Kander & Ebb may have set Cabaret in Weimar Berlin, but quoting from the show’s title song could not be more appropriate as we bid farewell to the long-running New York eatery Florent. Now, why should we mention the closing of a restaurant in this arts-focused blog? First, Florent always was a haven for creative nightowls; the chi-chi uptown crowd may have had Elaine’s and the likes, but the downtown people would get their steak-frites in a much more egalitarian setting. In addition, the departure of this beloved 24/7 institution, forced out by rising rents, is only the tip of the iceberg that is the gentrification of New York—or rather, it’s the latest ship to slam into that iceberg. And that of course is something with repercussions on how the city and its cultural scene interact.When Florent opened in the meatpacking district 23 years ago, that neighborhood on the western edge of downtown Manhattan was full of meat wholesalers during the day while during the night prostitutes of all three genders rubbed elbows with gay men going to the local hardcore clubs and general clubbing revelers; as diverse as night and day were, both were pretty raw. The neighborhood changed considerably over the past decade, a transformation epitomized by its use as a frequent backdrop in Sex and the City. Alas, the Manolo crowd came to taste the edge, and ensured its dulling in the process.
Florent is getting an appropriately arty send-off with a handful of events (May 26–June 28) named after Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief and starring an array of hard-to-classify luminaries who embody the restaurant’s sensibility, its nonplussed acceptance of difference and kookiness.
The acts are wonderfully diverse, representing 30 years of a kind of downtown creativity that sometimes—but not that often—traveled to the city’s larger institutions: Julie Atlas Muz and the World Famous *Bob* are neo-burlesque queens; Jackie Hoffman is a singer-comedian who thrives on offending her audiences and is currently in Xanadu on Broadway; John Kelly is a ballet-trained performance-artist influenced by Cocteau, Artaud and Mitchell (Joni, that is); Tigger is an unpredictably demented performer drawing ferocious, in-your-face routines from club culture; Lucy Sexton used to be part of the classic East Village duo Dancenoise; former Warhol acolyte Penny Arcade tackles sexuality and, a lot rarer, class in her monologues. (If only more of these performers could be shown on Thirteen!)
Of course, cities and neighborhoods change, it’s the nature of things. While one hot area loses its edge, another one pops up to replace it. But here in New York, that edge is pushed further and further away. It’s harder for artists to survive when rents are so high, and it’s harder for small venues receptive to their work to stay afloat as well. How do you keep rebellion and a certain idea of “queerness”—something different from the norm by definition—alive in the New York cultural scene when it sometimes feels as if the entire city is in the hands of those whose only god is that of lucre?