Story by Kelsy Chauvin • Poster Design by Kyle Livsey
Being apart from our communities makes us love them even more. Ask anyone at a 3 Dollar Bill, the largest queer venue in Brooklyn, New York. The team survived COVID through 2020, then found a new beginning in 2021, one where the LGBTQI+ community could gather in person—safely. But 3 Dollar Bill couldn’t do it alone. General Manager Willie Lazcano shared how collaborations were the key to rebounding during a pandemic, and how 3 Dollar Bill evolved as a bigger, better “space for joy.”
They knew it would be grand, but they never knew it could mean this much. The trio of owners behind 3 Dollar Bill swung open their doors in spring 2018, proud to warm up a new LGBTQI+ space in the City of New York. From its side street off Bushwick Avenue, just a block from the L train, they launched as a big roomy bar made to welcome queer folks and allies seven nights a week.
“We were playing with the idea of maybe having a performance space, and when we didn’t have a performance, we would just open up for bar clientele,” says Lazcano. “But we never really had the foot traffic for a bar. We tried different happy hours and this and that, but we realized there are so many other local bars—people don’t really come here unless there’s something going on, something big. We’re more of a destination space.”
Their pocket of East Williamsburg/Bushwick is one of Brooklyn’s most vibrant, where young, queer, creative residents keep bars busy until the wee hours. It seemed like 3 Dollar Bill was destined to be different, standing out in the neighborhood by serving local queers and allies in a new, mixed venue. It had plenty of space indoors and a smaller outdoor space. But none of that mattered by mid-March 2020.
“When COVID happened, we tried to stay open as much as we could,” says Lazcano, noting the blitz of citywide regulations mandating six feet of social distancing, even outside. In time, 3 Dollar Bill reopened, first with takeout drinks, then with limited in-house service.
“We started holding little outdoor events. But it was a seated experience, so people were a little confused by that,” he says. “You know, it’s a club, but you have to be seated. You can’t dance, but you have the DJ playing. It was contradictory. So that’s when we started doing ticketed events.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that See Tickets allowed 3 Dollar Bill to reach its next evolution. Once the venue next door sadly shuttered, 3 Dollar Bill began renting its yard, nearly tripling the size of its outdoor space. By spring 2021 vaccinations rolled out fast across New York, and the team was thrilled to boost capacity to 650 guests at a time.
The only wrinkle was the strict regulations, which at first kept indoor venue capacity to 25 percent. As New York’s COVID cases declined, the nightlife and venue rules got trickier, with different rules for vaccinated patrons, and revised guidelines for face masks, social distancing, and virus tests.
But one thing mattered above all else: Guests’ safety and comfort. Capacity maxed out at 650, though over a weekend up to 8,000 people could move through 3 Dollar Bill for two or three different events or parties a day. The challenge was making sure partygoers were playing by the rules.
“The only way to keep track was as a ticketed space,” said Lazcano. “That’s where See Tickets came in. The platform really helped us keep an eye on capacity, and we could make sure when guests buy tickets, they tick the box that says, ‘I will show proof of vaccination, and proof of ID.’”
At the door, ticketholders present valid proof of ID and either a negative COVID test, or proof of vaccination—the latter as either a physical vaccination card, or New York’s Excelsior Pass (used as digital proof for people vaxxed within the state). As of now, the club only allows in fully vaccinated guests. “That’s the best policy for everyone to feel comfortable,” he says.
The See Ticket sales also became key to 3 Dollar Bill’s nightly prep, “because we never knew if it was going to be a slow Friday or a decent Friday. Next thing you know we’re understaffed or overstaffed,” says Lazcano.
Once 3 Dollar Bill expanded its yard, summer fun went full throttle. The team erected a stage with lighting and sound, and brought in collaborators to program some of Brooklyn’s best shows of the year, all with a queer beat.
Drag shows are legendary, with stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race frequently serving their glitz on stage—including Alaska Thunderf*ck, who won All Stars season two. Most Sundays bring Ty Tea to the yard, a daytime dance party by DJ-producer Ty Sunderland. The floating Hot Rabbit party hosts mixed queer parties here, like the Bushwick Beach Bash pool party.
Yard parties usually run from 2 to 10 p.m. due to city noise ordinances, so most outdoor weekend events have an all-day-long festival feel. Live bands and DJs lead, with local vendors selling art and merchandise made by and/or for queer folks, like non-binary fashion label BoiPKG. More eclectic productions add twists to 3 Dollar Bill’s weekly indoor-stage lineups, like the burlesque of Neon Coven; and the unforgettable Kostume Kult, in collaboration with Bushwick’s House of Yes, whose own space is temporarily closed.
Lazcano admits that the future feels more unpredictable than ever. “Right now we’re just trying to float around and survive this thing,” he says. His team is entertaining the idea of producing more of its own shows and parties, rather than hosting only outside producers’ events at their own ticket prices. That would let 3 Dollar Bill program its choice of LGBTQI+ musicians, performers, and other artists, and set affordable ticket prices. Both are central to the club’s mission.
“We want to be accessible to the queer community, and not everyone has $15 to $50 to pay for a ticket,” he says. “We really want to stay friendly with our community, and we want everyone to know that they can come here and enjoy without having to have deep pockets.”
Affordability is central to 3 Dollar Bill’s message to “welcome the community into a space that represents our commitment to inclusion and the celebration of queer identity.”
Lazcano says community is everything for 3 Dollar Bill, “We really want everybody to enjoy queer culture. We have a big, big trans and non-binary community, it’s a great mix—pretty much the full spectrum. It’s very important that we have a place for the whole queer community. We just want people to know that when they come here, it’s a party that’s safe.”