The opening of a new sports bar in Washington Heights just may spark the slow move of gay bars to “forgotten” upper Manhattan neighborhoods, locals predict.
“Washington Heights deserves its own neighborhood gay bar,” says Rob Hynds, the co-owner of Boxers NYC, a chain with spots in the current mecca, Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea and the Upper East Side. “A lot of our clientele have been coming from the area to our parties for years.”
Boxers will open a new location in the rapidly evolving Washington Heights on Friday, marking the first time the area will have a gay bar of its own since the 2014 shuttering of No Parking. For four years, the area that stretches from 115th Street to Fort George Avenue has had no local bar for its LGBTQ residents, and only one club, Castro, in the neighboring Inwood.
“Washington Heights, Inwood and the Bronx are the forgotten LGBT communities,” says Washington Heights resident Jamar Wilson, 40. “We constantly have to travel to Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea and the Village for our bars. That time is over and it’s a joyous occasion.”
The evolving neighborhood is becoming increasingly popular among New York City’s millennial and LGBTQ residents, though isn’t yet known for businesses that service these groups. And that’s exactly why Hynds and his partner Bob Fluet targeted the area for their latest Boxers expansion.
Washington Heights is “absolutely, the word everybody likes to use, gentrifying. It’s a great thing right now,” Hynds explains. “It’s kind of the new Hell’s Kitchen to be honest with you. So many people live or have jobs up in that neighborhood now because it’s affordable.”
The opening, about a year in the making, brings residents of upper Manhattan, and even the Bronx, an accessible hangout spot that won’t run them a half-hour subway ride. Boxers, at its core, is a sports bar, but it’ll aim to appeal to a variety of patrons.
Its projected event lineup includes Sunday morning NFL games, Monday Latin nights, Tuesday karaoke parties, Thursday urban nights, weekly “RuPaul’s Drag Race” screenings and after-dark open mics and drag performances.
“The original concept behind Boxers and what we try to do was to market to the sports community,” Hynds says. “But we want it to be a place for everybody. It always annoyed me as a kid that certain bars were women bars; men bars; black bars; leather bars; you had to be a certain thing to get in and feel comfortable.”
He continues: “Our staff is gay, it’s straight, black, Latino, every ethnicity you can imagine. We want women to come and have a great time and men to come and have a great time. We just want good people.”
As far as explaining why there’s still a need for a gay bar in today’s cultural and political climate, Hynds simply says, “birds of a flock like to fly together.”
“I think it’ll always be at some level if you’re a gay guy and you go into a straight bar, you’re a minority. It’s nice for someone to go somewhere and feel they’re the majority,” he adds.
Boxers has been almost unanimously accepted among the community members, including those on the local board who approved the chain’s expansion, Hynds says. A soft opening on Monday drew hundreds, with a line wrapping around the corner of Broadway and 159th Street.
The only opposition the bar’s owners say they’ve faced so far comes from those who fear the chain’s presence may boost business in the neighborhood, and eventually inflate rent prices. Hynds predicts Boxers WH will “increase foot traffic,” but never expected some may see that as a negative.
“It will change the neighborhood because people are going to come there and hang out and go for dinner out there and get more comfortable with the area. A lot of people had never been up there they didn’t even know where they were going,” he explains.
For the LGBTQ community, especially those who’ve found their footing as aspiring and established drag performers, the bar’s opening may be a game changer. Offering weekly live drag performances (inside a boxing ring stage, hence the name), Hynds says he’s already booking local queens, like Marti Gould Cummings.
“The New York gay neighborhoods shift every couple of years,” Monet X Change, of the Bronx, says while promoting “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” “There are new gay bars being built up in Washington Heights and Harlem. So, I feel like soon it’s going to transition to the Upper West Side and Harlem. It’s going to keep shooting up.”
Lady Bunny, a seasoned queen who rose to fame in the ’80s, echoes Monet’s sentiment, admitting that in NYC today, there isn’t exactly one central “gay neighborhood” anymore.
“The scene is very fragmented now,” she explains. “The gay neighborhoods move from the West Village to the East Village to Chelsea and now Hell’s Kitchen and Brooklyn.”
Boxers will host opening weekend parties on Friday and Saturday (4 p.m. to 4 a.m.). Its first “Fired-Up Fridays” party will be hosted by NYC drag queen Kizha Carr and Saturday’s “Set It Off” event will feature an appearance by Zarria Van Wales. For more information, visit boxersnyc.com.