Andrew Belonsky

Save Chi Chiz!

Filed By Andrew Belonsky | August 22, 2010 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Chi Chiz, Christopher Street, Fred Karger, New York City, News, Racism

A few years ago, gay Americans began rallying around a Laguna Beach christopherstreetsign.jpgbar called The Boom Boom Room, which faced destruction in the name of gentrification.

Led by Republican presidential hopeful Fred Karger, countless LGBT people picketed and protested to stop developers from razing the famed tavern, and there were even rumors that Brad Pitt would front the cash to keep Boom's doors open.

As that fight continues to rage, another, far less famous gay bar also faces certain doom, yet no one seems to care. It's called Chi Chiz, and no one seems to care. Why? One word: race.

Located in New York City's tony West Village, on the historic Christopher Street, Chi Chiz has become an epicenter for gay people of color, and a thorn in the side of the neighborhood's wealthy denizens. After years of noise complaints, prostitution allegations and other charges against about the bar, it now seems that Chi Chiz will be closed for good because cops claim that it's a hot bed of illicit drug use and should therefore be shuttered.

Though the drug rumors may be true, show me a bar, straight or gay, that hasn't seen its share of drug deals. The fact of the matter is that West Village residents simply want to close down the "black bar," and Chi Chiz has found embarrassingly little support from gay people in New York City, or elsewhere.

LGBT activists are consistently calling for inclusion and community. Well, Chi Chiz is key for gay minorities in New York City, and if we truly care about inclusiveness, we'll spend as much time fighting for Chi Chiz as we have for other gay bars across the country.

Image via Victoria Peckham's Flickr.


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How sad that you think a bar is the epicenter of any gay community in 2010. Sorry honey. This isn't about race. It's about it being downmarket. If they'd clean the place up then it wouldn't be a target. Making this about race is a cheap shot. It's not like we're talking about Stonewall Inn here. We're talking about a really sh*tty bar that is known for drugs and hoes. I've lived next to plenty of bars in my life - yes there's always some trouble. But if the owners really don't want problems then they fix it - they make it so that the people causing the problems don't come around. So instead of blaming this on the law (drugs are still illegal, as is prostitution) how about blaming on the skeeviness of the clientele, management and owners.

While I understand your desire to rally for inclusiveness, it's not necessarily racism that is leading to a lack of support over the Chi Chiz. You admit yourself that the police claim has some justification- if the police have a legal claim to close a bar for clearly illicit activity, what do you expect people to do in response? "Sure, we did a ton of drugs there, but we liiiiiike it!" doesn't really seem like a very good legal argument for keeping a bar open.

Andrew Belonsky Andrew Belonsky | August 22, 2010 8:37 PM

While certainly police and the public should be concerned about alleged drug dealing at the bar, there are so many other bars/clubs, both straight and gay, where drugs are dealt and done, so why are they not targeted more often? WV residents have been trying to out Chi Chiz for years. Drugs are just an excuse.

Sorry, Andrew, but I've seen this place, and it's a pit. If you want it saved, I'm afraid you'll have to come up with a better reason than... well, gosh, you dont.

There is a troubling racial element here, and as for drugs, I say, legalize and regulate weed and prostitution.

Dear Andrew,
I'm afraid I'm going to have to join the voices above who blame the management of Chi Chiz for their problems. Other NYC gay bars go to great lengths to self-police because they know that there are regular visits from undercover inspectors. Chi Chiz never seemed to do much to improve its reputation. If it closes, we may never know the real reasons why, but I don't think you can play the race card in this case. I remember when a number of us held a "blarg" (gay blogger bar hop) in the WV and we included Chi Chiz. We had a fine time and got a warm reception, but there was an undercurrent there that set it apart from our other stops. It had nothing to do with the racial mix of the place or the racial mix of the bloggers involved.
PS: @Jordan - Yes! Legalize all of it!

Isn't this one of the oldest gay bars in New York?

And what about the Egyptian Club?

I think if we're looking for gay bars closing that no one outside the immediate vicinity notices, we don't have to look too far. It's not like The Boom Boom Room and Chi Chiz are the only two gay bars to close in the past several years, one getting celeb attention the other getting none.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, though, and agree that the drugs are most likely an excuse. I've never been there, but police officers are known liars who look for excuses to close down (racial and sexual) minority establishments. Whoever above said legalize all of it, go them.

Why do we have such a hard time acknowledging our race issues?

Chitown Kev | August 23, 2010 9:32 AM

Because there's a stigma to being racist, esp. in a white liberal area.

Dr. Weiss, you actually worded this question perfectly.

I would suppose that race/class is A factor and not the sole factor in the closing of Chi-Chi's.

But if one can see, speak, and hear no evil about race, then it obviously isn't there, I suppose.

