New York’s Gay Bars Fear They Won’t Survive the Pandemic
New York’s Gay Bars Fear They Won’t Survive the Pandemic
Protesters have returned to the Stonewall Inn again and again in recent weeks to demand an end to police brutality, raising their fists, taking a knee and holding moments of silence on the same ground where a riot in 1969 helped sparked the modern gay rights movement.
But public health restrictions have kept the Greenwich Village bar — which its owners describe as a watering hole, community center and “gay church” — closed since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. The lights are out, the doors are locked and the metaphorical pews are empty. But the bills — rent, insurance, utilities and more — keep piling up.
“If Stonewall, the most iconic L.G.B.T.Q. bar in the world, is facing an uncertain future, then think about everybody else,” said Stacy Lentz, who co-owns the bar and runs its philanthropic arm, the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative. “It is just horrific. Stonewall is one of our original safe spaces.”
Gay bars in New York City face the same challenges as other bars and restaurants shuttered in recent months — high rents, thin profit margins, and now little-to no-income — but for L.G.B.T.Q. establishments, the shutdown has been more than a business dilemma. It has struck at the heart of a community whose culture and history are passed down through generations of people who are not blood-related, and who depend on spaces like bars both to find safety and to meet their peers.
Gay culture and activism have long been woven into the fabric of New York City life, making it a magnet for people across the country and around the world, from the “fairy resorts” on the Bowery in the 1890s to the West Side piers in the 1980s.
The financial pain is particularly acute during June, which is Pride Month, often the most lucrative time of year for L.G.B.T.Q. establishments. Millions of people attended Pride events in New York last year, including the parade, which passed the Stonewall Inn.
“We had hundreds of thousands of people inside and outside our door last year,” Ms. Lentz said. “A good number of them were lined up to get into our bar, and now that’s just not happening.”
The Stonewall Inn and its environs have been designated a city landmark, a state historical site and a national monument. Its owners say it will not reopen until the risk of large gatherings has passed. That could be a long time.
“The bar could theoretically close and ‘Stonewall’ would just be a name on a plaque on the wall,” Ms. Lentz said. She said the bar had asked corporations that sponsor the Pride March or sell rainbow merchandise each June to “put your money where your mouth is and help us preserve this legacy.”
The bar was set to begin selling to-go cocktails on Friday, but that is unlikely to cover its bills, Ms. Lentz said. As of Friday, it had raised nearly $16,000 on GoFundMe to support its staff.
“For most small businesses and L.G.B.T.Q. bars in New York, because the rent is so high, our margins are razor thin,” she said. “One or two months of no income — we don’t have a ton of cash in reserve. None of that exists.”
Similar pressure is being felt at L.G.B.T.Q. establishments across the city. Some have tried to keep their heads above water by selling to-go cocktails, turning to digital fund-raising or holding online events to keep the spirit of their establishments alive. And most have laid off or furloughed their employees.
Alibi Lounge, which opened in 2016 and describes itself as the first and only black-owned L.G.B.T.Q. bar in Harlem, has done all of that. It has raised more than $105,000 on GoFundMe, but the return on its drink sales “is not anything like what it used to be,” said Alexi Minko, its owner. “One night we made $10.”
“If Alibi closes its doors, I am afraid it will send the message to other black men and women that people of color who open an L.G.B.T. business in New York are doomed to fail,” added Mr. Minko, who kept one employee, paid from his personal savings, on staff to help with drink sales.
The bar has also attracted a growing number of straight patrons who began going there as a show of support after rainbow flags in front of the bar were burned in two separate incidents last year, Mr. Minko said. But he describes the bar as primarily an L.G.B.T.Q. community space, and he worries about the impact of the shutdown on patrons who had found a sense of belonging there.
“As gay people, we don’t have a community like straight families have — they’re married, they have children, and then those children have friends and those friends have parents, and that all creates a sense of community,” Mr. Minko said. “Our sense of community is going out. If I don’t go to a gay club or L.G.B.T. establishment, who will I talk to? How will I meet people who understand me as if we were family?”
Maintaining a sense of community during the pandemic has been keenly important to lesbian bars, whose numbers across the country have sharply dropped in recent years to little more than a dozen. Before the shutdown, only a handful remained in New York City.
Henrietta Hudson, a West Village bar that opened in 1991, has put on free Zoom events to cheer up its regulars, including DJ nights from Thursday to Sunday, its owner, Lisa Cannistraci, said.
“We want people to know we are still here and we still have their backs,” she said.
Ms. Cannistraci describes the establishment as “a lesbian-centric queer human bar,” and says that she thinks it has survived because it welcomes people of any sexuality or gender identity.
“We are a reflection of the queer community as a whole,” she said. “Whatever it takes, I will reopen this bar.”
But Henrietta Hudson may not reopen until next spring, she said. In the meantime, she has been busy working to keep it afloat. That has included renegotiating the rent, talking about the bar’s challenges to L.G.B.T.Q. media organizations and raising money from supporters, including more than $32,000 on GoFundMe. She said there had been “an outpouring of support.”
“It’s different for queer people, because all we have is each other,” Ms. Cannistraci said. “Like, I got an email from a stripper who I have never even met: ‘Listen, I am going to do a strip show and donate everything to Henrietta’s.’ It’s incredible.”
The question of when to reopen is a complex one for many gay bars, which often house stages, dance floors and areas where groups — sometimes as large as a wedding reception — can meet.
Eric Sosa, the owner of C’mon Everybody, a club in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, said his establishment would not reopen for months because dance parties, live music and other types of performance were key to its business model.
“We really want to be safe and that kind of means being one of the last spaces to open,” Mr. Sosa said. The club, whose rent of $9,500 per month has gone unpaid since April, has raised more than $20,000 on GoFundMe.
But a new bar he is opening in Park Slope, Brooklyn — its planned April start date was delayed by the pandemic — will likely open next month because it is a smaller space.
“People are really excited to go out, even if it’s in a limited capacity or it’s a little more restricted,” he said. “I think people are sort of yearning for their spaces and their community again.”
These community spaces may remain imperiled for years, though, because of the continuing threat of the coronavirus.
Brenda Breathnach, who owns the Phoenix in the East Village and 3 Dollar Bill in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, said she expected both establishments to open in July.
She renegotiated the rent for her Manhattan bar down from $19,500 to $12,000, but the monthly bills for the Brooklyn club are usually $40,000.
She said she was eager to get back on firm financial footing, but also “afraid of what is to come.”
“Everyone is in the same boat,” she said. “One person can destroy all of this again. One person going out with the virus who gives it to 10 people, and then those 10 people give it to another 10 people.”