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Down days for NYC nightlife

Long gone are the days when clubs like Studio 54, Palladium and Limelight were institutions that captured the essence of their time and defined New York City nightlife. The era of the big dance clubs that had universal appeal is fading, replaced by predominately smaller venues targeting specific groups of clientele.

There is a sense that money has won out over creativity; rules about dancing, smoking and security cameras have trumped personal freedom; that the night belongs to a starched collar crowd that prefers dropping $400 on a bottle of vodka rather than supporting anything weird or edgy.

"There are a lot of reasons why the days of Studio 54 and other great clubs of the '70s are not here anymore," said David Rabin, the owner of Lotus and president of the New York Nightlife Association, a trade group. "For one thing, crowds have become much more self-separating. When I first started gong out in the late '70s and early '80s, everyone was under the same roof. Straight, gay, black, white, male, female, it was awesome."

Opinions vary on why clubland has lost its diversity. Cost is certainly a factor. Gone are the days when everybody paid $5 to get into Nell's on 14th Street (now called The Plumm). There was no bottle service, or ways to buy yourself into the legendary club Area, a massive space complete with a swimming pool, skateboard ramp and tank stocked with live sharks. If you impressed the doorman with your style, you got in. Otherwise, you'd be standing outside all night.

One venue from the heydays of clubbing that hasn't lost its popularity is Webster Hall, which is in the process of being landmarked by the city.But most other mega-clubs are instead being replaced by smaller lounges.

"In the '80s and '90s there was big group of people who helped each other and made it interesting," said Sydney Masters, a clubber since 1985. "Those same people have since learned to make a business of it, and a lot have opened smaller clubs. Nightlife is a commodity now."

Yet even the most well-financed nightclubs were thrown a curve ball in September when high-end burlesque operator Ivan Kane was denied, by unanimous vote, his request for approval of a liquor license by the local community board. Kane's investors included David Bowie and Sting, and the defeat could have a cooling effect on investment industry-wide.

While such community votes used to be routinely ignored by the State Liquor Authority, within the past year they inexplicably began to be the determining factor of whether a new club is allowed to sell booze. The shift to more community input is something that has the potential to deter nightclub owners from opening larger venues in New York City, industry heads say.

"Our establishments were never designed simply to serve the 1.2 million residents of Manhattan," said Robert Bookman, chief counsel for the nightlife association, who explained that with 65 million admissions annually, more people come to the city for its clubs than they do for every Broadway show and professional sporting event combined. "We can't expect entrepreneurs to put millions into new places in New York if it is a popularity contest with people living a block away. We are not here to serve the people who live a block away anyway."

Money that would have been invested locally in clubs is therefore sent to other cities, Bookman and Rabin said.

"Everyone that I know in our business is just hoping to do a place that's successful enough for someone from Vegas to come along and say, 'Let's do one of these in Vegas,'" Rabin said. "That has really become the pot at the end of the rainbow."

What do you think of the state of nightlife in the city?

Murray Hill, downtown entertainer: The city is out of control and nightlife is becoming a hobby for the upper-class. As an entertainer, I like to perform to all kinds of people, and that's what makes this city great. I will always provide my fans and the city with middle-class entertainment. I'm the affordable housing unit in showbiz!

Michael Musto, longtime nightlife/gossip writer: Every trend has a counter trend. Nightlife itself is a response to oppression. The more you push it down, the more it bounces back. I¹m predicting a major explosion of great nightlife, though it might not be until 2013. So stick around!

Justin Carter, music director at APT: As long as there are new people coming into the city, trying to fill voids where they exist, there is going to be good nightlife in New York. Depending on the law and the economic constraints, interesting things can either thrive openly or go underground. People are always going to figure out a way to go out and have fun here.

Noel Ashman, owner of The Plumm: You can¹t compare nightlife now to what it was back then, it¹s just a different era. If you do any big club now, it¹s going to get a commercial, bridge and tunnel crowd, as opposed to a creative crowd.

Bottle service has allowed a lot of people who would never have otherwise gotten into clubs to get in. Instead of dressing cool or being creative, now you can just buy your way in.

Sydney Masters, former publicist for Limelight: The best nightclub used to be a downtown place called Area. You could never buy your way in. You had to be chosen to come in. When money started getting people in the door and nightclubs became mass promotions, they really lost their allure.

David Rabin, owner of Lotus: I find myself smirking when I see these campaigns on TV trying to attract tourism to New York. All this effort is being made to attract people here, and yet at the same time they are trying to kill the very essence of New York, which is the city that never sleeps.

Closing Time -Studio 54, 1986 -Paradise Garage, 1987 -The Sound Factory, 1995 -Tunnel, 1996 -Limelight, 1996 -Twilo, 2001 -CBGB, 2006 -Avalon, 2006 -Club Deep, 2006 -Spirit, 2006

Compiled by Victoria McLaughlin

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