is the nail in the proverbial coffin of Manhattan as it was is because it is the very last in a legacy of venues that represented a lifestyle that made Manhattan special. There was a rawness to this city, an energy that made every night you stepped out the door an adventure. You used to get butterflies in your stomach before a night out because you never knew what might happen. There was a certain grittiness to it that paradoxically, somehow managed to be glamorous at the same time. A large part of Manhattan was not unlike what is Flatbush in Brooklyn today, except better. It was young, it was diverse, it was dangerous, it was full of life.
Then, a bunch of old rich people started hearing about how there’s this hip, cool place where everything is damn cheap, great place to buy real estate. They move there and perhaps unwittingly, eventually try to forbid everything that made the place hip and cool and full of life, the very reason why they thought they’d enjoy living there in the first place. All they see is a bunch of people younger than them doing things they grew out of and most annoyingly, appearing to be enjoying their lives way more than them. Someone should do something about that! It might decrease the real estate value of the whole block, what with all those damn kids carousing at all hours of the night...Mayor Rudy Giuliani to the rescue, a guy so shortsighted that he placed the Office of Emergency Management inside the World Trade Center after the first it got attacked in 1993. Rudy didn’t realize how much revenue the club scene was bringing to Manhattan, with patrons traveling from outside every weekend, spending money at local restaurants, hotels and other businesses, never mind the money they brought in as tax revenue from the clubs themselves. He saw a short-term problem that needed to be dealt with in order to attract rich people to the city.
It’s not surprising Rudy waged a decidedly personal war against clubbing in Manhattan. This was a guy who hated fun and dancing so much that he helped shut down the legendary Studio 54, back in the day when he was looking to make a name for himself as a young prosecutor. A few decades later, shutting down clubs that were sensationally labeled as drug dens, on par with crack houses still made headlines. This guy was tough on crime! Voters love a guy who’s tough on crime.
Yet somehow, after all of the old clubs had already been shuttered, after even Limelight was turned into a mini-mall, Sullivan Room kept going. Despite its location in the heart of Greenwich Village, it was so underground that it flew beneath the radar for over a decade. When Bloomberg took over after Rudy, being a businessman, one can surmise that he chose to look the other way on NYC nightlife, perhaps realizing that it was a positive revenue stream into city coffers. Unfortunately by then, the wave of gentrification had...insert Sandy reference of choice here. Rents had been rising into the stratosphere as more and more rich people moved to Manhattan. Club owners increasingly tried to increase revenue by focusing their venues on bottle service. This, inevitably wound up alienating the music crowd, the loyal patrons who’d return every weekend to hear a quality DJ. Before long, the fairweather bottle crowd lost interest in each venue and moved on, with the venues closing one by one.
Sullivan Room outlasted the rest of the competition by sticking to its guns, by focusing on the music and the patrons, the regulars most of all. Neither Serge, the owner or A.K., the king of the door ever forgot a face. They remembered all those people that were there from the beginning, the DJ’s, the promoters and patrons that stuck it out with Sully over the years. Anyone who was a regular would get comped. You could tell from the get-go that the staff was there for all the right reasons, that money wasn’t the primary driver of how they did business. Serge, an accomplished DJ and producer in his own right took chances on people starting out in the industry. He gave people a chance to throw a party or DJ at Sully at a time when getting a gig wasn’t as simple as walking into a place and telling the owner you have a thousand Facebook friends.
The first few years were indeed a bit rough for Sullivan Room. It was mostly a locals place, with DJs from the area spinning to a gaggle of their friends. Since this was before social media, not counting a few message boards like mine, promoting an event was tough business. This was back when people actually printed flyers and placed them on car windshields near other clubs and handed them out by hand to people in the street.
I threw my first Groovanauts.com party at Sully back in 2004, with Steve Porter and Eli Wilkie headlining. By 2005, I was throwing two parties per month there. I think I was probably either the first or maybe second guy who actually started booking talent from outside the US at Sullivan Room. That year, I lost my shirt. Unfortunately for me, back then, most clubbers in the States only knew the big DJ names and weren’t as aware of the smaller names who actually produced the bombs that the big guys dropped at the mega-clubs. Still, having a bunch of good relationships in the industry, I was able to coax a bunch of DJ’s who were big in Europe, despite being unknown here, to spin my parties at Sully. Some of these guys previously balked at the notion of spinning in the US for far bigger industry people than me. I was just some clubber who decided to start throwing parties so that his local DJ friends would have a place to spin.
By the end of the year, the music industry noticed the talent that was suddenly going to this small, hole in the wall club in Greenwich Village. Sullivan Room was nominated for the Nightstalker award at Club World Awards and actually won. I don’t mean to imply that Sully won the awards because of me, far from it. I was simply one of the many who put their heart and soul into the place, taking huge financial risks on bringing quality music to NYC back when few people were stepping up to the plate and a return on investment was far from a guarantee. Eventually, Sully became more and more popular both with DJs and clubbers, making throwing parties there easier. It kept winning award after award.
As years passed, as Sullivan Room kept bucking the trend by becoming more and more successful with every year Serge and the rest of the staff never forgot their roots. They never forgot the people who were there at the beginning, the people who helped build the foundation, not just the industry people, but the patrons as well, the regulars. In a city where it’s what have you done for me lately, this was one hell of a rarity. It gave everyone the sense that the club belonged to all of them as well, that we were all part-owners in some small way. Sullivan Room was an extension of our homes.
When Sullivan Room didn’t get its lease renewed after over a decade, it was unceremoniously forced to shut its doors. Their landlord decided there was more money to be made by cashing in on the gentrification. This was the last dying breath of what was once Manhattan’s underground club culture. Sullivan Room was the last link to that storied past, a place where celebs actually went to let loose and not get recognized, a place where just about anything went in one of the many secret back rooms. Sure, Brooklyn has plenty of great venues and parties. In fact, bucking the trend amongst older clubbers like myself, I’ll be the first to say that music-wise, the scene is way better than it was in the 90’s, with more options and a broader range of talent spinning every weekend. However, there’s nothing special about it anymore. It’s just going out with friends, dancing and having fun. No one truly feels like they belong to some secret society, that they’re in on some private joke that no one else is, that they’re part of an extended family. Nowadays in Manhattan, a burrito is just a burrito.