Where have Staten Island’s LGBTQ+ bars gone? How a once-vibrant scene has shifted in the 2020s
June 22, 2023
EDITOR’S NOTE: “Pride 2023″ is a collection of Staten Islanders’ stories. Whether it’s about overcoming adversity, a parent’s journey in accepting their LGBTQ child, or fighting for awareness and equality, these borough residents all have Pride.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – For as long as Chris Bauer can remember, Staten Island has been home to a small share of bars that cater to a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender crowd. Clustered on the North Shore, earning their popularity in the 1980s and ‘90s, each establishment was considered a safe haven for a not-yet universally accepted LGBTQ+ portion of the borough community.
Naming watering holes like Beach Haven, Sand Castle and the Mayfair Bar & Grill, Bauer, a Stapleton resident has been a force for the borough’s LGBTQ+ community for years. He explained that bars geared toward LGBTQ+ individuals have always been “a thing” on Staten Island – even if they were hiding in plain sight. But according to the inclusivity advocate, each location just didn’t seem to have much staying power.
“There was nothing nefarious about them,” Bauer continued. “Just a place for gay people to gather. But like any bar, popularity comes and goes. And now – in Staten Island anyway – they are all gone. But that’s mostly because I think gay bars are just no longer the social hubs they once were.”
According to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, several gay bars have historically existed in Staten Island, some dating back as early as the 1950s. The Mayfair was the most popular, located on Hyatt Street directly across from Borough Hall. The Beach Haven on Father Capodanno Boulevard was a gathering spot for local women’s softball teams and was considered the first official meeting place of Lambda Associates, the main LGBT group on Staten Island. Park Villa II, located in the former Liberty Theater on Beach Street, thrived during the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the Project notes, but fizzled in popularity in the 2000s. In 2009, Q-SINY, a nightclub, opened in Midland Beach, only to close a year later.
“Gay bars – which were once social hubs — are not really as necessary as they once were,” he said. “I think part of it is because the internet killed them off and part of it is acceptance. At one point we needed a safe space, but now, for the most part, the gay culture is universally accepted. The decline of the gay bar is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Bauer notes that it’s not just establishments geared toward LGBTQ+ individuals that have waned; the entire bar culture has sputtered too.
“There used to be so many neighborhood bars, but that culture has changed,” Bauer said. “Young people – gay, straight or otherwise – don’t go out like they used to. They meet on apps and chat on social media. The good old-fashioned pick-up joint seems to be a thing of the past.”
Bauer is right. According to a report from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Staten Island has the smallest share of nightlife venues in the city. There’s a total of 800 food service, bars and sports and recreation establishments here, the report notes, a stark contrast from the 13,000 located in Manhattan or the 5,500 and 4,800 found in Brooklyn and Queens. And not one of Staten Island’s 800 venues is LGBTQ+ focused.
Carol Bullock, executive director of the Pride Center of Staten Island, agrees with those findings.
“There are several Staten Island bars and restaurants that are LGBTQ+-friendly — places that host drag brunches and other events that welcome our community in — but the days of having a specific spot where you knew you were going to see people just like you seem to be over.”
And while Bullock feels it’s important for the LGBTQ+ community to have a place to gather, she does not believe the absence of those establishments in the borough signal Staten Island’s ignorance.
“I don’t think it has been because of backlash,” Bullock said when questioned about why LGBTQ+ bars have failed to survive on Staten Island. “Of course, there is always some negativity but I don’t see that as the root cause.”
Michael Musto, who has owned the Cargo Café in St. George for about five years, says he tries his best to make all feel welcome in his establishment.
“Cargo has always been known as an alternative bar; no labels, anybody and everybody is welcome here,” noted Musto. “I have a pride flag in my window at all times and I have not lost customers because of it, in fact I think I’ve gained business.”
And while Musto says it’s sad to think that the era of the gay bar might be coming to a close, he also views the decline as the rainbow at the end of the storm.
“The lack of demand for these places means that the gay community is more accepted now,” he concluded. “A safe haven is no longer a necessity. And that is something to celebrate.”