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No sleep 'til Brooklyn
Gays are heading across the East River - and it's not just for cheaper rent

Berliniamsburg
The cool kids pack in to the Berliniamsburg party at Luxx, one of the centers of Brooklyn's new gay nightlife. (Photo by Conrad Ventur)

By BILL ROUNDY

For urban dwellers who can't be quite as urban as they want, Brooklyn has long been the second choice – not quite the city, but just a short trip on the train to where you really want to be. But that's becoming less and less true, as Brooklynites sick of schlepping downtown to find their entertainment create their own fun, and now it's Manhattan dwellers who are making the commute to check out the fun stuff on the other side of the river.

"I always thought going to Brooklyn meant that you were a flop – that you'd failed. But it's not true anymore," observes DJ and promoter Larry Tee, from his loft in Williamsburg. "I love it out here. It's really got a neighborhood vibe. The East Village used to have that, but it just kind of evaporated."

That different vibe is the primary appeal in Brooklyn – and locals can be fiercely partisan about the merits of their borough. Those high-strung Manhattan types always have an agenda, they'll tell you, while in Brooklyn people are more relaxed, less obsessed with their careers, and even better-looking.

"The scene is so over in Manhattan, especially for women," laments Alina Wilczynski, nursing a beer at barbelow, a Carroll Gardens bar that hosts a monthly gay night. "In Brooklyn, people are more laid back and more real."

"People talk to each other here. In Manhattan I don't feel they do," says Gregg Guinta, host of the Brooklyn party "Star Gossip." "I feel like it's more friendly – maybe it's just Brooklyn."

Hand-in-hand with that laid-back attitude is an acceptance of different body types. Those who don't go to the gym on a regular basis (or ever) can feel distinctly unwelcome walking into the Big Cup in Chelsea. That's not a worry in Brooklyn.

"There's not much attitude," says Tee. "[The Brooklyn crowd] doesn't seem to have the body politics. Not as well-oiled, worked out. We have a couple more ectomorphs – the skinny guys."

But the most striking difference between Brooklyn and Manhattan gay bars is that gay men and lesbians in the outer borough easily share the same spaces. Though most bars predominate toward one gender, there's almost never a sense that the other is unwelcome – even the Wednesday party for women at Luxx is billed as being "for girls (and their friends)."

"I think women help gay bars," says Guinta. "I hate Splash, or any places that puts up signs 'No girls allowed.' We get a few girls in there, they start dancing with the guys, and then the guys start dancing together."

"In [Manhattan] everything is kind of segregated," notes Tee. "We have a really strong lesbian crowd. Our doorgirl is a lesbian. Two of our bartenders are lesbians. A lot of the new generation of lesbians are serious party girls. It's really refreshing to see."

Even in a space where the focus is on sex, gay men and lesbians mix. At the Park Slope party SPAM (Sadists, Punks, and Masochists), which bills itself as "a play party for the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community" representatives of all those groups check their clothes at the door (except for underclothes and shoes – the floor is sticky) and play in combinations that defy sexual orientation labels.

The hot spot

Williamsburg is the white-hot center of Brooklyn's nightlife, where all the cool kids are going, and the party "Berliniamsburg" at Luxx is at its heart. Testing the "Brooklyn is the new Manhattan" phenomenon on a recent Saturday midnight, I stake out the popular Chelsea lounge XL, where men breeze easily inside. An hour later in Williamsburg, in contrast, a line of men and women stretches down the block from the doors at Luxx.

Inside, it's a sea of skinny boys in thrift-store castoff clothes, many working the geek-chic look, dancing to electroclash music and cheering for the band WIT, along with a substantial share of punk-rock grrls, fag hags, and some muscular men who have almost surely been imported from Manhattan. The mid-size club is dark, with golden bars separating the tables and chairs from the dance area, although the effect seems to demand a cage-dancer.

But despite the enthusiastic endorsements from patrons, Williamsburg's ultra-hipness can bring eye-rolling from others around the borough, who dismiss the crowds with comments like "I don't think they get laid much – they're so busy trying to look cool."

Just five blocks away, a patron at The Abbey grouses about the Luxx crowd "It's already too much of a scene." A low-key bar with a vaguely Gothic touches, like the iron bars around the candleholders, The Abbey is a good place to hang out and grab a beer ($3 for a pint of Brooklyn Lager!), maybe play some pool in the booth-lined second room. It's always gay- and lesbian-friendly, but The Abbey really begins to fill up with goateed gay men on Sunday nights, when the party keeps going late, and to get inside you have to run a gauntlet of young men by the door exchanging phone numbers.

