The new book “No Sleep: NYC Nightlife Flyers 1988-1999,” edited by Adrian Bartos (otherwise known as the d.j. Stretch Armstrong) and the archivist Evan Auerbach, and featuring the collections of dozens of artists, designers, and clubgoers, commemorates a time when Manhattan was one of the world’s great party cities. Like any account of how much fun New York used to be, it is also a shadow history of real estate. It is intoxicating to flip through these pages and take in the radiant diversity of names and musical scenes that each laid claim to the same city. But there’s also a stark sense of distance between then and now. Few of the venues listed in these flyers still exist, and it’s astonishing to recall how much of the city once seemed beneath the interest of speculators: the spontaneous, open-air parties that sprung up on the abandoned High Line, now one of the city’s prime tourist attractions; the once-deserted corners of the meatpacking district or Lower East Side, where boutique hotels and parking lots now stand. The Palladium, one of downtown’s largest clubs, is now an N.Y.U. dorm. Moby tells of one party with no address, just a cryptic directive to “be on the L train at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night.” He waited on the platform, and when the train arrived it had been taken over by club kids.
What “No Sleep” depicts is a much looser time, after disco and before the gilded age of mega-clubs and luxury bottle service, when the only guiding ethos was that anything was worth a try. There are flyers in the shape of candy bars, detergent boxes, and dollar bills, printed in eye-catching neon or in austere black-and-white. The bulk of the collection being from the nineties, there are plenty of variations on the Nike swoosh, remixed Bart Simpsons, and faux cigarette logos. Many specimens here are notable simply because they advertise events that are hard to imagine today: the release party for Jay Z’s first album; a Martin Luther King, Jr., Day party flyer drawn by Keith Haring, advertising the d.j.s Larry Levan and Jellybean Benitez; Moby, spinning all different genres, seemingly on every other page; David Faustino—better known as Bud Bundy from “Married with Children”—sharing a stage with Doug E. Fresh and Organized Konfusion.
Even as parties grew more established, their flyers were still full of inside jokes, cryptic shout-outs, manifestos squiggled into the margins. Bartos and Auerbach resist the temptation to make any definitive claims about the era, other than that it was a blast. It’s all anecdotes, a fitting way to highlight any good night out. There was the time Russell Simmons lost his phone somewhere at the Soul Kitchen party, and the d.j. turned the music down low so that someone could call it from a payphone. The time Nell’s, a tiny, exclusive club on Fourteenth Street, turned away Cher. Mostly, “No Sleep” is a chronicle of resourcefulness. These were clubs that sprung up inside decommissioned power stations, abandoned churches, community halls. A few pages are devoted to Mecca, a famed hip-hop party at Tunnel that brought the rugged and the glamorous alike to a deserted block of westernmost Chelsea. Though it would go on to shape the sound of New York hip-hop, its beginnings were modest, relegated to Sunday nights, because rap music still seemed a novelty.
Nostalgia is often a yearning for a different set of choices, or even fewer choices altogether. There’s something romantic about the power that a well-designed flyer and word-of-mouth buzz once held, and for the acts of communion and escape that took place with minimal concern for branding or profit, since there existed few ambitions greater than just making the scene a little bigger. “No Sleep” ends in the late nineties. For some, the tank was running empty. A particularly touching testimonial comes from Kenny Kenny, a club kid turned promoter, photographer, and doorman. “We were all broken birds trying to fly,” he writes, saluting the tribe of misfits he ran with, “but many didn’t make it.” He describes what was just around the corner: Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his obsession with beautifying the city by regulating “quality-of-life” offenses.
Of course, as long as there are young people drawn to New York—not a foregone conclusion, with rents these days—there will be resourceful thrill-seekers trying to have a good time. And there are still innovative young d.j.s and promoters renting out the backrooms of Chinese banquet halls and community centers, finding new places to throw parties. Today’s night life persists in the shadow of (and in spite of) the New York that came in the decades since “No Sleep.” As the journalist Nelson George recalls, “Looking through old flyers is to walk through a ghost town buried under high-rise condos, Starbucks and CVS stores, and remarkably anonymous 21st century architecture. Buried beneath them are clubs and parties that spoke for a wilder, more reckless and innovative city that the one we live in now.”
According to Lady Miss Kier, a d.j. and partygoer who would eventually find fame as a member of Deee-Lite, it was a time when a lot of clubs felt no need to turn a profit, since many of them were fronts for money laundering. Without that pressure to constantly expand, parties were free to experiment and build their modest freak fiefdoms. The memories that remain aren’t necessarily of the music or the fashions but of a sense of intimacy. A party flyer is a promise but not a guarantee. Maybe one tumbles out of a book that hasn’t been opened in a decade, marking an epic night out that you barely remember, beyond how small yet infinite the world once seemed.