ARQ Sydney for sale: at what point do we say no to ‘development’?

Interior of ARQ Sydney. Photo: Gazzarazzi PhotographyARQ Sydney/Facebook.

The end of an era is nigh, with Australia’s biggest gay nightclub – ARQ Sydney – up for sale. Gary Nunn has something to say about it.

Rumours have circulated annually for 20 years about ARQ’s closure – now, it seems, they’re finally true, despite ARQ’s management previously assuring the Sentinel it will re-open a refurbished club. 

The Sentinel can confirm that Australia’s biggest gay club is up for sale. Whether anyone will buy it, and what they’ll turn it into, remains to be seen.

And to this, I say: ‘I want my gay village back.’

There was a time when no city was truly an exciting, gritty global city without its gay village. Now Sydney’s own gay village is being decimated, with one of its most iconic institutions likely to, if sold, be transformed into yet more luxury apartments or offices.

Gay villages were once an essential part of every city and why so many LGBTQI people escaped a less accepting suburbia to abscond to the big city, where the promise of embracement sat alongside the urban grit. 

Rainbow flags, stained with pollution, fluttered out of ramshackle window frames above gin-soaked lanes in the part of town your mum warned you about.

Society’s eccentrics congregated there: sex workers, vagabond creatives, those on society’s margins. They knew they could come to this place, where, unlike the rest of society, they wouldn’t be excluded, sneered at or pointed at.

I want my gay village back: the one that included clubs like ARQ, which are far more than just nightclubs to the LGBTQI community. They’re sanctuaries; islands of diversity and acceptance in an otherwise beige and intolerant world. 

ARQ was a sanctuary of diversity and acceptance in an otherwise beige world. Photo: Gazzarazzi Photography/ARQ Sydney/Facebook.

They’re refuges: places to express ourselves and be with our community after an exhausting week of microaggressions, back-in-the-closet moments and pretence. 

Do not let any snob ever tell you the dancefloor is in inferior to any other culturally significant hub that serves a marginalised community: friendships are formed, romances are born and solidarity is nourished. 

With an expected price tag of $45-50 million, the sound of jubilant partygoers is likely to be replaced with the nihilistic roar of the leaf blower; those iconic revolving doors replaced by a potpourri bottle on a soulless chic table in a sterile foyer accessible only by fob, and the laser lights replaced with bougie IKEA lamps and ceiling lights in identical upmarket flats that are now dominating this once interesting city.

No, no, no. 

I want my gay village back – one where ARQ was a village elder, a family member – one that made you cringe, but you loved nonetheless.

And don’t get me wrong, ARQ has made me cringe. Like the time I was dancing on stage and One Direction started playing over the speakers. One Difuckingrection! I descended the stage in disgust, vowing to return to London, my hometown, which understands the meaning of nightclub dirty house music. 

But London has befallen the same fate. Its biggest gay nightclub, XXL at Pulse, closed in 2019. It’s now, you guessed it, luxury flats. Its gay villages of Soho and Vauxhall are now wilted fragments of the thriving, buzzy, diverse gay villages they once were. 

I love ARQ; its weatherworn charm was due a lick of paint and a toilet door or two, but that didn’t stop huge queues every weekend. When I wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald about its 20th birthday, I heard just how much it meant to the community, young and old. 

We’ve been here before. The Taxi Club. Manacle. The Green Park. The gay village became a hamlet long ago, no thanks to the perfect storm of gentrification, skyrocketing rents, hook-up apps like Grindr, ‘chemsex’ parties hosted in homes, stay-at-home drugs like ice usurping dance-floor drugs like ecstasy, millennials preferring festivals and general assimilation.

On one hand, this is the free market at play: capitalism’s ultimate conclusion. We can’t force someone not to sell their own business! Especially not in a pandemic. But we can campaign; appeal to their better nature. 

Clubs like Universal have shown how it can be done: it pivoted to a sit-down performance venue during the last lockdown. The Kospetas family treats the LGBTQI community as part of its extended family, with free meals for its furloughed staff.

Maybe, just maybe, nobody will buy ARQ, or it’ll go the same way as the Midnight Shift and be sold to someone who keeps it a gay nightclub. We all thought The Shift was another LGBTQI venue loss, but it was saved and restored to the community – with whispers it may eventually even expand its upstairs club. 

I spoke to estate agents Savills Australia and they said they’d had interest from both property developers and, be still my beating heart, nightclub owners. As it’s “so famous”, it’s plausible someone will buy it as a club to capitalise on the post-Covid boom, they told me. If it doesn’t sell, maybe owner Shadd Danesi will go ahead with that (long overdue) renovation anyway.

One dedicated gay nightclub does not a gay village make. I want the gay village to become the gay city: a thriving, diverse, inclusive, rock ’n’ roll badass metropolis of dancing, drag and decent house music I can dance till dawn to, preferably on a podium. Not like no-one is watching; like everyone is watching.

ARQ Sydney: a place to dance like everyone is watching. Photo: Gazzarazzi PhotographyARQ Sydney/Facebook.

At what point do we say enough of development?

Enough of NIMBYs destroying entertainment precincts because they go to bed with a cup of Milo and a superiority complex at 10pm. 

Enough of sanitised, gentrified neighbourhoods gobbling earthy, colourful, interesting ones. 

Enough of house prices and avocado toast being discussed more than the disproportionately high suicide rate of LGBTQI people, headless torsos on Grindr endlessly asking ‘Top or bottom?’ and the feeling of being utterly lonely without these vital houses of community connection. 

Normality is killing us. Society’s elite, landowning, ruling, gentrifying class is winning, like it always has. The slick estate agent thrives; bartenders and DJs and drag queens and performers are on skid row, and even that’s been put up for sale to the highest bidder. 

Property developers are commodifying our streets, our queer refuges. They’re installing a conservatism at odds with the laissez-faire attitude our LGBTQI forebearers fought for. Instead of XXL, a Waitrose Metro selling overpriced margarine. Instead of ARQ, a power-hungry strata committee of entitled boomers dictating when we can play music and at what volume. 

Please. Cities are supposed to be a bit rock ’n’ roll. If we wanted suburbia, we’d have stayed in Porpoise Spit. 

We suck up higher rents, dirt and noise for the thrills a truly global city offers. Connection. Culture. Diversity. Possibility. 

Not a potpourri bottle on an overpriced table in a soulless building staffed by a foyer receptionist who wants to know why you’re rolling in at 5am with two very awake looking characters who definitely don’t live in this building, ploise. 

Please, no. Don’t let’s become that. Give us our gay village back. 

A petition has been launched to save ARQ, the adjacent sex-on-premises venue Bodyline, and the building that houses the venues, Albion House. It can be accessed at www.change.org/p/save-arq-bodyline-albion-house-sydney.

Gary Nunn is the editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. He can be followed on Twitter at @GaryNunn1.