Crown nightclubs brace for new test

During the day, the street is quiet. Empty parking spaces wait for visitors. When street lights blink green, only a handful of cars rush through. The doors of many of the buildings are shut tight against the sun.

At night though, Crown Street, which runs just one block beyond Yale’s campus, pulses with college students, New Haven locals and regional visitors alike. With all its restaurants, bars and nightclubs, locals say, Crown Street between Church and High streets is currently one of the most well-known nighttime hot spots in Connecticut.

But soon, Crown may also be known for its most-recently planned addition: a new school. The New Haven Arts and Humanities High School is slated to move onto the corner of Crown and George streets, displacing Image nightclub, Villa del Sol restaurant, Charlie’s Tires and a 100-car parking lot, city officials announced last Wednesday. The city of New Haven made its first offer on the privately-owned lots April 13.

While some express concern as to what the school will mean for business on the street, change is not new to the area. Once a bustling early 20th century commercial district, by the early 1990s, Crown evolved into a dark, quiet part of the city. Just before the turn of the century, a plethora of new nightclubs opened up, bringing crowds to Crown once more. Today, about eight nightclubs and several popular restaurants draw customers.

Club owners say they are ready for the challenges a new school will bring. If anything, they have learned flexibility in a business where the first-year success rate is a mere 50 percent and competition is cutthroat.

Crime on Crown

The addition of a school also speaks to the reputation Crown has developed since the early 1990s: a reputation that, if not squeaky-clean, is certainly improved.

“When I came here, Crown Street was very dark and surreal,” said Rob Bartolomeo, who opened his nightclub, Gotham Citi, at the corner of Crown and Church streets in 1997. “You could roll a bowling ball down Crown Street and not hit anybody.”

In fact, he said, the eerie, silent street reminded him of the infamous city of the Batman comics. That city inspired the name for his club.

At nearly nine years old, Bartolomeo said, Gotham Citi is second only to BAR as the oldest nightspot on the street. Most of Gotham Citi’s rivals on the street at that time — Bash, Crown Street, Alley Cat — are now defunct. They were all going out of business right at the time Bartolomeo came in, he said. But he liked the area’s quiet.

“I wanted [Gotham Citi] to be low-key,” he said. “In the 1990s, you didn’t open up a gay club on a bustling corner.”

New Haven crime was a serious problem: there were 31 murders in the city in 1990. New Haven Police spokeswoman Bonnie Winchester said there have been less than 10 in recent years. Police cruisers were a frequent sight on Crown in the 1990s. The “Crown Street” club — which existed where Myst is now — was particularly notorious. A 10-person brawl erupted outside the club in December 1999; on New Year’s Eve that year, a 16-year-old boy was shot. The city threatened to close the club down. Instead, it ran out of money and closed on its own, along with Gecko and Club Liquid.

A number of new clubs moved into their niches. Neat Lounge opened in August 2001.

Growing up in the area, Neat Lounge owner Pete Apotrias said he remembered when people did not feel as safe walking around New Haven. Now, he said, there are always police around, and crimes seem scarce. Like other club owners, Apotrias attributed the renaissance to the policies of New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.

In the past 15 years, crime downtown and at Yale has dropped 60 percent. Robert Chu GRD ’06, whose favorite Crown Street club is BAR, said he does not feel threatened on the street.

“It seems pretty safe,” he said. “My main worry is having my coat stolen.”

But most nightclubs don’t — and can’t — stick around for long, owners said. According to national averages, 50 percent of clubs close down within their first year. And in a business where it can take two or three years to break even, fast-failing clubs lose a great deal of money.

“People see that it’s busy on the weekends and they think it’s easy money,” Apotrias said. “But it’s a very difficult business to turn a profit.”

The costs of modifying a space into a nightclub are huge, he said. Before opening, Apotrias said he spent twice as much money on remodeling the building, with new electric and plumbing, as he thought he would. And then there are the nightly costs: staff, drinks, security, rent. Add the fact that his club is open three or four nights a week, and busy for a couple hours each night, and it is easy to see why running a nightclub is a difficult business. After all, Apotrias said, he does not get busy until 11 p.m. And last call, because of city regulations, is 1:45 a.m.

