Were it not for the Statue of Liberty, dwarfed yet visible in the distance, it would be difficult to believe that Hudson River Park was a part of New York City. With its pristine granite pathways and gleaming chrome guardrails, it looks more like über-sanitized, futuristic Geneva than gritty, eclectic Manhattan. In the grey light of early morning, the Greenwich Village section of the park is a quiet, empty space that bears no resemblance to the riotous, alternative haven it once was.
Historically, the West Side waterfront was a bustling commercial port, the landing spot for a multitude of commodities including coal, animal furs, and petroleum. Business boomed until the latter half of the 20th century, when spatial limitations and economic decline took its toll. By 1970 the industry had completely died out, and in its place a gay subculture began to flourish, particularly in the area between W 14th and Canal Streets, and along the Christopher Street Pier.
The growing prominence of the gay culture was largely a reaction to the Stonewall Riots. On June 27th, 1969, the Tactical Police Force raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street, and attempted to arrest patrons on indecency charges. What began as a routine bust erupted into three days of riots and resistance. A turning point for gay activism, the incidents at Stonewall went down in history as the first time gays came together in protest. And since that fateful summer, Christopher Street has remained the iconic center on New York’s queer culture.
Or has it?
In August 2004, the New York Police Depart-ment initiated Operation West Side (OWS), a movement to clean up Greenwich Village by putting an end to drug activity and prostitution. The program has sparked much controversy. Many community groups, such as the aptly named RID (Residents in Distress), support OWS, claiming that crime is on the rise and their safety is in danger. In their Winter 2005 newsletter, the Greenwich Village Block Association called for “action now, before warm weather encourages prostitutes… STREET PROSTITUTION HAS GONE ON HERE LONG ENOUGH” (emphasis their’s). Opponents argue that gay and transgendered youth are being profiled, discriminated against, and unlawfully persecuted.
One of the most hotly contested areas is the Christopher Street Pier, which is, by alternating accounts, a harbor for the gay community and a hot spot for illegal activity. When the Greenwich Village section of Hudson River Park opened in the spring of 2003, a 1am-closing time was instituted, effectively making it a criminal act to be on the pier at night. Many members of the queer community were outraged. They felt they were being forced out of a space that was historically their own, in large part for racist and unjust reasons. As one long-time area resident who wishes to remain anonymous put it, “I think one of the most damning factors — and this is strictly a hunch on my part — for the closing of the pier is that Christopher Street — and particularly that end of it — has become much less white, much more black and brown… When white boys are prostitutes, things go largely unnoticed. When they’re black or brown boys? It’s suddenly a threat.”
In fact, the truth about the piers lies somewhere in between the notion of it as a cultural haven and a center for drugs. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the pier was a place where queer people, especially poor youth and minorities, gathered to socialize and to seek refuge from bigotry, harassment and abuse. A sanctum for creativity and freedom of expression, the pier inspired numerous artists in the 80s, including David Wojnarowicz, a contemporary of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. A street person himself, Wojnarowicz spent a period of time living on the pier and documenting its outsider culture. One of his most famous works is his 1979 Super-8 film Heroin which he shot in the empty warehouses and on the West Side piers.
One of the most outspoken groups in opposition to the Christopher Street Pier curfew is FIERCE! (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment), a support group and outreach program for gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, two spirit, queer, and questioning youth of color in New York City. Founded in 2000, FIERCE! launched the Save Our Space campaign shortly thereafter. In a statement on their website, www.fiercenyc.org, the campaign is described as a movement to “counter the displacement and criminalization of LGBTSTQ youth of color and homeless youth at the Christopher Street Pier and in Manhattan’s West Village.” FIERCE! has made a documentary, Fenced OUT about their struggle to preserve the pier as a place for “homeless and low-income LGBTST youth of color to find each other and build a community.”
Rickke Mananzala, FIERCE!’s campaign coordinator, believes that OWS was born out of racism and fear rather than a legitimate concern for rising crime rates. He claims that recent years have shown no increase in criminal activity. “What we have seen,” he said “is an increase in police harassment.” He went on to say that “They [conservative West Village residents] don’t like to see our community out there [on the pier and in the Village] that late at night. They think we must be up to something.”
Louis Beasley’s experiences echo Mananzala’s sentiments. Beasley frequents the Christopher Street Pier at night and thinks that the 1 am curfew is unfair: “This is New York — the city that never sleeps. They can’t close down the park.” He says that the park officials are often “rude,” denying pier dwellers use of the public restroom and shouting at them through megaphones. Once, he and his boyfriend were told to stop kissing “even when a straight couple was kissing one bench over.”
According to Chris Martin, a spokesperson for the Hudson River Park Trust, the closing of Hudson River Park (and by extension the Christopher Street Pier) has nothing to do with who is out there late at night. It’s strictly policy. “Hudson River Park has a 1 am closing time, just like all the other parks in New York” he said.
In the end, the Christopher Street Pier has always been known, in part, as a place for turning tricks and scoring drugs, just like Madison Ave has always had a reputation as a place for scoring designer handbags. But that’s only part of its rich story. Arent these tiny communities, be they affluent or impoverished, what make New York the great city that it is? In an effort to crack down on crime, is diversity actually what is being wiped out?
Today Hudson River Park is cleaner than it has ever been. Sprinklers set to timers are watering lush green lawns. Men in blue suits are sweeping up cigarette butts. But cleanliness is costly, and if it comes at the expense of a community and its culture, the price might just be too high.