On Friday, March 13th, 2020, dancehall and jungle tracks roared through the great hall nowadays. Judging by the sound of things, it could have been the start of almost every other weekend at Ridgewood, Queens. But the 5,000-square-foot club was mostly empty.
A long bar that stretched through the dining room stood still and dark. There were pillows, soft mats, and various plants scattered around the dance floor. Some of the Today staff huddled together, dazedly trying to chat to the music. Others in the room sat in silence. A few lay down on the floor. A man I didn’t know silently offered me an orange, which I accepted.
Hours earlier, the club had announced it would close for the foreseeable future as the first wave of COVID-19 cases was on the rise in New York. (At that time fewer than 1,000 infections were reported in the city.) The people there all seemed to process the surreality of the moment, the total deviation slowly emerging. Earlier this week, the club had put the finishing touches to a new sound system that cost $ 130,000 and was funded with a loan. The question that jumped through the room at the time seems naive in retrospect: Would the closure drag on for a few weeks?
Co-owner Eamon Harkin was no longer optimistic today. As a former biochemistry student, Harkin had already studied the earliest COVID-19 data available to the public. That night, he took his business partner and co-owner Justin Carter aside and said, “We’ll be around for the next year and a half.” (Disclosure: Harkin’s wife, Martina Navratil, is Business Director at Pitchfork’s parent company, Condé Nast.)
Despite the uncertainty that was in the air that evening, there was a clear outlook for the future. Across the room, across from the DJ booth, a digital camera had been set up to broadcast live a series of sets that had been put together following the club’s decision to close. A Nowadays Patreon Page soon went live, along with a Venmo fund called @nowahelp that was split among club staff who suddenly ran out of revenue. An Instagram post announcing the closure read: “It’s always like that, but more than ever, we can’t exist without you.”
By the end of that first weekend, the club’s Patreon had reached $ 5,000 in subscriptions from over 1,500 people. While encouraging, it was only a small fraction of the club’s operating costs. An imminent decision to lay off the majority of the workforce was imminent. When I spoke to Carter in the early days of the shutdown, it was clear that he still made sense of it.
“I never really realized how much responsibility we have to all the people who work here, so many of whom come from marginalized communities,” he told me. “How are you going to do it? That was a really difficult thing to deal with. “
Carter and Harkin soon faced more momentous questions: How would two white business owners, isolated by the relative privileges of their race, gender, and economic security, respond to a time marked by death, social precariousness, racial injustice, and payroll? with power in the entire cultural sector?