Dog-eat-dog

But Apotrias does save money by refraining from a practice many other clubs engage in: offering an open bar.

At first, Image owner Dennis Dean said, all the clubs on Crown Street offered an open bar for a few hours on Friday and Saturdays. No cover would be charged, and free drinks would be given. Then, he said, a “certain club” went further. They kept the doors open longer. And they became more popular, taking customers away from the other clubs, he said.

So the other clubs also began offering an open bar for longer and longer hours, he said, until they went broke.

“That’s why the names change so much,” he said. “My joke to customers was, ‘Listen — you came in for free, you drank for free, you’re going to walk out at 11:30 without buying a drink. Why don’t you take a piece of furniture with you, too?’”

Dean, who founded Image in May 2003, said he quickly saw that competing with the other clubs with an open bar wasn’t working. He was already paying $10,000 a week in overhead. He could not afford to give away alcohol.

Rather than fight for the same clientele as the other clubs, he said, he sought out Yale. Since October 2003, Image has hosted more than 200 events for Yale students, ranging from the senior prom to fraternity socials. Unless his space is being rented out for a function, he said, he is not open.

“[The other clubs] hated it,” he said, chuckling. “They’d see my long lines outside. I had built-in nights where I knew I’d have 500, 600 people before I even opened the doors.”

Image’s new policy also made many Yale students more aware of Crown Street’s offerings, club-frequenter Alicia Washington ’05 said.

“People don’t really think there’s this club scene in New Haven,” said Washington, a staff columnist for the News. “But with the explosion of parties at Image last year, people are more aware.”

While Yale students have a vague idea of the venues on Crown Street, Washington and other students said, few of them tend to frequent the clubs. If they are looking for a nightclub, Yale students often will end up at Toad’s, where they know they will recognize about half the clientele.

Owners said a business acumen and willingness to learn from mistakes is required to keep a club afloat.

“There’s no college you can go to [in order] to learn how to run a nightclub, there’s no book that you can buy,” Bartolomeo said. “You have to learn as you go along.”

Besides constantly battling promotions, Bartolomeo said competition among the clubs can get personal. Currently, Gotham Citi is engaged in a lawsuit against Toad’s. Two years ago, Bartolomeo claims, Toad’s stole Gotham Citi’s flyers advertising their straight Wednesday-night dance party. He said Toad’s remade the flyers, saying Gotham’s dance party was a gay night, and passed it out to the Toad’s bouncers to put up.

Crown Street club owners said club promoters may take flyers advertising a different club off of cars or bulletin boards, or approach people waiting in line for a competing nightclub and lure them away.

A new neighbor

The difficulties of managing a nightclub make the job interesting, club owners said. The staff’s limits are always being tested.

“The challenge in running a nightclub is the fact that everything is done in the dark, with loud music playing and every possible vice occurring in front of you,” Bartolomeo said. “It’s a business for strong-willed people. A weak-willed person wouldn’t survive.”

But owners said those clubs that have survived have made Crown Street a destination for clubbers. While they said they were not sure how the new school would affect the area, they said the street’s atmosphere, as well as particulars like its already-scarce parking spaces, seem to make the school a bad fit.

For Dean, the new school is particularly problematic: it is displacing his club, Image. He did not have a choice in the matter, he said. While he only rents the building Image is in, even the building’s owner could not tell the city no, as the space falls under the category of “eminent domain.”

“They relocate us, they pay for it,” he said. “But I have to start all over.”

And, he said, he wonders if the school will change Crown Street’s nighttime reputation.

“Crown Street’s like a miniature New York,” Dean said. “Bridgeport doesn’t have a street like this. Hartford, the capital, doesn’t even have this. New Haven cornered it.

“And now, from Myst to the corner, will be an Arts and Humanities School.”

Crown Street, which has seen changes in recent years due to a booming nightlife, may experience another transformation if a new magnet school moves in.
Kevin Osowski
Crown Street, which has seen changes in recent years due to a booming nightlife, may experience another transformation if a new magnet school moves in.

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