A couple of days ago, I was present for the bell-ringing on the NASDAQ floor kicking off the day's trading. I was there to support the good folks from Athlete Ally (athleteally.org -- check them out, they do great work) who had been given the honor of ringing in the business day. I was also there to celebrate the 10th anniversary of GYM Sportsbar, the company I started with some brave investors back in 2005. Athlete Ally is the designated charity for our anniversary party this Friday, March 27th. Friends began texting me that they'd seen me on CNBC and Bloomberg News. As I stood for the obligatory photo op, GYM's logo on the seven-story tall NASDAQ screen looming over Times Square behind me, it all seemed a little surreal. Our little gay sports bar in Chelsea was playing with the big boys.
Eleven years ago, when I began to seriously work on making GYM happen, I was literally laughed out of investors meetings. No one, gay and straight alike, seemed to think this was a good idea. A gay sports bar? Really? Despite tons of research, spreadsheets showing why this was a good idea and a killer business plan, no one was biting. The common belief was if I could somehow get GYM open it wouldn't last a year. I've been a lifelong athlete, played football in college and have been out to family, friends and anyone who would listen since I was 20 years old. I knew that being an athlete and a gay man went together very well, thank you. My original business partner Nick and I found the perfect space right in the heart of Chelsea, and after a long year of work we opened in March of 2005. Well, 10 years in we are still booming. We opened GYM Sportsbar West Hollywood in the fall of 2009 and are officially announcing that we will be opening in Ft. Lauderdale in the fall of this year. We've also signed another 10-year lease to stay in our current location at 167 8th Avenue. I don't like being smug but... ;-)
Oh yeah, that Chelsea thing. Over the last three years, I've had to answer seemingly endless questions asking if we were staying, how it felt to be in a dying neighborhood and if we were threatened because "all the gays left." Let me be clear about this. Chelsea is NOT dying. The gays have NOT left. And as a business owner who not only chose to open here, but also chose to stay here, I find it really annoying that "Chelsea Is Dead" has somehow become a meme. Has Chelsea changed since 2005? Of course. Is Chelsea dead or dying? No -- I'm not exactly sure how all this got started. It probably has something to do with the neighboring Meat Packing District undergoing drastic changes in the previous decade (thank you, Sex In The City) and the overall gentrification of Manhattan, complete with ballooning rents and a decline in the "grittiness" of New York. I miss the seediness of the old Meat Packing District. My 3 a.m. dinners at Florent, the walk home from my bartending job in the West Village to my apartment uptown, talking shit with the hookers I'd come to know over the years on these late-night walks. The Meat Packing District was fun. Change in large cities is inevitable. New Yorkers love the Highline, yet at the same time the majority of them bemoan losing the character of the Meat Packing District. You can't have one without the other.
So how does this relate to Chelsea? Well, it does and it doesn't really. As I stated, change is constant and ongoing. In some neighborhoods like SoHo decades ago and the aforementioned Meat Packing District, the change ends in something almost unrecognizable. In others, like Chelsea, the change is less drastic and happens much more slowly. Forty years ago, 8th Avenue between 14th and 23rd streets was one of the worst slums in Manhattan. Gradually throughout the '80s and '90s, gay men began moving in and making it their own. They opened thriving businesses like Big Cup, Food Bar, 18th and 8th, Rainbows and Triangles and the dearly departed Rawhide. Chelsea's peak of fabulous was probably the early '90s to 2007 or 2008. As many of the long-standing tenant's leases came up for renewal, more and more were caught up in the landlords trying to maximize on the boom happening all around them. Also, some businesses just fail and/or owners want to move on.
I love Chelsea. Eigth Avenue helped me fall in love with NYC when I first began visiting the city in the mid-'90s and helped cement it when I moved here for good in 2000. It was always our first choice as a home for GYM. It fit everything about our business model. When we were coming up on our lease renewal, we never even considered another location. Has it changed? Sure it has because change is inevitable. Is it still a gay neighborhood? Absolutely. We aren't the only business to choose to stay here. Nasty Pig, G Lounge, Barracuda, The Starting Line, Elmo, Xcess, The Dish, and many more are all holding court in Chelsea. Walk into any restaurant, sit in the (many) Starbucks, or just stroll 8th Avenue and notice how many people around you are gay men. Is it dying? I honestly don't think so. Chelsea was never a hotbed for the club scene. Since GYM opened, we've lost a couple of bars and gained a couple more. Chelsea has always had a more laid-back vibe than Christopher Street and the current "fierce" neighborhood, Hell's Kitchen. People point out vacant store fronts but that is true of almost every neighborhood in the city. It's how NYC seems to work in its constant cycle of renewal. I'll say it again, I love Chelsea. I've loved it for 20 years, and believe me when I say my bar and I are not going anywhere.