If a crime is connected to your bar, can that tip business for the worst?
The rumor bubbled up innocently, as most rumors do.
A co-worker and I were discussing am upcoming journalism alumni gathering. A crop of young graduates was coming into town and we, alumni and members of the working press, were invited to meet them all at a downtown bar and impart some wisdom upon them, not to mention a few free beers. The bar in question was Pioneer on the Bowery.
Readers outside of New York City may wonder why Pioneer would be a big deal. Here in Gotham, avid tabloid readers know that Pioneer bar was one of the last places where graduate student Imette St. Guillen was seen alive, sending a scare into late-night boozers up and down the island.
"I'm not sure if the party's still happening at Pioneer," my co-worker said. "I heard that they were nervous about bringing students there... "
Nervous? That was preposterous. St. Guillen wasn't abducted at Pioneer. She was last seen being escorted out of a bar around the corner from Pioneer called The Falls. That's where she was last seen talking to a bouncer. That's where she was last seen alive.
Nevertheless, it was the façade of Pioneer that initially showed up in the newspapers and on television. It was in Pioneer where the next day and next week stories were set, as journalists sat around and wondered what the last hours of St. Guillen's life must have been like.
The future of Pioneer was slowly becoming something out of a Malcolm Gladwell book. Could the sudden infamy of the bar "tip" the popularity of Pioneer, and possibly for the worst? Based on the buzz I was hearing, there seemed to be a few Connectors and Mavens spreading information that, while not true, certainly seemed credible. Or did the idea that the St. Guillen crime have anything to do with patrons coming to the bar lack the Stickiness to keep it going?
In New York City, if a crime is connected to your bar, how bad can that be for business?
History may give us the answer.
One of the best-known clubs of ill repute was owned by Peter Gatien. In the 1980s Gatien opened The Tunnel, The Palladium and The Limelight, super clubs the likes of which the city hadn't seen in a long time. The Limelight was Gatien's flagship club. It was a former Episcopal church that still takes up most of the block on Sixth Avenue and 20th Street.
Dark and spooky and full of nooks and crannies, The Limelight, in its heyday, was a 1980s and early 90s version of Studio 54. A young Chloe Sevigny was said to have hung out there. The club attracted Technicolored club kids of all stripes for night after night of dance floor hedonism. With that, naturally, came drugs and their peddlers. Eventually, the fuzz starting sniffing around to see exactly what went on inside.
One of the staples at the Limelight was a guy named Michael Alig. He was known for his flamboyant costumes and a seemingly never-ending supply of drugs. His rampant drug use eventually led him to brutally kill a fellow club kid named Angel Melendez, then dismember his body and toss it in a box into the Hudson River. Eventually the box washed up on shore in Staten Island (where else?) and Alig was convicted of the murder.
The case brought attention to all of Gatien's clubs, which were already under scrutiny. As the trial dragged on the club changed from being a Chelsea hot spot to a second rate stop for the bridge and tunnel crowd. This, perhaps, was The Limelight's tipping point. Years of buzz and attention did not do the club in, as overexposure is apt to do. Instead, it was bad press and a trial that sent the club kids packing. (Or maybe the lure of the 1990s designer drugs faded and gave way to goodies with more predictable affects, such as prescription drugs.) The Palladium on Fourth Avenue closed to give way to a New York University dormitory. The Tunnel on the far west side of town closed soon after. The Limelight ebbed and flowed over the years under new management and supposedly less crime, but eventually closed for good in about 2002.
Nightclubs open and close all the time in New York, so the Limelight's eventual demise should not have come as a shock. After all, it lasted well over 10 years. Eventually the old chapel was purchased and reincarnated into several other clubs, none as outlandish as The Limelight. In its wake, The Limelight and the characters that surrounded it spawned one well-written non-fiction book called Clubland by former Village Voice reporter Frank Owen. Hollywood eventually caught on and slapped together a weak version of the Limelight saga with Party Monster, which starred Macaulay Culkin.
But The Falls, where St. Guillen was last seen, is no Gatien-owned party production. It's owned by the Dorian clan, who are no strangers to crime inadvertantly linked to their establishments. In 1986, 18-year-old Jennifer Levin met 19-year-old Robert E. Chambers at Dorian's Red Hand on East 84th Street. Levin was later found strangled to death after a sexual encounter in Central Park, which was dubbed The Preppy Murder. Although the Dorians settled for $100,000 in damages in 1996 related to the case and temporarily lost their liquor license, the pub is still an Upper East Side favorite. Unlike The Limelight, Dorian's Red Hand repelled the bad press. The Uptowners still came in droves despite the many other saloon options in that stretch of town.
Pioneer has the advantage of being a large, cavernous bar with a good happy hour, a decent DJ and benches outside for smokers. The Falls just a few blocks away is nestled in a slightly hipper part of the neighborhood, but is battling scores of bad press, most of it centered on one bouncer that was last scene with St. Guillen. It seems the Bouncer in Question was on parole and had a criminal record that dated back to the 1980s. He was said to have admitted to being bipolar. And this guy was supposed to be watching out for the patrons, and female ones at that, who were inside drinking, often until the wee hours of the morning?
Based on the Dorian family's history of good luck, it's likely The Falls will bounce back, even if the liquor license is temporarily lost. Gladwell points to another scenario in his book, in the chapter on "The Power of Context."He uses Bernie Goetz as an example. In 1984 Goetz became a poster child for frustrated subway riders when he shot four black youths on a downtown 2 train. At the time, crime in the city was sky high and subway ridership was at its lowest point in its history. Goetz was carrying a concealed handgun and shot the four young men after they asked him for five dollars. He was later acquitted on charges of assault and attempted manslaughter. When he was brought up in a civil suit in 1996, Gladwell says Goetz seemed like more of an anachronism of an era long gone.
Pioneer may be orbited right now by baseless hearsay and conjecture, but the bar happens to exist at a time when crime is at an all-time low in the city. This isn't Dinkins-era New York City. Our subways aren't covered by graffiti. Crack isn't fueling rampant crimes sprees. We can walk through Central Park at night. There is no need for a young woman out for a few drinks to think that she may not get home safely, even in the wee hours of the morning.
It seems that Pioneer has the same problem Bernie Goetz did back in 1984: In the wrong place at the wrong time. But it will come out unscathed in the end. Unfortunately for Imette St. Guillen, she doesn't have that luxury.
Dispatches from NYC is a bi-weekly commentary on America's largest city and its impact on the wider world.