Sunday, April 1, 2007

Uptown Manhattan Gay Life Swings to Latin Beat

My first article as a contributor for EDGE New York

It’s 1:30 on a recent Wednesday morning at Umbrella on West 202nd Street in the Inwood section on the extreme northern tip of Upper Manhattan. That means another night of drag queens, papi chulos, go-go dancing hombres and packs of gay men, lesbians, and their straight friends packed into a club enjoying one of New York’s most unique scenes: the gay Hispanic clubs that dot this neighborhood.

Hundreds of people are packed on the dance floor as DJ Eddie Cruz spins merengue, salsa, bachata and Spanish pop tracks. A dozen male and female go-go dancers are gyrating on the massive central bar and on pedestals around the club. The crowd eagerly awaits Latin diva Lorena St. Cartier’s flamenco-inspired performance with her dancers. Welcome to a typical night at Uptown’s most popular gay party!

Promoters Alberto Fermín and Fernando Romero launched "Escandalo Nights" in 2004 as a way to provide locals with an alternative to the gay scene in Chelsea, the East and West Villages and Hell’s Kitchen. It takes place on the last Tuesday of each month and quickly became the "in" destination for gay Latino clubgoers from nearby Washington Heights, Harlem, the Bronx, Westchester County and even farther afield: New Jersey, Queens and Brooklyn.

March 28 marked the party’s third anniversary. Over 500 people packed Umbrella to celebrate. Clubgoers are known to wait an hour or more just to enter the club. Fermín and Romero proudly point to these lines as evidence of their party’s growing popularity. "When we started the party three years ago, there was nothing happening in Washington Heights," Romero said. "People needed a place in their own neighborhood."

Fermín and Romero say their party’s unique blend of music and entertainment as its main draw. DJ John Rizzo and Cruz’ mix of revival, House and Latino tracks is rare among the city’s nightlife. And there are those dancers! Scantily clad performers are also an integral part of Escandalo Nights’ entertainment.

Hispanic gay men and lesbians from Upper Manhattan and the Bronx comprise the majority of the partygoers. But Fermín also noted the increasing number of straight people who come to Escandalo Nights each month. "It’s a party for everybody - gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight," he said. "That’s what makes the party so unique. Everybody can come in and have a good time."

Margie Martinez of Washington Heights said this mix of people is one of the main draws. She has attended several parties with her gay cousin and said she feels more comfortable at Umbrella than she would at other neighborhood establishments. "It’s a cool environment," Martinez said as she and her cousin stood near the bar. "I don’t feel pressured. We can just let loose."

Sahadi Beltre drove from neighboring Hudson County in New Jersey, to attend the party. She eagerly pointed out Escandalo Nights is better than the parties on the other side of the George Washington Bridge as she bought a drink at the bar. "It’s a hot place," the West New York, N.J., resident said. "Some places don’t accept gay people. Here they do."

Uptown gay parties are certainly not a new phenomenon. ARKA Lounge and the Monkey Room in Washington Heights have both hosted a variety of parties over the last two decades.

The gay bar No Parking on Broadway and West 177th Street opened last April. Sibe Bistro on Broadway and West 171st Street hosts a Gay and Lesbian Bohemian Night on the last Wednesday of each month in conjunction with the Gay & Lesbian Dominican Empowerment Organization [GALDE].

The opening of No Parking, the growing popularity of the Gay and Lesbian Bohemian Night and Escandalo Nights are indicative of Washington Heights’ growing reputation as a popular destination for gay New Yorkers. The neighborhood, like others throughout Upper Manhattan, has undergone significant gentrification in recent years as people from other parts of Manhattan find Washington Heights an increasingly attractive place to live, not to mention affordable.

Andrés Duque, coordinator of the Mano a Mano coalition within the Latino Commission on AIDS in New York, said this influx has sparked a renewed interest in these parties. He questioned the impact these parties have on these neighborhoods but conceded they provide important gathering places for gay Latinos. "They offer, to some degree, a hometown bar feeling," Duque said. "You go in and you know your friends."

GALDE Executive Director Francisco Lazala noted these parties have had a very positive impact within these neighborhoods. GALDE organizes a picnic and health fair each summer each July under the George Washington Bridge that draws gay Latinos from across the city. Lazala added these parties provide local gays yet another place to come out and to feel comfortable.

"They have really turned Uptown into a place where people feel comfortable and connected to the community," he said. "To have a place in Uptown that you can call your own is definitely a good thing."

No Parking owner Brian Washington Parker agreed. He said his bar, along with Escandalo Nights and other local venues, continue to play an integral role in the elimination of homophobia in Upper Manhattan. Gay men who live in these neighborhoods will continue to come out as more bars and clubs welcome them, he added."

In their own way, these parties have built a bridge," Parker said. "They allow--at least for gay people --to feel part of the community and for other people they open a dialogue. It’s a huge change."

Back at Umbrella, partygoers heaped up the praise for their neighborhood’s newfound status as a destination. Martinez said she remains hopeful these parties will continue to change local attitudes towards homosexuality.

"A lot of Hispanics are not accepting of being gay," she said. "These parties are a very big step."

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