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WSJ Article - It's the End of Chelsea

WSJ Article - It's the End of Chelsea


'It's the End of Chelsea'

March 29, 2013 9:19 p.m. ET

The owner of the Rawhide said he plans to open the bar elsewhere in Manhattan later this year. Cassandra Giraldo for The Wall Street Journal

When the Rawhide bar opened in Chelsea in 1979, it was, for some, an intimidating presence. Dark and foreboding, it attracted a gay clientele with a fondness for leather and motorcycles.

As Chelsea changed, the Rawhide has stayed the same. Its customers grew more mainstream and its neighbors more accepting.

But the bar held on to a gritty vibe that stubbornly recalled a different era, even as luxury high-rises sprung up around it and more families pushed strollers past its doors. The most distinctive feature of the Rawhide's black awning: the "e" in its name stretched into a string of barbed wire.

On Saturday, the bar, which sits at the corner of Eighth Avenue and West 21st Street, will close its doors. It plans to mark the moment with one final party.

"It's the end of Chelsea as we know it," longtime patron Andrew Loren Resto said in the dimly-lit, wood-paneled space this week, the bar's signature motorcycle hanging from the ceiling behind him. "It was just the last little bit of edge out here. And now it's going to be gone."

Owner Jason Gudgeon said he couldn't come to an agreement with the landlord, who declined to comment. He said he plans to reopen the bar elsewhere in Manhattan later this year.

"Chelsea isn't the gay scene it once was," Mr. Gudgeon said. "This bar was always a throwback to the gay bars of the 1970s, where it was dark, it was dangerous. When you set foot in it, you were an outlaw. Now the Rawhide is an outlier in the neighborhood. It doesn't fit in anymore."

The Rawhide helped usher in Chelsea's arrival as one of the city's most vibrant gay enclaves. Jon Knowles, 69 years old, said he first started going to the bar in the early days of the AIDS crisis. "All day we were working with people who were dying and desperate," he said. "This bar was very affirming. It was the one place in New York where it didn't feel like the world was coming to an end."

Many of Chelsea's shops display rainbow stickers, and stores including bakeries and lingerie shops market themselves to a gay clientele. But many say the soul of the city's gay scene, years ago centered in the West Village, has moved further northward again, this time to Hell's Kitchen.

"It's a trend, for sure," said Sam DeFranceschi, a real-estate broker who has worked in Chelsea for years. "I'm getting customers who used to be attached to Chelsea and are starting to consider living farther uptown, which in turn is making that area more interesting," he said.

Stephen Hoban, an editor who lives around the corner from the Rawhide with his wife and young son, said he was disappointed to hear about its closing. "Oh no! That's too bad!" he said, pushing his son down West 21st Street. "It's getting boring," the 36-year-old said. "I mean, they just opened a 7-11 down the block."

Some gay men interviewed in Chelsea said the Rawhide's heyday had come and gone. "It was edgy once, but it's outlived its time," said Arthur Brantley, 46, who has lived in Chelsea for more than two decades.

But even those who don't frequent the bar said it helped bolster the unique character of a neighborhood that has grown more affluent and mainstream, and has come to include high-end residential development and upscale amenities such as the High Line and Chelsea Market.

"It was an institution," said Michael Flaherty, an architect who lives in Chelsea. "Now it'll be another nail salon or yogurt place," he said. "We're supposed to be New York, and now we're becoming just like any other place in America."

In the eyes of some, though, the changes in the city's gay scene are, in a way, a sign of progress.

"We have assimilated. We do not need the safety of numbers anymore," Mr. Resto said. "We have babies. We have mortgages. We marched in the street for all this s— and we got it. And this is it."

Michael O'Neill, a longtime bartender at the Rawhide, agreed: "We used to stay in our own little neighborhoods, just like ethnic enclaves, but it's more spread out now, because we're more accepted."

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