Sunday night is also the gay night at Williamsburg's Stinger Club (don't any of these people have jobs?). The crowd, again a mix of gay men, straight folks, and lesbians, drinks heavily and grooves to the DJs, who spin Le Tigre and electro funk. Under its red light bulbs, the Stinger Club also encourages decadence with a sign reading "Get Naked – Free Shot; Get Fucked – Free Bottle." The bartender reveals that she's never personally given out a bottle, "but it has happened."

Hanging out

It's not hot and sexy, but if there's any neighborhood that embodies Brooklyn's reputation for being friendly, it's Park Slope, home of the food co-op, the Rising Café, and an established gay community.

Will, a singer sipping a beer at Excelsior, sums up the relaxed attitude of the local bars by saying, "If I want to sit down and have a drink, I come here or to Ginger's. If I want to dance or whatever, I go to Manhattan."

"A lot of the guys, we come here to hang out," he continues. "We live in the neighborhood. This is not the place that you're going to go to pick up someone – although that does happen."

The bartender at Excelsior, Jack Denelsbeck, seems to know every patron by name. A low-key one-room bar with red walls and an eclectic jukebox (including "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"), the bar has been attracting a lively crowd of mostly gay men for about three years. A patio out back that encourages hanging out in nice weather – alas, the patio closes at midnight, but the bar stays open until 4 a.m.

Just a block away, though, is Ginger's Bar, predominantly for the ladies, though they also welcome gay men. An elegant space, also with red-painted walls (is this a theme?) jam-packed with old photos and mirrors, Ginger's features a true variety of locals, ranging from a pair of butch women in track suits making out at the bar to slim women playing pool in the back room to a pair of gay men chatting with Perry, the bartender. Like Excelsior, Ginger's also has a patio in the back, and at either bar it's easy to start up a conversation with locals who'll talk up the neighborhood's attributes.

FOR MORE INFO
WILLIAMSBURG

Luxx
"Mutants" Friday, "Berlinamsburg" Saturday,
"XXY" girls' night Wednesday
Cover charge varies
256 Grand St.
212-599-1000

The Abbey
536 Driggs Ave.
718-599-4400

Stinger Club
241 Grand St.
718-218-6662

PARK SLOPE

Excelsior
390 Fifth Ave.
718-832-1599

Ginger's Bar
363 Fifth Ave.
718-788-0924

BOCOCA

Star Gossip
Thursday nights at Kili
81 Hoyt St. (at Atlantic Ave.)
718-855-5574

Steam
Last Wednesdays at barbelow
209 Smith St. (at Baltic St.)
718-694-2277

The next spot?

So what's the next neighborhood to rise? Perhaps the area around Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens – which some are trying to promote as "BoCoCa." (No, I'm not making that up. Check out www.bococa.com.) The area along Smith Street is Brooklyn's Restaurant Row, with more venues springing up every day, and its been on the hipster map for some time because of the gay-friendly record-stor/coffee shop/lounge Halcyon. Now the street has its own specifically gay night, Steam, held at barbelow on the last Wednesday of every month. A slick basement space designed to look like a Russian steam bath, the club features a white tile bar that flows into a multi-level seating area, scattered with white pillows. The back room, in contrast, is a minimalist space filled with inflatable furniture, with white sheets not-entirely hiding the grungy concrete walls. A mixed crowd of gay men, lesbians, and local straights of both genders lounges in the space – none of whom seem to be more than two degrees of separation from DJ Patrick K, spinning out cool Euro-tunes with a sprinkling of Madonna. For those who want to be distracted, a TV above the bar shows the Cartoon Network.

"It's a beautiful space, and I want to fill it with beautiful people," says promoter Gabor, who goes by only one name. "We tried to do it weekly in January, but a monthly party worked better. It's more exclusive."

The secret's already out about Star Gossip, a weekly event at Kili, a bar just off Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill. Set up like a ski lodge, complete with fireplace, the dark-wood space packs gay people in every Thursday night to peruse tabloids and share stories of their sordid encounters with celebrities. Hosted by Gregg Guinta, aka Vinny Dazzle of the Dazzle Dancers, the party has been attracting locals as well as Manhattanites. The vibe can sometimes be a little cliquey, but it loosens up as the night goes on, and around three in the morning patrons have been known to start dancing along the bartop.

"People keep coming out of the woodwork," says Guinta. "They keep saying it's so great to have a gay bar here, because they don't want to go to Manhattan on a Thursday night."

And with laid-back folks, plenty of local options, and a scene that adds new parties and clubs on a seemingly weekly basis, some Brooklyn residents are deciding they don't want to go to Manhattan on Friday or Saturday nights, either. Viva Brooklyn!

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This article appeared in the issue of:
May 3, 2002