Street Hassle

New Skool Versus Old School in Greenwich Village

There are many stories of cops ordering young people to leave the area. Social workers who operate out of vans along Christopher have seen police sweep the street. On some nights, whole blocks have been floodlit—hardly conducive to hanging out. But there's nowhere for young queers of color to go. A drop-in center that catered to them moved seven years ago under intense pressure from community groups. Stings have made the bars and even the cafés inhospitable to anyone under 21. Since there are no toilets available, public urination is a fact of life, and so is noise. Residents have been known to pelt rowdy loiterers—especially trannies—with garbage, eggs, and ice.

photo: Staci Schwartz

Yet even as the residents' rage has grown, the police point out that all seven categories of major crime—including murder, assault, robbery, and rape—dropped 12 percent in the Village last year. Quality-of-life arrests were down 22 percent. This is one of the city's safest neighborhoods—or so the official story goes. "Bullshit," says community board chair Lees. "Absolutely crime is getting worse. I can't prove it but I'm not an idiot. Fuck the police if they're saying otherwise. I mean, in order for them to keep their jobs, this has to be their position. They're not going to say that the Bloods and Crips are down here. At night, there are cars and people selling drugs, and there are never any police. The real story is: Now there are major violent crimes going on in the Village."

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.

A shooting on Houston Street earlier this month seemed to make Lees's case, but as one officer noted, the arrest rate in such crimes is over 90 percent. In fact, police have a suspect in custody. They've made arrests in two other widely publicized crimes: a stabbing near the waterfront, and a bias incident on Hudson Street. But the perception of danger persists. "Maybe it's anecdotal," says Deborah Glick, whose assembly district includes the Village, "but I know people who have had near brushes late at night, where someone tried to grab a backpack. No, the person didn't get it, but it's the first time in 15 years." Such incidents compound the anxiety many white people feel around blacks, especially in groups.

A decade ago, the famous basketball court on Sixth Avenue and 3rd Street was the object of local fury because of the racially mixed crowd that gathered there, and some residents poured olive oil on the court in order to retard its use. But the white hordes streaming down Seventh Avenue South have never been a cause for alarm. A white boy vomiting up his beer outside Chumley's on Bedford Street doesn't seem menacing, but the black boys partying up the block do. They are obstreperous and they are taking up the sidewalk, "forcing" residents to cross the street.

"I don't experience any quality of life problem," says Lydell Jackson, a veteran activist in the black gay community. "I do see a lot of black gay men on Christopher Street, and I'm glad to see them, because I remember going down there a few years ago and not seeing any. I feel less at home walking down Eighth Avenue in Chelsea, because it's very white." But one person's comfort is another's crisis. At a recent meeting of residents, all of them white, the complaints about life in the West Village were legion. A woman reported being grabbed by a man (whose race went unmentioned). A man described homeless people defecating on his block. "Maybe there should be a way to say, 'You're not welcome here,' " said a middle-aged woman. "The cops used to do that. They'd drive unwanted people to Jersey and dump them."

9-11 was a trauma for every new yorker, but in Greenwich Village it brought the feelings that had simmered over the summer to a boil. Suddenly, the annoyance, the anxiety, and the sense of imminent danger seemed unbearable—and the situation grew even worse when the blockades that had prevented nonresidents from entering the area were lifted, while the police were still deployed around Ground Zero. "We had a blip in quality-of-life offenses in October," Deputy Inspector Kevin Fitzgerald admits, but to the residents, it felt like the beginning of the end. At community meetings, one observer recalls people screaming and shoving for the right to vent.

photo: Staci Schwartz

Every resident of Greenwich Village either knows a reporter or is one, and as a result every neighborhood issue ends up in the papers. After residents reportedly called Robert F. Worth, a New York Times reporter, a piece by him appeared on January 19. Under the headline "Tolerance in Village Wears Thin," Worth described "the movement of crime from the Village's seedy frontiers to its residential heart," without ever mentioning the drop in felonies. He speculated that the area "is becoming a sinkhole for vice," without distinguishing between prostitutes and young people "shouting and carousing." on the street. The accompanying photos were no more balanced. "Noisy visitors" were shown lurking in shadow, while two longtime residents, Aubrey Lees and her friend Jessica Berk appeared holding their dogs in the sunlight. For Berk, Worth wrote, "the last straw was getting slapped by a transvestite."

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