Street Hassle

New Skool Versus Old School in Greenwich Village

At the height of last week's heat wave, Christopher Street was in full human bloom. Hundreds of queer teens, most of them black or Latino, ambled west from Hudson Street and spilled across the waterfront. Here, where white gay men created a sexual carnival in the pre-AIDS '70s, one of the city's liveliest youth scenes unfolds nightly. It flames with the passion of people who don't feel free to be themselves in their neighborhoods and who see this hallowed stretch of pavement as a place where they can represent.

On a warm night, you'll see banjee-boy realness, post-butch dykeness, and high trannie 'tude—all on proud parade. You'll see middle-class men of color pop in and out of the bars along this strip. (On weekends, the crowd at Chi Chiz is as energized as gay life in post-Rudy Manhattan gets.) But you'll also see straight white couples scoping the scene from cafés that dot the area, and Village denizens out walking their dogs. The sidewalk is a living Ralph Fasanella painting, bursting with zany vitality.

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RID founder Jessica Berk
photo: Sylvia Plachy

But that's not how Dave Poster, president of the Christopher Street Patrol, would describe this scene. "People here haven't slept in years," he says, "and they're afraid to walk down the street." Verbal harassment, public lewdness, prostitution, drug dealing, kids screaming all night long—this is the litany of residents' complaints. Poster calls it "menacing behavior," but the new kids on the block call it freedom—and they are fighting to keep the turf that another gay generation won.

The party that is Christopher Street: Kids call it freedom; residents call it an offense to the quality of life.
photo: Staci Schwartz
The party that is Christopher Street: Kids call it freedom; residents call it an offense to the quality of life.

Last Thursday evening, just after darkness fell, plainclothes police descended on West Street. Word spread quickly among the kids, who have seen many such sweeps. Tonight, they witnessed at least half a dozen marijuana busts. On this stretch of waterfront even the smell of weed can mean arrest for an entire group of unwelcome loiterers. Such dragnets may be one reason why 85 percent of drug busts under Giuliani's Operation Condor involved people of color—even in white neighborhoods, according to a Legal Aid survey.

But on Thursday, the catch included one man who definitely wasn't smoking. Jesse Ehrensaft-Hawley, a founder of the youth-organizing group FIERCE!, got collared after he questioned an officer who was making an arrest. When the cop ordered Jesse to move, he says he did, but the summons says otherwise. And there's a second charge against Jesse: obstructing a bicycle path. By some measures, that's a quality-of-life offense.

Last week's heat didn't just fall on the piers. The residents of Christopher Street were roiling over the Port Authority's plan to build two additional PATH exits on their blocks. Villagers packed a sweltering hall to voice their concerns, which ranged from construction noise to disruption of services and massive traffic jams. But there was another problem. The new PATH exits, one resident fumed, would result in "people from New Jersey disgorging into the community."

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photo: Staci Schwartz

Manhattan chauvinism notwithstanding, the Village hasbecome a more congested place. Though it's long been a nightlife mecca, the crowds, the cars, the motorcycles, the tour buses, and the revelers all seem more intense. There are nearly 300 bars and restaurants in the neighborhood, ranging from messy to finessey. But as chic gay venues have fled to Chelsea and hip yuppie dives have moved to the Lower East Side, the Village now serves a less tony clientele. Its future as an entertainment zone seems tied to the group that still believes in its mystique: young people from across the rivers, including people of color. Straight, gay, or flexible, they have made the Village Manhattan's most diverse dating destination.

But for all the variations in its streets, this is basically an upscale neighborhood, increasingly dominated by families drawn to the district's excellent schools. It may be the only place in the city where affluent residents share public space with large numbers of young people of color. The result is an intricate set of accommodations. Walk a block or two in the Village and you're likely to come upon an entirely different crowd. This delicate balance is easily upset, as it was when police pushed drug dealers out of Washington Square. They moved onto the adjacent residential streets, terrifying residents who suddenly saw crack vials and black men lurking in the shadows. Meanwhile, transsexuals driven from the meat market as it began the process of gentrification headed south, joining the queer kids who used to party around the piers. But waterfront park construction—and a curfew on the river side of West Street—had driven them onto Christopher in the wee hours. Last summer, all these forces converged, creating an effect that Aubrey Lees, chair of the local community board, has described as "a cesspool."

In fact, it is a complex social organism, and the proximity of so many cliques and classes makes the current Village scene a rightful heir to the bohemianism this neighborhood spawned. On its fringes, as in any urban demimonde, are derelicts, dealers, hookers, and assorted ruffnecks. When they bother the residents, there's hell to pay—especially on Christopher Street. At least four police contingents work the strip west of Hudson: narcotics, vice, Port Authority officers who guard the PATH station, and a hefty detail from the Sixth Precinct, augmented by the Guardian Angels and the local patrol. But this show of force doesn't make the queer kids feel safe. They say the peace is being kept at their expense.

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