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100 Years of New York Nightlife: Looking at the Legacy of '90s Club Kids

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In our October 'Nowstalgia' issue we're taking a look at 100 Years of New York Nightlife, tracing after-hours trends to their beginnings and analyzing the ways our nocturnal habits of the past continue to influence our habits of the present. We've already kicked things off with the Roaring '20s, the exclusive Post-War era, the glittery, disco-tinged 1970s and the mega-clubs, mixed crowds and "celebutantes" of the '80s. Today we're on to the '90s, a decade filled with club kids, drugs, murder and...bottle service. Check back for future decades each day.

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A club kid in the bathroom at The Tunnel

Andy Warhol had died, the Internet was rising as the prevalent means of communication and Mayor Rudy Giuliani was cracking down on NYC clubs, but nightlife kept rocking, since it always fights back under oppression, coming back strong whenever it's pushed down by fun-haters.

Limelight -- the church-turned-disco, complete with stained-glass windows, a chapel and some holy messes -- finally hit its stride with an army of Special K-zonked club kids parading around in search of hedonistic thrills on a nightly basis. Club kids Larry Tee and Lahoma MC'd Michael Alig's weekly Disco 2000 event there, where you checked your good taste at the door and enjoyed an Unnatural Acts revue that would never be ready for prime time. (It was hard to top the gentleman known simply as Sebastian when he imbibed his own urine -- only to top himself when, on a later night, he went for #2.) The mood was very community theater-meets-Weimar Republic in an arrested-development sandbox.

At the large ex-roller rink the Roxy, promoters Lee Chappell and David Leigh brought in a feisty drag and clubby crowd, and then promoter John Blair came in to fill the place with other big-breasted creatures -- shirtless gays on party drugs, thump-thumping to their favorite atonal hits till the lights came up. DJs were deities at this point, with Junior Vasquez being their king, but there were variations on that. "I'm Too Sexy" topped the hit parade, along with songs by Deee-Lite and RuPaul, and retro goodies by Stacey Q.

90snightlife2.jpgMichael Alig, Richie Rich, Nina Hagen, Sophia Lamar,  and a friend at The Tunnel, New Year's Eve, 1993.

Longtime party empress Susanne Bartsch kept throwing her bashes at elaborate places like Copacabana, creating a veritable conga line of fabulosity that ran counter to all the icky stuff happening in the city. Giuliani was busy making the city safe for tourists and rich co-op owners, which he decided required a crackdown on clubs.  Amid this conservative backlash, the rise of Bartsch's crowd and the club kids was inspiring -- until the latter scene spiraled and Alig and his roommate Freeze were busted for murdering drug dealer Angel Melendez in 1996. This horror -- the result of amorality, drugs and the utter lack of boundaries -- unfortunately fed right into the crackdown and convinced everyone that nightlife was something to be embarrassed by rather than celebrated.

And a blander, more button-down, little-black-dress-filled brand of nightlife continued to rise in lounges all over town, where busty servers brought you vodka and the trimmings for the cost of a mortgage. Toward the end of the decade, the Meatpacking District started transforming en route to its role as a sort of bottle-service theme park for those with credit cards but not necessarily any aesthetic imagination. But in that very same neighborhood, Jackie 60 flourished (1990-99) as a fetishy, reference-laden emporium for those who longed for -- and got -- an experience.

Nineties nightlife tenets still live in today's love of DJs, appreciation for kitschy retro music and celebration of flamboyance in the face of austerity. And the club-kid aesthetic still infuses the scene, as you spot young people who've come from all over the country and tapped into their inner superstar via homemade chic and pure spunk. But today's club kids have jobs and ethics, and generally live in Brooklyn, which is a little more affordable than Manhattan. Rather than running around killing people, they're just running after their check for having promoted that night, then racing home so they can wake up and drink Juice Press concoctions and go to the gym. Long may they reign.

Photos by Steve Eichner


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