The Last Night of Rawhide: A Chelsea institution shuts its doors for good

“You either loved coming here or were scared to walk in.”
April 03, 2013

(Erick Davis and owner Jason Gudgeon)

On Easter eve, we stopped by Rawhide, the classic 34-year-old gay bar in Chelsea, which was jam-packed with patrons old and new, gathering to mourn the untimely death of the old-school nightspot. However, like a certain scruffy 33-year-old who died and then miraculously came back from the dead on Easter, there seems to be some hope for a Rawhide resurrection this spring.

Circulating through the crowd on Saturday night, we heard rumors that the bar might actually reopen somewhere else. So we tracked down the owner, Jason Goudgeon, and he confirmed that he’s looking at a new space. “Wow, news travels fast,” he said, somewhat surprised when we asked about the re-birth buzz. While he said Rawhide might remain somewhere in Chelsea, he couldn’t give us an exact location yet as the deal is not completely done.

Still, despite that glimmer of good news, he was not happy about closing up the current space the bar occupied for so many years on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 21st Street. “I’m gonna miss the atmosphere and literally the bricks,” said Goudgeon, who took over the bar in 1999 after the first owner died. “This place meant a lot to a lot of people. For some guys, this was their first gay bar they ever walked into. So people feel very protective of it. I was always very respectful of that and tried to keep it that way.” 

Rawhide always had a certain rundown charm marked by the fact that the interior had not changed much in three decades—no fancy lighting, artisan cocktails or sleek banquettes here. Originally a leather-and-Levi’s joint, it was a black hole of a bar with leather man memorabilia on the walls and a huge, dusty motorcycle hanging over a battered pool table.

Of course, one gay man’s charm is another’s curse. “You either got this bar or you didn’t get it,” said Goudgeon, referring to Rawhide’s rough-around-the edges quality. “You either loved coming here or were scared to walk in. People always felt strongly about this bar one way another.”

That sentiment was echoed by the crowd partying it up on the last night of this local landmark. Some had lovely things to say about it and others…well, we’ll let each of them speak for themselves:

“It’s the beginning of the end of the neighborhood,” said Michael Blatt who, with his partner, Bob, has lived in Chelsea nearly 15 years. “We’re losing a piece of old New York.”

“The last time I was in here there was lots of leering going on,” said Kyle O’Connor, a bearded artist. “Not much talking, just leering.”

“Actually I’m very upset about it,” said Andrew, a neighborhood local who was also a regular. “The rents go up and the chains move in. It’s depressing.”

“If these walls could talk, they would moan,” said writer Chris Lee, referencing the bar’s sexy seediness and infamous go-gos. “But that’s why it’s great. Everything shouldn’t be Barracuda.”

“It’s a staple of our culture,” said Andrew Ryan Rix, partying with the cast of Rentboy the Musical. “I wish every night could have been this crowded. Maybe things would have turned out differently .”

And finally, these parting words from comedian Mark Sam Rosenthal: “Rawhide, I didn’t know you that well but you always made me feel dirty.”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. It seems that in the overwhelming drive to gentrify and prettify the city, the gay scene is getting swept a little too clean. There is something sexy about the grime and sweat and, let’s face it, the smell of a place like Rawhide. Our own staff photographer, Gustavo Monroy, told us how he had a special nickname for the bar. “I called it Sweaty Balls,” he said with a wicked grin. “Because that’s what it smelled like.” Others referred to the telltale aroma as a mix of spilled poppers, stale beer and 30-year-old cigarette smoke. One patron said simply and almost wistfully, “It smells like the ’80s.”

Whether you liked Rawhide or not, there is no denying it was a uniquely New York institution. It was the first gay bar in Chelsea when it originally opened back in 1979. And though its time at the center of the New York gay world may have passed, its closing marks the end of an era. Who knows, maybe its reopening could mark the beginning of a new one?

The Eagle only got bigger and better after it moved north more than a decade ago due to similar gentrification in the Village. So maybe this ramshackle bar’s second coming could be its savior in a way. Only time, which helped make the bar a legend in the first place, will tell.