It was once the epicenter of the gayest neighborhood in New York City. Today, any traces of the infamous Chelsea Gym are nearly impossible to find.
From the mid-‘80s to the late ‘90s, the Gym at 17th Street and Eighth Avenue was a big part of my gay youth (late gay youth anyway). As one of a few all-male gyms in town, Chelsea was a required stop for the party circuit and even what passed for the muscle glitterati. There were photos of semi-famous actors and would-be porn stars in mid-pump. Even Schwarzenegger himself worked out once, or so legend and an autographed picture attested. Some weekends, the place was overrun with beautiful, built, burly out-of-towners, leaving us locals either delighted or intimidated. And tucked away downstairs, the steam, sauna and shower areas saw enough action to fill volumes of erotic memoirs if anyone ever has the balls write them.
It was an improbable place to inspire affection, much less nostalgia. The old building and gym equipment were often in disrepair, especially the plumbing: no hot water, no cold water, no steam, steam peeling your skin off, loose shower handles, backed up drains, dripping pipes. The guys behind the desk would slap around a paintbrush or uncertainly wield a power tool at whatever was askew. One year an announced “renovation” turned out to be a new barbell motif in the shower tile. And on humid days, you could see the dumbbells rusting before your eyes.
But it was all fun and later, distracting, as Chelsea Gym’s heyday coincided with the worst of the Plague years. The Gym was even featured in the AIDS-era film, “Jeffrey.” Some lucky regulars got tapped as extras, lifting and treadmilling in the background as actors played out dialogue that had become all too real. Muscles, cruising and actual dates got cruelly juxtaposed with fear, rumour and unexplained disappearances. You’d suddenly miss one of those regulars. He might return in a month or two, 30 pounds lighter, gaunt, pale and spotted–but would work out, trying to find his way back. Then he’d vanish again, this time for good. In a few weeks, his smiling healthy picture appeared on the bulletin board alongside the date and time of his memorial service. It became a numbingly regular pattern.
For some, the Gym evolved into refuge and retreat from the shroudish fear of AIDS that hung over us all. Yes, there was some attitude and judgmentalism that gay men serve up so expertly at times. But there was also a sense of community, acceptance, even fellowship. Weren’t we all facing this horror together? Sometimes it felt like the gym class you wished you’d had in school. After a day of bigoted clients or tiresome co-workers or scary doctor visits (“Do I have it? Will I get it? What’s that spot?”) Chelsea Gym, of all places, was safe haven. Amidst peeling plaster and squeaky machines, it maintained a comforting character. It had the faded face of an earlier New York, but sun and air and life of the neighborhood still flowed freely through its big windows.
Then newer, cooler gyms sprang up and siphoned off many younger guys. A few “serious” bodybuilders remained but Chelsea Gym was no longer about that. Whether consciously or not, it became a place for us survivors–those who now needed respite from partying, clubbing, drugging, muscle obsession and chilling, ever-present fear of what had once been unthinkable—incurable illness and early death.
Chelsea Gym closed suddenly in 1999 (another victim of absurdly high rents) and seemingly disappeared into gay history. In those pre-mobile phone days, no one brought cameras to the gym; few if any photos exist or if so, seem undiscoverable. Maybe some remain in forgotten peeling albums or disintegrating shoeboxes. Most likely, what few photos there were got tossed out with other stuff after a funeral. And online research for either written material or photographs is overwhelmed by references only to the newer Chelsea Piers facility or the neighborhood itself. (I could find no online photos for this article; the graphic here is from my old membership card.)
Of course, the Gym was just one of the hundreds of gay-oriented businesses that have come and gone—since Stonewall and even before–with little fanfare. Such memories are often short in our communities. Still, Chelsea Gym’s role as an anchor in New York City gay life, way-station during the AIDS years and backdrop for countless stories—comic, dramatic and too often tragic—all suggest it deserves a better memorial.