Monkeypox did not kill the Member’s Only Club. Its owner and operator Joe Hickerson made that clear in his email blast earlier this month announcing that he had no choice but to “suspend all events” in his sex club for men in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. Instead, read Hickerson’s email, “The Department of Buildings, which enforces zoning regulations and building codes, seems to be determined to shutdown a legitimate small business that pays its taxes and provides its employees with steady salaries.” Hickerson also wrote that while he supported “the efforts of others in gay nightlife to protect the health of our community by pausing their events, monkeypox is not the main reason for suspending events at Members Only Club.”
“It’s done,” said Hickerson of his club at 410 W. 47th St. “It’s done for the foreseeable future and most likely, permanently.” Hickerson told me this in the front room of his club. He sat on a black leather (or pleather) couch. I was across from him in a bed covered in matte black waterproof sheets used by his patrons, next to an identically dressed bed. More beds and couches clustered nearby. This was, as they used to say on Cribs, where the magic happened. But so was over there (in the next room were a series of three booths outfitted with gloryholes) and over there (a small-ish section with a couch where porn was displayed) and over there (the back room with two slings, a couch, and a bench).
For over a year, Hickerson had been throwing parties on a Friday-through-Monday schedule in the now-shuttered space. He said that his busiest nights were Friday and Saturday, which would typically top out at 150 patrons—he pointed out that those 150 people weren’t in the venue at same time, but over the course of a night, which generally lasted about six hours (10 pm to 4 am on Fridays and Saturdays). His parties rarely exceeded 75 guys at one time—spaces that serve gatherings of 75 or more are required to obtain a Place of Assembly Certificate of Operation (PACO) from the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB). Hickerson did not have one.
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Nor did he have a permit for the construction of a divider that he built to separate his club’s entrance from its changing area. He also did not have a Certificate of Occupancy for running a social club or adult establishment. Both are required by the city, and his failure to produce either resulted in him being issued summonses during inspections on May 20 and July 1. These violations carry fines. Hearings have been set for August and September. Hickerson said he suspended his parties mid-July because “there was no way to prevent this from continuing to happen until a hearing date.”
Hickerson does not believe his business was targeted as a result of homophobia or sex-negative stigmatization. Contacted for comment, the DOB said that it was notified of non-code complaints from both the 47/48 Streets Block Association and staff members in City Councilmember Erik Bottcher’s office. A spokesperson for the DOB said that it’s the department’s understanding that the complaints originated from neighbors living on the block where 410 W. 47th St. is located, between 9th and 10th Avenues.
“I forwarded complaints we got from constituents regarding late night noise and unsafe capacity to the Department of Buildings,” wrote Erik Bottcher’s chief of staff, Sean Coughlin, in an email to Jezebel. Jesse Bodine, district manager of Manhattan Community Board 4, which serves the club’s area, wrote in an email to Jezebel that the Board “received complaints from the West 47/48 Street Block Association regarding the illegal use and hours of operation at this location,” which “were received and responded to appropriately.”
In describing his club’s closure, Hickerson lifted the veil on what it is like to run a business on the legal fringes in New York. Hickerson was aware of the risks of operating such an establishment and yet forged ahead regardless, in service, he said, of likeminded members of his community. It also made him money.
Hickerson told me he got into the sex party game in 2018 after having attending such events in New York for about 10 years. He launched Members Only Club LLC in January of that year with the ultimate goal of raising capital to open a gay bathhouse in New York, which has been devoid of such establishments (at least officially and in any permanent capacity) since the mid-‘80s, when they were cleared out by the city as AIDS ravaged its population of queer men. Hickerson opened a space at 38 W. 39th St., where he started throwing parties. The popular, now-defunct New York Jock Party (NYJP) took residence in that space, until a fire in 2021 effectively ejected Hickerson and his parties from the building.
Hickerson said he had met with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in 2018 regarding New York’s Sanitary Code §24-2.2, which advises, “No establishment shall make facilities available for the purpose of sexual activities where anal intercourse, vaginal intercourse or fellatio take place.” (When the code was established in 1985, it did not include a reference to “vaginal intercourse.” The code was amended to include it in 1994.) Though enforceable, the code has been largely ignored as public sex has pervaded gay New York nightlife over the past decade. “We’re not designed to be a surveillance machine for venues,” then-deputy health commissioner Dr. Demetre Daskalakis told me when I interviewed him for my 2017 article about the proliferation of gay sex parties in New York. Daskalakis told me that in the event that a complaint was filed, the department would have to follow up. Hickerson said he met with the department to look into ridding the city of the code, but was advised that it would be easier for him to do his thing and fly under the radar.
Hickerson was also aware of potential zoning breaches, but not overly concerned. “That’s an administrative law code sort of violation,” he said. “It’s a civil offense at most.” He did not let on to his property manager and landlord that his parties at 38 W 39th were sexual in nature, he said. Rather, he “played it off” as a general event space, “which just turned into a headache.” Whenever anyone higher up needed to access the space, he had to move sex-related equipment out. “It was just a pain in the ass. So I didn’t really want to go with that again,” he said.
