Night Falls on Gymdom, March 2020

After writing the earlier post about Chelsea Piers and its many petty irritations, I reflected on how many stages of civic collapse we passed through last year before I signed up with CP once again.

On March 1, 2020, I went to my local NYHRC and found that it was shuttered, except for some workmen on site. They told me it would be shut for renovations for some months, and all the members had been notified by e-mail. Well I must have missed that one.

Not too peeved, just surprised, I took the subway down to the HRC on 23rd Street. Same thing there. Like my local club, this was being transformed into a “Lifetime” club and wouldn’t be open again for six months.

NYHRC 13th St: dinky

Over the next two weeks I sometimes went to the NYHRC way over on East 45th Street near Lexington. It’s one of the strange, early, HRC’s, with odd little rooms and maze-like passages.

Twice, I think, I went to the one on East 13th Street. Very similar, but in a cheerier neighborhood. There is, or was, a Dick Blick art supply shop across the street, and it’s in the happy quarter between Union Square and Astor Place. Old, cute, dinky.

But the best of the surviving HRC’s, by far, was the Whitehall one, at the very bottom of Manhattan. About four storeys, spacious floors, peaceful atmosphere. I think this was the only one where I used the pool, which was almost always empty, or nearly so. I don’t think I’d swum in over three years. Whitehall was a pain to get to, and there were nippy March winds coming off the harbor, but I pretty much made up my mind this would be my gym for the foreseeable future.

‘Twas not to be, of course. Come Monday, March 16, I did my light cardio and swim, and then, upon leaving, learned from the bemasked attendant that the club would be closed down indefinitely. Per order of the Governor, the incompetent and bumptious Andrew Cuomo.

By this point, the smart money had fled the city. Most of the people in my neighborhood have another home or two, on the Cape or in the Berkshires, or maybe the Hamptons or Europe. When I canvassed for the Census in late summer, my work consisted mostly of leaving Notices of Visit in their mailboxes because the concierges assured me no one was home.

By April, every restaurant posted “Closed for Covid” signs on their windows. Theatres were likewise shuttered. Groceries and drugstores were open, for the most part, but you often had to stand in a “social distancing” queue that snaked down the sidewalk.

Riots erupted in May and June, with crowds of negroes breaking windows and looting on Fifth and Madison Avenues, and in the shopping district of SoHo. Mayor Bill DeBlasio pandered to them by painting BLACK LIVES MATTER in ten-foot day-glo yellow lettering on Fifth Avenue, in front of Trump Tower. Because, you know, it was all Trump’s fault.

Otherwise the city seemed mostly abandoned except for a proliferation of derelicts and beggars. Until around August, when a few restaurants reopened, serving customers in wooden huts that stood in the street. “Streeteries,” New York magazine called them.

So when I saw that Chelsea Piers was planning to reopen, I had no issue at all with the plethora of restrictions: short hours, 90-minute pre-booked sessions, mask mandate, online daily health declaration. It only bothered me later when they got gimmicky and changed their gimmicks every two months.

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Recently I paid a visit to the old NYHRC on East 45th Street. It’s now a New York Sports Club. Same layout and equipment. The one difference I noticed was that the Concept 2 rower on the second floor is no longer oriented north-south (where you got a view of takeouts across the street) but east-west. It’s a depressing place, whichever way you’re facing. But the run-down look and feel is what we’ve come to expect from value-priced NYSC. So far as I can tell, most of the other old HRC clubs are now either defunct, or in a 2-year transition to their LIFE TIME franchise. Some locations have rebranded and opened (Astor Place, 23rd Street, Park Avenue South) but I don’t foresee much future for them, inasmuch as the new operators have set their price points at about twice the old HRC level, and, as with NYSC, haven’t added much in the way of amenities.

LIFE TIME on 23rd: just a rebranded NYHRC

My guess is that investors went on a spree about five years ago, projecting a huge demand for new “fitness” spaces, particularly on the West Side. Perhaps this tracked the Manhattan building boom, particularly in Midtown West—the colossal Hudson Yards fiasco, the 100+ storey skyscrapers around West 57th Street, the vast assemblages being emptied and excavated in the 40s and 50s. So a dozen, two dozen new commercial gyms were planned around 2017-2019, and when they were close to opening, Covid-19 hit.

Perhaps some lucky gym investors didn’t lose their shirts; they waited till the market tumbled and then leased spaces at a discount. I wonder if that’s how TMPL got their new space in the Citicorp Center at 53rd and Lexington, which has been in the retail dumps ever since Barnes & Noble closed a few years ago. (From 1977 to 1994 the B&N space was occupied by Conran’s. You might say the Citicorp mall has been on a downward trajectory for thirty years.)

I see the LIFE TIME people, who focused on taking over select HRC locations rather than expanding into new spaces, have gone public on the NYSE (LTH) and the price has remained stable for its first few days ($18-20). But I’m still bearish on them and on the gym business in general. It will take these businesses years to get out from under their Covid losses, and it’s a very competitive market for the next year or so. There will be consolidations and price wars. LIFE TIME’s $249 basic month-to-month is out of line with their product.

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