What is New York if not a city of night, as John Rechy titled his classic 1963 novel chronicling Times Square’s underground world of hustlers and social outlaws? The city’s reputation is built on its dynamic nightlife—particularly a dynamic queer nightlife, embodied by a community of drag queens, go-go boys, bartenders, promoters, and so-called “personalities” that have sung the siren’s call to many a small-town gay from around the country, and the globe.
Funny, then, that the city has felt so dead. The spark, it seems, is gone from New York, snuffed out by legal crackdowns from the Giuliani era, real estate outpricing in the Bloomberg era, and general millennial malaise under de Blasio. However, this complaint about the Big Apple’s rotting core has already been lobbed by countless generations of jaded New Yorkers. Who can forget Lexi Featherston lamenting N.Y.C.’s death in “Splat,” an episode from the final season of Sex and the City? “New York is over!” she growls, chain-smoking out an open window that she ironically falls out of after her infamous last words, “I’m so bored I could die.”
That was in 2004, when New York was still kinda cool, right? At that time, the “it” parties were the nomadic MisShapes and Motherfucker, tame descendents of legendary clubs like Studio 54, Limelight, and the Pyramid, on which New York had build its nightlife cred—cred that was predicated, for almost a century, on a law that forbade dancing.
For all the perennial talk of New York’s demise, there’s an argument to be made that it’s just been fighting a long battle to the grave—a battle it may have just won.
Back in October, the City Council repealed a massively unpopular 91-year-old law that effectively turned one of the most famous party cities in the world into that danceless town from Footloose. Established during the Prohibition Era, the Cabaret Law restricted dancing to places with a cabaret license, meaning most bars you went to had to keep things fairly pedestrian. Now unburdened, New York is appointing a new director of nightlife, or DON. So maybe Lexi’s death won’t be for naught after all.
Here, a coterie of New York drag queens, the tireless ambassadors of queer nightlife, celebrate the vibrancy and resiliency of their home turf by beating it red, white, blue, and every color in between—with legendary photographer Ellen von Unwerth there to capture it all.
Photography: Ellen von Unwerth
Styling: Grant Woolhead
All Clothing by Marc Jacobs