Anthony in Nashville | August 23, 2010 10:31 AM

I am assuming that is a rhetorical question, since the LGBT community has never truly dealt with its race issues.

(White) people don't want to admit they are prejudiced, and many hold up their one non-white friend/favorite entertainer/trick as "proof."

I have not been to Chi Chiz but I know other sleazy/shady/druggy bars that have no problem staying open. Perhaps it's all about who you know, which goes back to the race question....

It's a good question, but I'm not sure it's pertinent to this particular situation. I think inserting race as THE factor in a situation where it isn't is damaging to the many, many legit situations where racism rears it's ugly head in our community.

Because the gay community is no different from the rest of the country. It's just another part of the population, but one that seems to represent a good cross-section of the rest of the US.

But again, why are we playing the race card here? Because we're told we have to. Not because the bar in question was a bit of a sleazy hangout, not because the management seemed more interested in making a buck than keeping the place clean -- no, it's because it's *all* about race. Or so we're told.

Sorry, not playing that game.

Legalize and Regulate...I keep hearing that but any doctor knows that just about every single street drug can be found in a pharmacy today in some form and much better!

Pot: marinol, pot alternative: doxepin
Amphetamine: Adderall
Meth: Desoxyn
Opiate: codeine et al.
Morphine: morphine
Cocaine: cocaine (used in nose surgery)

Then you have oxy, demerol, dil, etc. So it *is* legal and *is* regulated for use by doctors!

For people wanting more background, Rod McCollum has a bit more on the history of the interaction between the bar and the cops. Be sure to click on the related links.

I've been in Chi Chiz a couple of times, and it's no skuzzier or sleazier than some of the other bars on Christopher Street and elsewhere in the city. This is obviously connected with the NIMBYism that has become en vogue in the Village and the discomfort with the minority youth that hang out in the area.

Drug politics and racial politics are very closely related--especially in the "enforcement" part of drug policy (who gets targeted, who gets put through the system, who gets the longer sentences, etc). If you accept that US drug policy is illegitimate (and racist, in effect at least, if not INTENT), then I think it is inconsistent to enthusiastically wave the blue flag of "law and order" when drug policy is used to target a gay establishment. If you agree that US drug policy breeds abuses of authority and power, then that principle cannot be suspended because you don't like the ambiance of a particular bar.

And I agree with Alex that people are too credulous in believing the police's story. But that seems to be a pattern when it comes to black LGBT/police stories (e.g. accepting at face-value the cop's story in the Defarra Gaymon tragedy).

I don't know the situation here well enough to comment on whether race is a factor in this bar being threatened with closure. I'd guess, in any battle between rich white condo owners and black queer patrons, race is likely a factor.

In terms of the community not rallying around this bar the way they did around the Boom Boom Room, well... I spent three years in Los Angeles and EVERYONE had heard of the Boom Boom Room, even though it was all the way down in Laguna. I've lived in NYC a total of nine years, including three as an NYU student who lived just a few blocks from Christopher in the late 90's, and I've never heard of this place until this post. It's hard to get angry about the closure of a place you've never heard of.

Not to mention, clubs and bars close in NYC every day, and many of them are closed for drugs. The haunts of my college days - Palladium, Limelight and Tunnel - were all shut down for drugs and are now a dorm, a mall and a mini-storage, respectively. Also gone (not for drugs): Uncle Charley's, WonderBar, Stingy Lulu's, Boys Room, Starlight, Nuts 'n' Bolts, xl, Twilo, Big Cup, the Roxy and countless others that I can't remember the name of (what was that tiny little place that hosted 1984 before it went to Pyramid?). If I got up in arms every time a place I liked closed in this city, it's all I'd ever do.

Bingo has been called.

If anyone's interested, the revolving door of bar openings and closings is a running joke in Larry Kramer's 70s-era novel Faggots. It's not like things have changed that much.

Having a discussion about how race might be a factor in the closing of a bar is a discussion about the possibility of race as a factor. It's not "playing the race card" (a phrase more often than not used by those who dismiss race out of hand) and it's not a game.

Whether or not we agree about why this bar is being closed, let's at least have a sensible discussion about the issues before devolving into accusations of frivolity.

It's curious how one never hears accusations of "the race card" when it's not about the possibility of racism upon people of colour.

I had similar thoughts about others' use of the phrase "playing the race card". Why suggest this when the possibility of racism is involved with a situation? It makes it look as if to do so is slyly using a gambit to one's advantage thus nullifying even raising such a concern. I never see people say or writing "playing the gay card" when someone implies or explicitly expresses a concern of homophobia.

Maybe I'll suggest the same thing ("playing the race card") the next time I read of a white person, for example, raising an issue of being unfairly passed over for a job due to his/her race because another person, from an ethnic minority community, gets the job instead.

