Jackson Hts. bar owners shape gay life in nabe

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"People were scared, nervous and home alone," said Valentin, who added that the bar has become a beacon for gay and straight neighbors alike. "We don't even close in blackouts."

Villa scrimped, saved and even sold coffee and tea in the reservations lounge at Pan Am, where he worked as a runway attendant for 15 years until the 57-year-old Colombian transplant finally bought the business he had always dreamed of opening.

"Since I was in my country I always wanted to own a business," Villa said.

But he did not want just any business; the sometimes seedy image of Jackson Heights' gay bars of the day did not jibe with Villa's vision for the clean, safe, open and friendly environment he hoped to create.

Today the endeavor has blossomed into a trio of gay-oriented, straight-friendly Jackson Heights bars and nightclubs with uniquely different flavors.

"There wasn't gay ownership," said Valentin, 37, who agreed to handle a lot of the day-to-day operations of the bars and nightclubs after a 12-year stint as a financial consultant at the United Nations.

Friends Tavern on Roosevelt Avenue offers a Latin flavor in a wood-paneled atmosphere. The Music Box on 74th Street, which opened two years later, has exposed-brick walls, a pool table and a more American atmosphere, Valentin said. And Atlantis 2010 started first as a bar six years ago and reopened as a nightclub in June 2003.

With a fantasy, undersea motif running through the club, Atlantis 2010 embraces a more up-to-date, sometimes racier feel with dancing, drag shows and the occasional PG-13-rated strippers, Valentin said.

The pair said they had to work hard to confront the reputation some Jackson Heights gay venues had generated for themselves in the 1970s and 1980s.

Villa once threatened to call the police to dislodge a women's prostitution outfit that briefly took up residence in an apartment unit above the tavern and hired security that negotiates rather than bullies, Valentin said.

The pair have also taken a hard line on drugs, said Valentin, who told of a time that Villa physically confronted a would-be dealer who tried to stake out new territory inside the bar.

"Coming from (Colombia) we saw car bombs every week because of drugs," Villa said.

Villa and Valentin, who live in a renovated Jackson Heights Tudor-style house, are active in the community where they operate their bars.

"We love Jackson Heights," Villa said. "It's like a family thing."

They sponsor the Queens Pride Parade and often host fund-raisers for local Democratic politicians, Valentin said. And they also set up community outreach stands in their clubs where people can seek out information on AIDS prevention, treatment and counseling from the AIDS Center of Queens County and on the gay men's health crisis.

"We pushed them to come here," Valentin said. "Everybody gets a kit" with informational pamphlets and condoms, he said.

Valentin is critical of those who say that the growing number of area nightclubs are attracting the wrong element. The couple's clubs and others like it bring people from around the city who are often so taken with Jackson Heights' beauty and diversity that they decide to move to the community, he said.

"Whatever you want in Jackson Heights, you'll find," Valentin said.

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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