Tall Poppy Interview: Peter Gatien
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.




Tall Poppy Interview: Peter Gatien

Peter Gatien was, at one time, the undisputed king of nightlife in New York City. After being driven out of the United States by a government crackdown on nightclubs led by former New York mayor and current American presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani, Gatien made Toronto his home, and is now opening CiRCA in the former Playdium/Lucid location on John Street.
Gatien calls the 55,000 square foot CiRCA an “entertainment complex,” which hardly begins to describe it: with a green room, a recording studio, rotating art installations, a film screening theatre, interactive LED-illuminated tables, a Kidrobot toy and clothing bar, and four open-floor stories of nightclub with painstakingly themed nooks, CiRCA stands as a unique hybrid between a club and a centre for the arts. After a perplexingly long legal battle against a largely absentee opposition, CiRCA has won its liquor license and is finally opening on October 4th.

Torontoist: So what exactly is CiRCA, anyway?
Peter Gatien: We’re an entertainment complex, very arts-driven, and our goal is to become a must-see Toronto destination. You know, when you come to Toronto you have to see the Royal Ontario Museum, the CN Tower, the Art Gallery of Ontario, etcetera. We want CiRCA to be one of those places. It’s certainly a collaboration with a lot of talented people, locally and internationally. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, it’s still boy-meets-girl and it’s a people-watching facility. Most places you go, they’ll put in a massive soundsystem and a plasma lighting system and think that’s as far as you can go entertaining people, but that’s wrong. The arts component is crucial to the overall concept. And to people who say it’s just a club, I say, come see it.
Before the motion to appeal the liquor license, things were pretty tense. Now that the opening date has been announced, how are you feeling?
More tense, but I’ve been in worse shape two weeks before an opening than I am today. Most of what concerns me right now is beyond my control, but we’ve had a lot of progress and we’ve had minimal delay.
Now that the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario’s stay request has been denied, what hurdles remain for CiRCA?
The AGCO filed an appeal and a stay, and it was pretty clear from the judge’s reaction that she didn’t buy any of it. So we haven’t heard from them since. They have until November 15th. They have a couple of weeks to file their papers, but I hope somebody evaluated this and realized it was ridiculous. I’ve had a number of pretty experienced people look over it, and they’d much rather be on our side than theirs.
Where do you think the opposition to CiRCA opening came from?
Here’s my view on it: there is no opposition. At the hearing, we heard one resident testify, and at the case, the AGCO side showed our liquor license had been denied on public interest issues, but there were hardly any signed objectors. I’ve been in scenarios outside of Toronto where there has been considerable and real opposition. If people were passionate about this project not being launched, they would come out of the shadows and there would have been more than one person showing up to the hearing. This so-called “groundswell of opposition” is purely fictional.
My guess is, it’s probably some special interest like real estate developers. To the condo developers, this area is still pretty cheap.
What about those numbers the KSRA came out with?
If you look at the map of licensed venues in the Entertainment District provided by the King-Spadina Residents Association, they show 88 clubs, but 24 of them are now closed. I don’t know where the numbers are coming from, 50 or 60 thousand people in the area on the weekends. I don’t know if those are based on old statistics when these places were still open or what.
Also, they don’t seem to have a problem with restaurants in the area. There seems to be this false thinking that the restaurants are not feeding the clubs, but why do you think people are eating at restaurants in the Entertainment District?
What do you think about Adam Vaughan’s plan to limit venues in the Entertainment District?
I think it’s a bad plan. By making it so difficult to function as a nightlife operator, Toronto would cease to be an interesting city. The business owners in the Entertainment District I’ve spoken to have said the area isn’t nearly as busy as it used to be, and I don’t really think there are a lot of people in this area who are angry about the clubs. It sounds like maybe a few years ago, the area got a little wild, but even local police are saying that crime’s going down. What’s starting to happen to the industry is, just like in New York, it’s starting to be overenforced.
When you have overenforcement, you almost have to treat your clients like they’re in a prison, accompanied by more stringent regulations like searches, metal detectors, mandatory ID scanners, things like that. Well-heeled people, not millionaires but just people who have a little disposable income, have decided, “I don’t need that.” So when clubs are overenforced, you end up getting these kids from the suburbs who don’t know any better. It seems like politicians want to deny the younger generation their ability to express themselves.
When we first got here, Adam Vaughan and the KSRA wouldn’t even talk to us. Adam Vaughan stood us up a few times, but eventually he came to see CiRCA and said he was impressed and that we had an interesting project. He even testified that he thought it was interesting, but kept saying “the sponge is full.” But if those 24 clubs are now closed, maybe the sponge isn’t full anymore.
