Larry Levan Way: The Fight To Get the Pioneering New York House DJ a Street Name

(L to R) Radio host Mark Riley, Gary Thornton, DJ Joey Llanos, and Larry Levan.

Photo credit: Joey Llanos

Larry Levan Way: The Fight To Get the Pioneering New York House DJ a Street Name

Pioneering New York house DJ Larry Levan, best-known for his residency at legendary nightclub the Paradise Garage, will be honored at Red Bull Music Academy's free street party this Sunday, May 11 to celebrate his legacy. The event coincides with a petition to co-name the section of King Street between Varick and Hudson, where the Paradise attracted lines around the block from 1978 to 1987, after Levan. 

"Co-name King Street to Larry Levan Way" was launched last year by Frankie Cruz, a former Paradise patron and DJ at WXLV, Lehigh Carbon Community College's iHeartRadio station. After collecting close to 4,000 electronic signatures since posting the initiative online last September, Cruz plans to approach Community Board 2 (covering Greenwich Village, NoHo, SoHo, Chinatown, and Little Italy) with friend and CB2 resident Dawn Echeves.

The two self-described "house heads" got the idea after DJ Joey Llanos suggested on Facebook that a street be named after Lawrence Philpot (Levan's birth name) following last year's 26th Annual Reunion Party, a yearly celebration of the Paradise's closing and of Levan's birthday on July 20. "A light went off in my head," he tells Billboard. "That's supposed to be there, to mark a designation for Larry."

Once Red Bull caught wind of the initiative, Cruz says, the company lauded the cause and decided to celebrate Levan's legacy by hosting a street party at 84 King Street. "As part of the local initiative to rename King Street as Larry Levan Way," Red Bull's official statement reads, "the Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York is proud to bring recognition to the legacy of Levan by helping to take over King Street for a day of music, dancing and celebration. We support the community's petition drive and hope the event raises awareness of the local efforts to rename the street."

"When you look at it from a certain standpoint," Cruz continues, "there's designations for Frankie Knuckles [in Chicago], as well as a lot of other people in a similar fashion. Unfortunately, the story was never really told enough when we lost Larry Levan [on Nov. 8, 1992 to cardiac arrest resulting from endocarditis].The thing about Larry is that he was unique in so many ways, but he also made a lot of accomplishments that are considered firsts."

Though Levan was also known for his meticulous care of the Paradise -- he could often be found polishing the disco balls or the floors in the middle of his set, to the delight and awe of his audience -- he was also one of the first DJs to perform internationally, touring Japan in the early '90s and helping with opening London nightclub Ministry of Sound in 1990. He was also one of the first to operate his own record label, Garage Records, counting disco stalwarts the Peech Boys, which he co-founded, in its roster. 

Levan, the late Frankie Knuckles, and DJ Nicky Siano were among the so-called second wave of disc jockeys inspired by time spent at the Loft, David Mancuso's illegal nightclub on Broadway and Bleecker that he often festooned with balloons and streamers. There, enveloped by the space's advanced sound system playing tracks like Manu Dibango's seminal "Soul Makossa," Ashford & Simpson's "Stay Free," and Loose Joints' "Is It All Over My Face," Levan learned how to make dancers feel like they were at a party. 

In 1978, venue proprietor Michael Brody officially opened the Paradise Garage, which he constructed specifically for Levan after the DJ had made a name for himself developing his already instinctive turntable skills at the Continental Baths and Reade Street in the early '70s. 

“He controlled the dancers," DJ David Depino told Red Bull Music Academy. "Larry would see a little group that would start to get their coats from the coat room, bring them to their other two or three friends and start to put their coats on and say goodnight to people. He would go, ‘Watch this.’ And he put on a record that he knew that little group loved and as they were just kissing each other goodbye to the rest of their friends and start to walk. They’d look up and wave their fists at him like, ‘You son of a bitch, Larry!’ They ripped off their coats and start dancing and he keep them there another hour-and-a-half."

When the Paradise shut its doors in 1987 due to internal business conflicts and the looming AIDS crisis, New York lost an institution. "While there were plenty of very large clubs afterwards and into the 90's, none could ever compare to the feeling of being a part of something so obviously special, very large but intimate, and not diluted by the commercial imperatives of selling as much liquor as possible," says Francois Kevorkian, a.k.a. Francois K, a friend and affiliate of Levan's who will DJ the street party with Llanos and Depino. "It undeniably changed the lives of those who attended."

"Larry basically was a DJ who played by his own rules," adds Cruz. "He didn't follow any favors or any charts. He played with his soul."

Cruz doesn't yet have a time table for submitting the petition; he'll wait at least until the Larry Levan Street Party, where a station will be set up to collect even more signatures to make his case as strong as possible. "What we need the city to see is not only the interest in general, but most importantly the interest from the resident's point of view," says Cruz, "that this is worthy, that this is going to add cultural value to the neighrbohood. For someone with accolades like Larry Levan, how could it not be?"

According to CB2's official website, for a co-naming to be approved, the subject must be deceased, have contributed to and had a relationship with the community in question, and be backed by the area's residents. The co-naming cannot promote commercial activity or memorialize the victim of an accident or disaster if they have not passed the aforementioned criteria.

City council member Corey Johnson's Chief of Staff Jeffrey LeFrancois notes that it is very difficult to get streets co-named. "City council only has the ability to put legislation forth to rename streets twice a year," he says. Since the petition has not been presented to CB2, members city council have not yet seen it nor are able to comment on it.

Earlier this year, a petition to name the intersection of Ludlow and Rivington on the Lower East Side after the Beastie Boys' "Paul's Boutique," which featured the location on its album cover, was denied by Manhattan's Community Board 3; and late last year, Brooklyn's Community Board 2 voted to decline naming a street corner after the rapper Biggie Smalls, on the grounds that he set a poor example because of his mysogynistic lyrics and obesity. 

Compared to those efforts, the Levan initiative "is commensurate but has more meaning because of the indelible mark that [the Paradise Garage] has had on my musical life (and many, many others)," Echeves wrote in an email to Billboard. While it is possible that Levan's association with the Paradise Garage, which technically counts as a commercial enterprise, will count against him, he is undoubtedly an integral part of the area's history. 

Streets that have been successfully named after musicians include Run-DMC JMJ Way in Queens, Duke Ellington Boulevard, and Joey Ramone Place/2nd Street, whic his also the most stolen street sign in New York -- it has been taken so frequently that city officials recently raised it to eight feet above the ground. 

"There's a reason I'm pushing all my efforts," says Cruz, who believes the silver lining to Frankie Knuckles' untimely death is that it shed light on Levan's contributions to dance music culture. "It was people like Larry, and clubs like the Garage, that New York City earned the moniker of the city that never sleeps. The Paradise opened at midnight and ran to noon the next day. In the late '70s early '80s that was unheard of. And it was strictly underground. That's how phenomenal it was. He made all that happen. How could I not get involved?"

The Larry Levan Street Party will be held on King Street between Varick and Hudson this Sunday, May 11 from 12pm to 6pm. Francois K, David Depino, and Joey Llanos will all be performing DJ sets.