Yasmin, have you ever been there? I mean, really, walked through the door and ordered a drink? Based on your post, I honestly doubt it.

I can speak from personal knowledge of the place. Trust me, when it closes, it will not be missed. Its regulars will move on to someplace else, just as others have done in the past when a favourite bar was shuttered down or changed hands (and, as a result, management style). And I would happily say the same thing about this place were it the liliest white bar in all of Manhattan. To protest otherwise *is* playing the race card, sorry. The simple truth of the matter is that it's just not worth the anger. The place was a pit; no other word merits it.

(Hell, for that matter, I have to laugh when people call the Village "tony": it's a section of NY that believes far too much in its own mythology and prices itself accordingly. If folks are going to be financially stupid enough to pay through the nose for tiny, poorly built and poorly maintained apartments just so they can claim residence in "the Village"... well, their choice, I suppose.)

And as an earlier poster points out, bars close every day. Tell me: was there this kind of outrage when Uncle Charleys closed? Probably not, even though you're talking about a place that had a much longer tradition and a far more inclusive clientele.

So may I gently recommend you save your outrage for something *really* worthy of it?

No, I haven't been there and neither did I pretend to have been there, but I'll respect Andrew's integrity when he suggests that the closure is racially motivated, something supported by other commentaries. I also know, from living in a deeply racist and segregated city like Chicago, that such closings are often racially motivated. I also know quite a good deal about the history of gay bars, neighbourhoods, and gentrification and that race plays a huge part in such matters.

At the end of the day, the question here is about a gay bar closing and its closing mattering to some people, and a discussion about the possibility of race being a factor. Might the place indeed be a pit? Sure. Could it be closing due to factors not linked to race? Sure. But to dismiss the possibility that race might be a driving factor as "playing the race card" or "playing a game" is to dismiss the very idea that, perhaps, race is a factor in such matters (not to mention the fact that lots of majority-white-clientelle bars get away with drugs and more, without even a glance from authorities, or the fact that lots of drug-dealing goes on in private gay residences in the "better" neighbourhoods). And it ignores the fact that all these factors might be in play in addition to that of race.

It's one thing to suggest that perhaps there are multiple factors involved or that people are ignoring the plight of this particular bar because they simply haven't heard about it or it wasn't popular enough. I can respect all those summations and have a conversation with them. But to simply play the "playing the race card" card (and no, that's not a typo) in a knee-jerk response and to sneer at such critiques by dismissing them as some kind of game that people play is indefensible and part of what makes a sensible discourse around race in this country so impossible. For the rest, I can only point to Joe G.'s comment, which puts it all quite eloquently. ("Why suggest this when the possibility of racism is involved with a situation? It makes it look as if to do so is slyly using a gambit to one's advantage thus nullifying even raising such a concern. I never see people say or writing "playing the gay card" when someone implies or explicitly expresses a concern of homophobia.")

To be clear, I wasn't expressing outrage about the bar closing. My concern was with the tenor of the discussion around race and with the larger question of how we approach such moments in a community's ever-changing history (and gay bars have, like it or not, been an integral part of that history, for better and worse). There's the additional factor of simple economics - dive bars, whether black, white, or mixed, are more likely to be closed than the "better" bars, and that also reflects the gay community's own drive to push its less affluent members out of sight. And there's another related topic.

>> "No, I haven't been there"

Well, there you are. And therein lies the difference between thee and me: I've been there. I've seen the place. You havent. My experience comes first-hand. Yours comes from a glorification of what this place is *suggested* to be in an idealized, all-inclusive world... even though the real world, in this case, is not a very pretty one that merits inclusion by any stretch.

Andrew started this discussion by stating, pretty baldly, that this was all about race. That, in his article, is the sole factor why no one cares that this place might shut down. Never mind that the possibility exists that it's a crummy little bar whose disappearance will not be noted for more than a couple of weeks, if that. The only thing we should care about in this discussion is that the closure is racially-motivated. Nothing else.

Sorry, but that's playing the race card. And quite frankly, it's that kind of slap-the-blinders-on approach that only aggravates racial tensions. Why is it so difficult to accept that this place just isnt worth it? Why am I supposed to rally the troops? Simply because it carries the label of being a bar for "people of colour"?" Is that the sole criteria here?

You're missing the point, willfully or not. I'm not glorifying the place and the discussion that some of us are having is not even about this particular bar, but about the way in which any suggestion that anything might be racially motivated is dismissed as "playing the race card." No one here has suggested that this is anything but a slightly or very gritty bar. But, as Anthony put it, "other sleazy/shady/druggy bars ... have no problem staying open."

