by Susan Dominus, The New York Times
The Starlite Lounge in Brooklyn is one of those institutions that have been around for so long, neighbors no longer stop to notice how incongruous their presence really is.
Why shouldn’t there be a bar in Crown Heights that is popular with white and black, gay and straight people, where gentrifiers and locals with long lineage drink the special punch next to one another on bar stools, where young, beautiful club types sweat it out to house music alongside 50-something veteran party organizers and standard-issue retirees who happen to live down the block? Doesn’t every place have one of those?
Most do not, and Crown Heights may not for long. The Starlite Lounge, a hot spot that has been a quiet part of Brooklyn’s gay history since the early 1970s, seems destined to close its doors now that the new management of its building is demanding that the bar vacate to make way for urgent repairs. (Besides, a building manager said, it lacks a lease. The bar’s owners counter that no one seems willing to negotiate with them in good faith.)
The forthcoming eviction might be technically fair, but it somehow does not seem right. Surely the annals of real estate law should provide some special dispensation for what the Starlite’s management identifies as the “longest black-owned nondiscriminating bar” in Brooklyn history?
The Starlite has sat in the same location, at Bergen Street and Nostrand Avenue, since at least the 1960s, according to its current owner, Linda King, who inherited it from her brother, a popular D.J. who died in 2004.
It was in the early ’70s, when a well-known Crown Heights resident named Mackie Harris bought the bar, that its distinct cultural history began.
Back then, it was one of the few gay-friendly bars in the neighborhood. “The Seville was for the upper-, upper-class experience, and the Starlite was sort of for the ‘Brokeback Mountain’ types,” recalled Bob Mack, who frequented both and worked at the Starlite as a manager. “We’d go over to the Seville in our furs, and then put them in our cars and head over to the Starlite.”
Nowadays, the Starlite is not exclusively a gay bar; its personality changes with the time of day and week. At 3 p.m. on a weekday, the typical patron is a straight, black older resident from the surrounding blocks. Karaoke night on Thursdays draws a mixed-race crowd of straight and gay patrons. And Fridays offer a drag show (the star’s “a real J. Lo,” according to Willie Rowe, 66, who has been working at the bar for 40 years).
Saturdays starting around 11 p.m., the bar fills with a mostly gay clientele, and by 2 a.m. one recent Sunday, it was packed with young women, two of them nuzzling each other’s necks, and men of all ages circling their hips with abandon to old-school, creatively spun house music.
Every neighborhood bar feels like a safe haven to its regulars; in Crown Heights, that cliché has a more literal meaning. “It’s a place I can come and not be bothered by homophobic people,” said Timothy Yates, a young publicist sitting at the bar, who added that he had been taunted with gay slurs in the neighborhood.
And it’s not just a safe place for gay people; it’s a safe place period. Said Mr. Mack, “People like that there was no fear there.”
He could remember only one episode, back in the early days, when the bar really got violent: A woman hunting down her husband at the bar threw a rock through its window. “We kept her out with mops until the police came,” Mr. Mack said.
On restaurant and bar review Web sites, stories abound about the Starlite’s homespun, small-town feel: a bartender’s generosity with cigarettes, employees who express concern for patrons whom the police appear to be harassing at a bodega across the street.
“If someone’s had too much to drink, we’ll make sure someone follows him home to make sure he gets there safely, whether he likes it or not,” says Tim La’Viticus, the current manager.
It’s nice to think that, amid the dollar stores overrunning the neighborhood, some new local spot is in the process of developing its own quirky personality, an odd amalgam influenced by location, historical moment and management charisma, fermenting over time until it, too, will have shaped Crown Heights in some profound way.
But for now, lovers of the Starlite worry that the bar, and what it has to offer, is irreplaceable. “I feel bad,” Mr. Mack said. “The kids aren’t going to have anyplace to go.”
Update: Unfortunately, the Starlite closed in July, 2010. Currently there are no plans to open another location for the establishment that was a landmark for the Black gay community.