Perpetual Transformation: What’s New in NYC

by Robert Israel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 29, 2013

New York is a city in perpetual transformation. In autumn, when seasonal changes abound, the pace intensifies as visitors and locals alike gallop in hot pursuit to discover (or rediscover) places that reflect the city's passion for bold inventiveness.

Listen to Josh Held, of Josh Held Design, describe the ever-morphing New York scene. Held makes his living designing hotels, nightclubs, and casinos. His creates atmospheres that entice and enthrall.

"For the last ten years or so, when you went out to nightclubs in New York, you only had a few places to choose from," Held says. "Now there are 20 different venues or more with a high level of entertainment available. The competition is fierce. It's become not only about bringing folks in, but making them stay."

Clientele, he contends, are not just looking for a night on the town. They want more than that. They are seeking, he says, to "interact with a space, to enjoy a new experience that touches on all of one's senses."

Held's vision for the remake of popular nightspot Marquee is audacious. It's a pulsating palace of intensity. Held suggested transforming the 5,000-square-foot popular midtown space from the roof down. The first step: rip open the roof. Months later, mission accomplished: the club's new roof is now 15 feet higher than before.

"We re-opened in January this year," Held says. "When you enter, it's a total sensory experience. We wanted to develop a narrative that was New York-centric, with New York grit. We wanted it to feel like it belongs - every decision came from that story."

Marquee's revamp is just a small part of New York City's ever-changing urban landscape as new hotels, restaurants, nightlife venues and cultural attractions continue to woo visitors from around the world to the city that never sleeps.

Wooing Them Back to Chelsea

Turns out, there are many similar transformative stories in Gotham.

GLounge, on 229 W. 19th Street, an LGBT gathering place and watering hole since 1997 in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, is another club that felt compelled to join the redesign steeple chase.

"For ten years, we never promoted G Lounge, not once, ever," owner Michael McGrail tells me. "People just came in."

McGrail credits his staff for making G Lounge's atmosphere welcoming and friendly. But friendliness aside, the crowds began thinning out.

"Rents in Chelsea went sky high," McGrail says. "Gay folks moved out, they moved on. They flocked to the latest rooftop dance clubs night after night, in nearby Hell's Kitchen and elsewhere, in search of the best parties."

So McGrail and his staff embraced Yoda's maxim - "Do or not do-there is no try" - as their rallying cry to woo clientele back.

"We came up with theme nights," McGrail says. "One night it's East Village night. Another night it's fashionista night - everyone's decked out, looking cool. We do a weekly DILF night - Daddies I Love to F*** - and on that night it's hosting older men and the younger ones that follow them."

When the 16th anniversary of G Lounge approached last month, McGrail unveiled a plan for a "Sweet Sixteen" celebration. He enlisted out artist David Paul Kay to transform the club's 5,000-square-foot interior with original artwork.

"Initially, when I started working on the canvases, I thought 'This is insane!'" exclaims Kay. "This club was the first place that welcomed me when I arrived here from Russia. But I work alone. I went about whitewashing the walls and ceilings myself. I stretched my own canvases. I used thousands of staples to mount the installation."

The result: Kay's lively murals brighten G Lounge's formerly drab interior and give it a new sparkle. The same friendly staff works there, but now there's a pulsating Keith Haring-like vibe: it's animated, lively. And the clientele is returning.

Murray Hill’s St. Giles Hotel

Hotels, too, are burning with redesign fever. Even quaint neighborhoods like Murray Hill - only a few minutes' walk from the frantic nightclub scene of nearby mid-town - are the scenes of frenzied renewal efforts.

"The Murray Hill neighborhood is a great place to come to after a hectic day, a place where you can collect yourself before venturing out again," says Kenneth Hung, general manager of The Tuscany, a St. Giles Hotel at 12-130 E. 39th Street.

The Tuscany is actually two properties - it includes The Court next door -- located side by side. The property dates to the 1920s. The renovation, to be completed by year's end, has already transformed former apartments into large and comfortable guest rooms. Each room is quiet and comes with all the amenities.

"The rooms are apartment-size," Hung says, "450-500-square-feet of space, each. That's large by New York standards. And when we're finished, we'll have an outdoor patio for street-side dining, as well as an indoor restaurant. Two months ago we opened a wrap around terrace on the 17th floor with stunning views of the entire Manhattan skyline."

Like the G Lounge in Chelsea, hotelier Hung credits the staff with making the place unique.

"Any establishment in New York - be it a hotel or a restaurant - makes it or breaks it depending on the quality of its staff. It's a huge draw," Hung says. "Visitors and guests search for courtesies from a professional staff that always provides excellent service."

Hung tells of a neighbor from 39th Street who stopped in at the St. Giles bar for a drink recently before going home to her apartment.

"She works as a fashion shoe designer, lives two doors away, and came in just out of curiosity," Hung says. "I sat down with her. Now she's a regular. She tells me she's bringing other neighbors in to join her. That's the kind of feeling we want everyone to experience."

