The Great Gay Way

A brief history of Christopher Street


That was then: Clones on parade
photo: Fred W. McDarrah

The shadow of Stonewall gave Christopher an iconic status as the locus of gay activism. But when AIDS started sweeping the gay community in 1981, the street fell ill as well. Businesses closed, cruising declined, voyeuristic straights stayed away, and longtime residents and patrons died by the thousands. "It was like going to a carnival," says Kohler, "and suddenly somebody pulled the plug on the lights."

Yet even in those days of unimaginable devastation, Christopher Street remained a safe haven for many with nowhere else to go. In the late '80s, when Emanuel Xavier was 16, his mother found out he was gay and kicked him out. He spent much of his time on the crumbling piers, hustling. But despite the hardships of living as a teenager on the street, Xavier—now 33 and author of the poetry collection Pier Queen—has fond memories: "It was a safe space. You could walk around holding another man's hand or kiss somebody out in public. It was our world."

The strip today: The kids rule the waterfront by night.
photo: Staci Schwartz
The strip today: The kids rule the waterfront by night.

Details

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  • The street never fully recovered after AIDS hit, but rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Despite the proliferation of gym-pumped boys north of 14th Street, most of Christopher's longtime constituents have resisted the shift to Chelsea. The pier kids immortalized in Paris Is Burning still rule the waterfront after dark, the older and whiter denim-and-flannel set still holds court at Ty's, the Latino go-go boys still strut downstairs at the Monster behind Christopher Park, and black gay men still congregate in a crowded bar—albeit not at the standby Two Potato (now an Italian restaurant), but up the block at a bar called Chi Chiz. Even tourists continue to come. "Only the pretty young white boys have left," notes Kohler.

    And they, too, have started to visit since the newly renovated piers opened last summer. But if Christopher Street remains historic, comfortable, and occasionally cruisy, it is admittedly no longer edgy, trendy, or remotely fabulous. Those adjectives have been appropriated by other boulevards.

    "Eighth Avenue is gay, gay, gay—there's no way around it," says Christine Quinn, city councilwoman for the Third District, which includes both the Village and Chelsea. "But Christopher Street is a landmark. Christopher Street has history. It has battle scars. No matter how fabulous another street gets, you can't take that away."

    And its defenders insist the great gay way still has much to offer. "A lot is still there, and a lot more is still to come," says Xavier. And then he summed up Christopher Street in a single word: not run-down but "legendary."

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