Oddly, dancing at a club has never seemed quite appropriate on the Upper West Side – though many Upper West Siders may recall leaving late, dressed in various styles of offbeat or scanty, seductive attire to depart by cab or subway into the night to go dancing in another neighborhood. Most famously, the extravaganza of Studio 54 (shuttered in 1980) awakened many New Yorkers to the existence of a certain kind of scene. This even included those who had no intention of waiting on a line bound by a velvet rope just to be scrutinized by entitled bouncers who had the power to determine whether or not you were worthy of entry.
The 1980s was the heyday for dance clubs. They may have been less wildly, eclectically decorated and elaborate than Studio 54 and others of the ’70s, but still, a late night entertainment business seemed to promise investors of the ’80s a fun way to reap in profits – all while knowing that most clubs lasted only a few years. These clubs were mostly in the Village and Midtown – with a smattering in Gramercy, Chelsea and TriBeca – but a few were located on the Upper West Side.
While the restrictive NY Cabaret law made it hard, if not impossible, to open new dance clubs, one large basement space that did meet the requirements was 246A Columbus Avenue, between 71st and 72nd Streets, where several clubs operated throughout the years.
In the 1970s, a dance club called TRAX drew in non-paying celebrities who in turn attracted paying club goers. According to the now defunct DNAinfo, “Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall were once photographed by pioneering paparazzo Ron Galella” at the former venue. As TRAX was closing in the mid-1980s, along came a group of ten young bankers with a different concept.
This new club, called Baja, was conceived to appeal to people like them – a group that today seems very limited to what came to be known as “yuppies.” The partners described by The New York Times were all under 33 and working for prestigious banks. They seemed to have been optimistic, energetic and determined to make a dance club work for the Upper West Side.
As described by the Times, Baja had “become a lively hangout for young people who work in the Financial District, live on the Upper West Side and refuse to journey downtown for a night out.” The scene was described as “comfortable, [with the] casual feel of a college-fraternity basement.” Sports were played on a wide screen TV, and the bar offered “14-ounce ‘varsity-sized’ variations on the tropical fruit-drink theme.”
A key part of the business plan was to make the place available for fundraising events hosted by reputable organizations. Baja is listed, for example, in the Social Events section of The New Times from November 9, 1987, as the venue for a fundraiser. “The first annual dinner for the Legal Action Center for the Homeless, a three-year-old advocacy group, will take place at 7:30 P.M. at The Baja Club, 246-A Columbus Avenue (71st Street). Music will be provided by Ken Dashow, a disk jockey, and food by Students Fight Against Hunger of the New York Restaurant School. Tickets, $75 and $85, at the door.”
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The American Lung Association and The Jewish Guild for the Blind also held dinner and dancing fundraisers at Baja during the mid-1990s.
Eventually, the energy petered out, consistent with the observation that club going always wants a change. And after ten years, leaving home for a night of dancing and drinking until 4am may not have been as appealing to the original investment partners and their friends. The vast space was empty for years after Baja closed sometime after the mid-1990s.
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Columbus 72 (which later became C72) opened in the space in 2006, cultivating a very young crowd. The dress code (found on the former club’s Facebook page) stated that patrons should “Make a fashion statement at C72, trendy & sexy is the key. Athletic Wear, Baggy Attire, Running Sneakers, and Boots are not permitted. [An] overall neat appearance is required. Admittance is at the doorman’s discretion.”
C72 closed amid local complaints in 2013. Here’s a clip of a very festive looking Saturday night at the former spot.
Are Upper West Side dance clubs a thing of the past? Is there a concept that would suit the feel and appeal of this neighborhood’s residents? Well, it might at least be possible soon.
The NY Post reported on September 2 that Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and other NYC politicians “have proposed repealing remnants of the despised Cabaret Law, which made dancing at most borough venues illegal from 1926 until 2017, when it was repealed. Separate Cabaret Law zoning regulations are still on the books, but possibly not for much longer.”
So if the regulations are changed, going out to dance on the UWS may again be an option. If someone decides to open a dance club.