This discussion at this point is about the deliberate way in which remarks like "playing the race card" shut down any possibility of discussion about race. In effect, such remarks are simply playing the "playing the race card" card in yet another attempt to shut down any possibility of race as a factor. And such phrases are more often than not, though not exclusively, used by whites/people who don't identify as people of colour. And it's interesting that even that phrase is in sneering quotes in your comment - do you think POCs just don't exist? The phrase is used quite widely.

As for it being a crummy little bar whose presence will not be missed - there seems to be more than ample evidence, some of it presented here, that it will, in fact, be missed. Why discount that so blatantly? Do you live in the area/the city (my understanding is that you don't)? If you don't, it's not likely to be as important to you as the residents who use it on a regular basis in 2010.

I'll end with this: This is less about the bar and more about the way people are willing to dismiss even a discussion about the possibility of race. I'll give you a particular example: I see Sam Ritchie's comments here, and I can respect his views more, even if I might disagree with what he has said.

In contrast, you have come into this with guns a-blazing, determined that anyone who raises the question of race as a factor is simply playing the race card. The difference between your comments and Sam's (who might well disagree with me here)? In one set of comments, there is the acknowledgment that race might be a factor, but also an assertion that this may well not be the case here. In the other, there is the implicit and blanket assertion that anyone who raises the issue of race is simply being manipulative, disingenuous and deceitful - because that's exactly what's implied by a phrase like "playing the race card." In other words, comments like yours establish disingenuousness as the default position of anyone who wonders if this is racially motivated.

As for the issue of it being a crummy little bar, as I said above, a lot of crummy little bars are beloved institutions - as flawed as they are (and I've lived near a fair amount). But as to what goes on in all kinds of establishments, Brian's comment says it best:

"If you accept that US drug policy is illegitimate (and racist, in effect at least, if not INTENT), then I think it is inconsistent to enthusiastically wave the blue flag of "law and order" when drug policy is used to target a gay establishment. If you agree that US drug policy breeds abuses of authority and power, then that principle cannot be suspended because you don't like the ambiance of a particular bar."

>> "In contrast, you have come into this with guns a-blazing, determined that anyone who raises the question of race as a factor is simply playing the race card."

Because it was. That's all it was. Even now, look at your own words: "I'm not glorifying the place and the discussion that some of us are having is not even about this particular bar, but about the way in which any suggestion that anything might be racially motivated is dismissed as "playing the race card." No one here has suggested that this is anything but a slightly or very gritty bar. But, as Anthony put it, "other sleazy/shady/druggy bars ... have no problem staying open." In other words, "had this not been a bar for people of colour, more folks would have gotten upset about the closure." You the proceed to go on about racial inequality in terms of enforcement of drug laws, as though that was the sole reason this place was going away. Every argument you have for "discussion" is motivated strictly by framing the argument along racial lines.

That, ma'am, is playing the race card. There can be no other possible reason for this place to shut down. None whatsoever. It's all about race and nothing else.

If that's all you have, sorry.

Phil Goodwin | August 25, 2010 12:50 PM

"There can be no other possible reason for this place to shut down. None whatsoever. It's all about race and nothing else."

I don't think that anyone said that at any point.

This discussion is going to go 'round and 'round ... and I wonder, do we all have an agreement on what is meant by "playing the race card"?

To me, someone can be accused of "playing the race card" when a situation clearly has nothing to do about race, but someone brings it up anyway because they need an accusation or a counter-accusation.

Quick example: I hire a guard to watch my building at night. I clearly state that she or he cannot sleep while on guard duty. I drop in at 3 AM one morning and the guard is asleep. I fire the guard, and the guard objects; "You're firing me because I'm [pick one: black/female/gay/muslim/etc ] ..."

That is "playing the race card" ... but in a more complicated situation, if there is any argument that can be made that the firing might be prejudicially motivated, any argument that a reasonable outside observer might find worth exploring, then the defendant is not "playing the race card".

To me, if the fired employee can truthfully say, "Well, you caught Jim sleeping on duty two nights ago, and he's [ white/male/straight/has two kids at home/goes to my church ], and you didn't fire him," then he is no longer "playing the race card" --- it is necessary for me to justify why I fired one and not the other.

That sets the standard for "playing the race card" pretty high ... but in America, I agree with Yasmin, many reasonable discussions get cut short, or an attempt is made, with the "race card" accusation.

We need to be careful to keep "Playing the race card" as a form of dishonest argument --- but if the person honestly perceives prejudice, then that in itself is a problem that needs to be cleared up.

I'm not even going to go into applying this standard to the argument at hand about the bar --- suffice it to say, if people are honest about suspecting racism, then the accusation of "playing the race card" should not even be what we are discussing. But we are discussing it, and that indicates to me that apparently we are confused or in disagreement about what "playing the race card" really means.

And if we don't agree on our terms, then we'll just continue to go 'round and 'round.