There haven’t been that many innovative venues opening up in this area, and I think anybody can make this argument. No matter what kind of neighbourhood it is, business owners have to upgrade their product to stay competitive.
Do you see any parallels between Vaughan’s plan and Rudy Giuliani’s Quality of Life Campaign? How did that campaign affect New York’s nightlife?
I was reading an article about Giuliani in the New York Times a few days ago. It mentioned that in his first term as Mayor of New York, he went after the squeegee people, the homeless people, and he addressed the issues of areas in New York like 42nd Street. By the time his second term rolled around, all the measures had been taken to decrease crime, so there was nobody else to go after but the entertainment industry. New York’s entertainment industry in the 90’s was me. It was. And as a result, Giuliani singlehandedly destroyed nightlife in New York City. I remember when he started the task forces. Because I was the face of nightlife in New York. My friends said to me, “Let’s see if we can weather the Giuliani storm, once this guy gets out things will be better,” but then he was Person of the Year and his legacy lives on in New York. If you ask anybody on a personal level what they think about New York nightlife now, they’ll tell you it’s nothing like it used to be.
Would you move back to New York?
No. Don’t get me wrong, I love New York and I love American people for the most part. Most of the places I’ve been, anyway. But I think of America now as being so special interest-driven and so money-driven, your average person has very little say. I think we’re better off with the Democrats than we are with the Republicans, but that said, I think they will probably prevent things from getting worse instead of making them better. So would I move back to New York? The answer’s no.
How would you compare New York to Toronto, as Torontonians are so fond of doing?
Americans are much more aggressive than Canadians. It’s a much more dog-eat-dog kind of place. But there’s an energy in New York that’s tough to beat, there’s a lot of interesting activity and a lot of interesting people. But what’s happened to New York is that real estate values have gotten so high there is almost no arts community left in Manhattan. People are either going to other cities or to Brooklyn. They can’t afford to live in Manhattan anymore so the creative community is leaving. Artists are not always income earners, so what I like about Toronto is that the arts community is still very central and a large part of the city. I think Toronto has a lot more soul than New York does.
You said Toronto is poised to become a world-class destination. Where does nightlife fit in?
Toronto is ready to explode on to the international stage as a major world destination. I remember a time when I was in Palm Beach, another city whose main industry is tourism, and in their version of Toronto Life magazine they had the mayor saying, “Nightlife is incredibly important to the city of Palm Beach.” Certainly, if a city doesn’t have a great nightlife, it’s really missing something. And some cities are judged entirely on how great their nightlife is. Whether it’s a Berlin or an Ibiza or a Paris, cities are judged on the quality of their nightlife. Politicians just don’t seem to see it. For all the talk of boosting tourism, the lack of connection between tourism and nightlife in City Hall doesn’t make any sense.
The Entertainment District, I wasn’t here 5 or 10 years ago, but I hear the activity is not what it used to be. It’s critical that Toronto has an excellent nightlife. If you bring somebody to Toronto, I don’t care if it’s from Omaha or Tokyo, you’d be pretty proud to bring them to CiRCA.
The fact that we’re putting a large investment into the area, and with the film festival building going up, the Four Seasons Centre just opening, this area, if it was supported, could see a really strong revival.
Because of overenforcement, Toronto’s nightlife is in danger of a death by a thousand cuts. Any city that ignores the importance of nightlife will end up being a second-rate city, that’s the way it is.
Why involve the arts and Kidrobot in your vision for CiRCA?
First off, the arts comes and goes in cycles. In the early 80’s, I opened Limelight in New York with Andy Warhol. Having him there made it really interesting. The artist community are real trendsetters, people respect them and they really add another element to nightlife. In the late 80’s, it switched over to the model industry. Models were a big draw, but I think that’s kind of a sellout. Not that we don’t like to be surrounded by beautiful people, but we’d really much rather have a bunch of creative people than striking-looking people. A lot of this is going back on decades of doing this and knowing what works, and I’m not kidding when I say I have a lot of smart, young, passionate, energetic people working on CiRCA, and it’s ready to entertain to a level that hasn’t been seen before, not in Toronto but all over the world.
What is your favourite thing about Toronto?
My favourite thing about Toronto is the quality of life. Like I mentioned, in New York, quality of life has become so expensive that it ends up bankrupting the middle class. Not only is there excellent education, we’re close to water, great restaurants, people are polite if not the most friendly, and there’s not much not to like here (except for the AGCO).