Hickerson began to look for new digs in 2021 before the fire that would make a new venue an absolute necessity. This time, he said, he was more forthcoming with his property manager. He asked that certain language be struck from the lease he was about to sign for 410 W. 47th Street—language regarding the display of pornography, for example. His property manager asked why, and he came clean. It took him about three months to be approved for the lease.
“I had to walk them through how my operation was not a brothel,” explained Hickerson. “It took some convincing, but they were sort of in such dire straits, because it was still lockdown. That was one thing that helped me get in. But once I was in, I paid my rent on time. I didn’t cause any problems. There was no issues with the cops or whatever. They were happy to have me.”
(Reached for comment, the property manager of 410 W 47th St, asked, “What is Jezebel” [no punctuation] and did not respond after I linked to the site a second time and explained our purview.)
Hickerson was further emboldened by discussions with law enforcement. He was caught operating during lockdown and said that the cops’ main questions for him were: “Are you paying anyone to come in?,” and, “And are you making any promises of anything in return for coming in?” Hickerson said the answers to both of those questions is no. The cops were further placated when he told them he doesn’t serve alcohol—he maintains that he never has and is surprised that other parties do so brazenly.
The parties were thrown without city interference from the time Hickerson opened his new space until May of this year. He said around May 13, 2022, two DOB inspectors showed up before he had opened for the night. The inspectors asked for the owner and inquired about the nature of the business. “And I said, ‘It’s a sex club,’” he recalled. They asked if he had a PACO, he told them the size of his crowds didn’t require one, and they left.
The following Friday, May 20, 2022, he said DOB inspectors arrived with four cops. They arrived just as he was opening that night, and there was only one person in the venue, who quickly left. The inspectors inquired about the nature of his business and about the wall he had erected. They ended up issuing two summonses: one for operating outside of the C of O, and one for erecting the dividing wall (that does not, Hickerson pointed out, reach the ceiling). He recalled one “seemingly trying to be helpful” on his way out by advising him to be more discreet by keeping the music down and taking his establishment’s address off the Members Only Club’s website.
The DOB confirmed that it issued two violations to the property owners, West View Realty LLC c/o New Aim Realty LLC, and that the combined standard penalty the owners could face for these violations is $5,000. Hickerson said he has already paid a $2,500 fine to the Environmental Control Board for one of these violations.
On July 1, 2022, the DOB came back, this time with “12 to 15” police officers, according to Members Only Club manager Chris Vasquez, who received them. It was around 9:35 pm, and Hickerson had not yet showed up for work. The party was to begin at 10 pm. Vasquez described the officers as “very curt and very short.” As with the previous time, they posted two summonses on the outside door of the venue. The paperwork was nearly identical, with one of them detailing the violations like this:
Inspection revealed second floor occupancy DBA “Members Only Club” situated as a [sic] adult establishment with advertisement with private booths present, specialty table with stirrups, basket present holding condoms, adult movies being played contrary to zoning in said district.
The DOB confirmed this visit was the result of additional complaints and that the owners face fines for these two new violations (one for the continued occupancy contrary to that allowed by the Certificate of Occupancy, and another for an illegal commercial use in a residential district) could be as high as $7,500.
Hickerson said that the location of his club was part of its downfall—as a commercial building in a residential zone, it faces disproportionate scrutiny from nearby residents. However, the location was also key to its success. “It has been a huge boon to the business because it was so easy for guys to come by on any given night because they live right around the corner,” he explained. “The downside was that it sort of put a target on my back.”
Hickerson continued operating through the long July 4 weekend, and then was open again the following weekend (July 8-11). On July 14, he announced Members Only’s closure. He told Jezebel that if he were to stay open, he risked additional inspections that could potential result in more violations. “There’s no way I would have the resources to pay the legal fees to fight this,” said Hickerson. “You end up just throwing up your hands, even though as far as I can tell, I’m totally in the right on most of this stuff. Once adjudicated, I’m 99 percent certain that I would win. But it’s still a risk and I don’t have enough confidence that the process will be fair to take that risk, given that it’s existential for my company.”
Then again, he was always operating with knowledge of risk. He said he ran his vulnerable business because, “We need spaces like this in the city, given that most of the 1990s HIV-era prohibitions continue to persist, officially preventing Steamworks from opening up something in the city.”
“[If I hadn’t] worked at this club, I would have just assumed it’s just it’s a hole in the wall place where people go and they do dirty things,” said Vasquez. “I didn’t really understand the actual communal sense these types of venues can provide.” Vasquez said he met “a lot of people—nice, decent, genuine people” at Members Only, which he described as “a social place where gay men gathered and they happened to be in various degrees of undress.” The shuttering of the club “definitely tightens my finances a little bit,” said Vasquez, who is a paramedic by day.
For his part, Hickerson says he’ll be fine for now, despite losing what has been a full-time job since April 2021. “Our checking account is healthy enough to pay me for a considerable amount of time going into the future if need be,” he said. The downside is that he indeed planned on using his club’s revenue to open that bathhouse and has had his eye on a space that’s already zoned as a spa, thus eliminating many of the hurdles he faced with keeping Members Only open.
“It sucks that I’m not going to have that nest egg for the project that I truly am interested in doing,” said Hickerson.