Novotel Times Square

The Novotel New York Times Square hotel is yet another example of the lengths - and expense - that owners of New York City properties undertake to become transformed.

Newly opened in September after an $85 million "metamorphosis," the Novotel is situated on 52nd Street in the heart of the theater district and within a short jaunt to entertainment hot spots. The lobby creates a total sensory experience and includes computer-controlled hexagonal LED ceiling panels illuminated in a palette of colors with music that is altered throughout the day. (It sounds a bit like Marquee, without the raised roof.)

One of the most magnetic features of the renovated property is the seventh floor outdoor terrace overlooking the cauldron that is Times Square. Below is a sea of pulsating Jumbotrons beating out neon-altered images timed to coincide with the rapid blinks of the human eye. Imagine staying at the hotel during the famed NYC New Year's Eve bacchanal and strolling out onto the terrace above the throng while noisemakers and cascading confetti rule the night. And even the hotel restaurant's name promises a chance to swing on a star: Supernova.

Tweaking XL’s Nightclub Mojo

It's not always about redesigning, rewiring, or gutting the interior of a place, but simply tweaking its mojo. The popular Manhattan XL Nightclub is a case in point.

"Back in the day, we made the gay circuit at Splash on Friday nights, Roxy on Saturday nights and Avalon on Sunday," says Dougie Meyer, XL's promotional director. "But that changed when new gay clubs opened in Hell's Kitchen and elsewhere, and crowds followed."

So Meyer and his team rallied to keep their clientele.

"We used to have Gay College Party night on Tuesdays," Meyer says. "It was a hit at Splash, which closed recently, so we thought we'd transfer it to XL. It didn't work. The room we held it in was too large. So, in late September this year, we moved the party to our smaller Rosebud Lounge. In one week, we've doubled our numbers."

Meyer is constantly fine-tuning the XL vibe.

"Sometimes it's just about pumping different music out onto the dance floor," he says. "We did that the other night. The DJ's played pop music instead of heavy house music. I never thought it would work. But the crowds loved it."

The Latest Bites in Hell’s Kitchen

Competition is fierce for New York's restaurants to join the stampede to attract, claim and retain clientele.

KTCHN, located in the same 42nd Street cluster as XL Nightclub, changes its menu with the seasons. The restaurant recently added prix fixe dinner and movie night, and other events designed to generate a buzz, including revolving exhibition of local artists, a "Bottomless Mimosa Brunch" on the weekends, and a nightly happy hour. Late-night dining is available, and the venue features seating at large communal tables or at roomy banquettes if you make a few friends along the way. The restaurant is designed to fit into the hectic neighborhood while still maintaining its own identity. It's a place that embraces change and uses it as one of its draws.

Just a few blocks away, Charlie Marshall is the owner/chef at the newly opened The Marshal on the 10th Avenue, between 44th and 45th streets. "I grew up on a farm so far north in Washington state that if you threw a stone, you'd hit Canada," he tells me. Exposed to the farm-to-table food concept from his parents, The Marshal (missing the second "l" from the spelling) serves only locally sourced food, including 90 percent of the wines produced from New York state, and only locally brewed beers. "We have a brick oven and use only wood to cook our food," he says. After just one week, Marshall reports, "the place is packed every day."

Three blocks away, on 10th Avenue at 48th Street, is the newly opened Havana Libre. With a menu that's a radically different from the neighboring Marshal, owner Thomas Vicari promises his place will offer "the best of Cuban cuisine at friendly prices. We range the gamut of delicious indigenous dishes from the popular pressed Cubano sandwich served with yucca fries to ropa viejo and camarones enchiladas."

Step up to the plates: pork, shellfish, chicken, cerviche, and a bar stocked with flavorful Latino American rums. And come spring and summer, Vicari expects to park the chassis of an old red Thunderbird outside (like those relics one sees on a street side in Havana) so you'll never miss the entrance to his restaurant.

Jazz at Lincoln Center

And finally, what would a weekend in New York be without the cacophonous sounds of jazz, created by musicians whose instruments mimic the pulse of life on New York's avenues and streets?

There are many venues to be found to hear live music in New York, up and downtown. But one of the most sought after is Jazz at Lincoln Center. It is within easy reach of the aforementioned mid-town restaurants, hotels and nightclubs. And while it is customary to go to a jazz venue in New York and be expected to not only pay admission but also be charged for a minimum number of drinks (whether you want to drink or not), those restrictions do not apply at JALC.

There are numerous venues within JALC to choose from, an exciting array of musicians to learn from and listen to, with windows overlooking the bedazzling city lights of Columbus Circle.

There is much more to explore. In New York, a voracious treasure hunt is afoot. New York's denizens ask: "What's new?" When you visit this fall, you'll soon discover the thrill of the chase, and you won't rest until you get the answers.

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.