On a block that exemplifies the changing landscape of Chelsea – industrial buildings on one side and luxury apartment buildings on the other – a throwback of New York’s gay scene lives on.
Unlike other gay bars in Chelsea that are adorned with bright, colorful lights, a rainbow flag, and made complete by the sounds of pop music rattling the sidewalk, The Eagle on West 28th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, is dark and quiet. A single, dim, glowing red light shines in the doorway, which is cased over in plastic streamers reminiscent of a meat-packing plant.
Welcome to one of the last remaining leather bars in Chelsea.
Bars similar to The Eagle, including The Lure, The Spike, and Rawhide dotted Chelsea in the 80’s and 90’s, but all have closed as the neighborhood has gone upscale. Rawhide was the most high-profile to go, closing in 2013, after 34 years in business, when its rent nearly doubled. Several similar bars, like The Ramrod, Badlands, and The Mineshaft, also operated in the nearby Meatpacking District, but they, too, are now closed.
With the rapid gentrification of Chelsea has come a dramatic change in the tenor of the neighborhood’s gay culture, one where couples pushing strollers are now easier to spot than the club kids of old.
The Eagle’s quaint bi-level building is wedged between two much larger ones of the same style; one a garage for a car dealership and the other an industrial supply warehouse. Its three doors are sealed with metal grates, and above the left-side door is a rusty overhang with characters made of stickers spelling out “THE EAGLE NYC,” along with the bar’s phone number. The upper level has three windows, but you can never see inside them, even during the day, and above the middle window is a grand, black painted eagle, wings abreast. On the inside, too, everything seems to glow red and black against the aroma of cold concrete.
The eerie ambiance is mostly just smoke and mirrors. “The Eagle has a reputation of being a leather bar, but in my opinion, guys just come to be themselves,” said co-owner Derek Danton. “It’s that hypersexual masculine stereotype, but really it’s a place where you can just be free to express yourself and not be judged. All are welcome. We don’t tolerate any intolerance.”
Men don everything from blue jeans and a T-shirt to leather trousers and not much else, although the former has become more common than the latter. Danton said that the average age of his customers has dropped from a range of 35 – 45 to 28 – 38. “I think a lot of it has to do with our neighborhood being gentrified. It [the bar] is not a destination anymore…a lot of young guys avoided it but now once they get there, it’s just total freedom.”
For some, the bar functions like a social club, and for others, it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon hangout. Some of the more dedicated bunch participate in an annual contest called “Mr. Eagle,” which determines who will represent the bar in the annual “International Mr. Leather” contest in Chicago.
Q Ellis-Lee, Mr. Eagle 2016, said the austere look of the place can be misleading. “Because it’s this heavily masculine thing, people don’t realize how accepting the community it is,” he said. “It is so ridiculously nonjudgmental. That bar is like a cozy pair of slippers.”
The Eagle has two floors, each adorned with a bar, pool table, and decorations ranging from a motorcycle suspended in the air to benches surrounded by chain-metal fences. In the warmer months, the rooftop is also open with a third bar.
The current Eagle is, in fact, the second iteration of a bar also named the Eagle originally in businesses at a location near West 21st Street and the West Side Highway from 1970 to the late ‘90s. In 2000, Danton and his husband, Robert Burke, bought the name to the bar and re-opened it at its current location.
Given its location on a street with access to the High Line and two new luxury apartment buildings directly across the street, it would be easy to assume that the Eagle has seen its last days.
But Danton said that he and his husband signed a lease on the building as Chelsea was already being gentrified, so currently have no fears of losing the space.
In fact, he said, “We have never in the 15 years we’ve been open had a down year. Our numbers have gone up every single year. You can’t tell me that the culture is dying when our business is thriving. It may be different, but it’s not dying by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just evolving.”