By Jack Mirkinson and Leah Finnegan
On a blustery Wednesday night, Willie, a slight man in a candy-striped shirt and denim cargo pants, teetered on a rickety ladder draping tinsel from the rafters of the Starlite Lounge. The place was already decked out with felt wreaths and small trees of poinsettia that glowed in the bar’s soft yellow light. Willie’s 66th birthday is Saturday; the lounge is having a party to honor him. He’s worked at the lounge for 39 years.
In its own words, the lounge is Crown Heights’s oldest black-owned, non-discriminating club. Since 1960, it has been a safe haven in the neighborhood — a place for a motley crew of regulars to gather. Ownership has been passed from family hand to family hand. But it now faces the threat of closure from new landlords who say they want to tear out the club.
Tim La’Viticus, 48, runs the lounge and tends bar. He lives in the Bronx, but makes the 90-minute commute to Crown Heights five times a week. On Wednesday, he greeted each customer who entered and put out baskets of potato chips for patrons to snack on.
He also bantered with his co-bartender, Karen Covergirl. “How long have I been working here?” he asked her.
“Nineteen years,” she replied.
“Shut up, girl,” he said. He’s only worked there five. He asked her if she had to jump from a second-floor window to fit into her body-hugging jeans.
While it draws a sizeable gay crowd, the bar’s employees are careful not to call it a gay bar. It is an alternative bar, they said, open and accepting but not geared specifically toward gays. Covergirl is transgender; she came to work at the lounge after La’Viticus gave her an opportunity that many other bars would not.
The building, La’Viticus said, used to be owned by the Brown Funeral Home next door. It was sold earlier this year with the expectation that all the tenants would leave. But the community — a term that encompasses everyone from elected officials to the bar’s regular stable of crotchety seniors who take the place over in the afternoons — is trying to find a way to keep the Starlite Lounge in business for another 50 years.
So far, they have a petition with more than 1,000 signatures. They also have the support of community activist Debra Griffin-Daza, 50. “I used to be a gang leader back in the 70s. I love a good fight,” she said.
Griffin-Daza’s cousins own the lounge. She’s lived in Crown Heights for 41 years. Her entrance into the bar was heralded by hugs and cries of “Debbie!” She happily received the attention, then slid onto a barstool and ordered a vodka with cranberry and pineapple.
“It’s an epidemic of people being bought out,” she said. “You look up Nostrand Avenue you see nail salons, Chinese restaurants. There’s no place for people to go.”
The lounge, she added, has been a constant in a neighborhood that has seen ups and downs.
Wednesday night’s clientele was redolent of the varied crowd the lounge draws. Among the patrons were a woman named Kim who said she had been coming there for 20 years, two men who had had jobs at the lounge before and had now transitioned to being regulars, and two young women who had just begun coming to the bar. Kate Sarrantonio, 23, played a video game called Erotic Photo Hunt with her friend. They are experts, racking up hundreds of thousands of points. A recent graduate of Hampshire College, Sarrantonio moved back to Brooklyn from Austin a few months ago. “We kind of just rolled in and really liked it,” she said. “We try not to bring our friends. Not our space.”
Griffin-Daza said that local officials have been bombarded with e-mails in support of the lounge. “It looks like we have a very, very good chance of keeping this open,” she said. But the building’s new owners declared that the lounge must vacate by Jan. 15, or they will be forced to leave. La’Viticus said that the club’s owners had been looking for a new space to house the bar, but were intent on staying put if possible.
Tonight, Griffin-Daza and supporters of the bar will rally at Community Board 8’s meeting, where they have secured a special slot on the agenda. Afterward, they’ll gather at the lounge for karaoke night, traditionally the wildest event of the week. “I even sing,” Griffin-Daza said. “Rockin’ Robin’s my favorite.”