This morning in my regular blog reading, I came across this news that the owners of the trendy (again) restaurants, Indochine and Acme, are going to take over the space on First Avenue that housed Lucky Cheng's and, before that, the Club Baths. The history of this building is particularly fascinating in the way that it illustrates a certain history of the city as it intersects with LGBT history. You don't have to venture too far from the topics of AIDS and gentrification to cover most of what's happened in and to New York since the late 70s.
The old Club Baths was the first gay bathhouse I saw the inside of.
When I was 20 and a student at Parsons. I met a guy very late one night at the Ninth Circle on 10th St. (I lived on East 10th, and, when I had a few bucks to go out, I always went to the Ninth Circle. I hadn't yet discovered The Bar on 2nd Ave. and 4th St., which would be my haunt for the rest of the decade). We were both drunk and he was hungry, so we went to that gay restaurant on Christopher, the name of which escapes me. He tore through a steak and a bottle of wine, fell off his chair, yelled at the waiter. We were "asked" to leave, which at the time, for reasons I can't remember now, I found very sexy. I had a roommate and Jean, that was his name, lived on Staten Island, so he suggested we go to the baths.
Jean paid for a room and a locker. He left me to change in the locker room and meet him in his room. I took my clothes off and wrapped a towel around my waist, but I couldn't work up the nerve to venture into the hallway and find him. I knew I was in a strange land with a complex protocol of mostly unstated rules, and I was, as I am still 30 years later, too often terrified of doing something wrong and being humiliated. I'm working on it.
Eventually Jean came and got me.
Either because thinking about public gay sex while you're talking about eating out is gross or (more likely) because our collective memory of the East Village for the most part does not extend pre-Tompkins Square riots, when the NYPD rode in on horseback with riot shields and cleared that shit out to make the neighborhood safe for people who might think drag queens are a good laugh, but junkies passed out under your stairwell is taking local color a bit too far, this building always seems to be referred to as the former Lucky Cheng's, rather than the former Club Baths. (And what was it before it was a bathhouse? Just another New York Lower East Side tenement building, probably.)
So I did a little googling and found this post on Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, a wonderful blog that I can only read occasionally because it has the same effect on me as actually visiting the East Village, which is that I end up feeling disoriented and sad about New York, my past, missed opportunities, and aging. It's a quagmire I try to avoid.
Anyway, Jeremiah's condensed history of the building takes you back pre-Lucky Cheng's with an evocative description of the baths, then through the late 80s when the yuppies came and ruined everything, and the late 90s when Sex and the City came along and ruined everything else.