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Hundreds of queer teens, most of them black or Latino, amble along Christopher Street, in groups of 10 and 20. They're headed west, to the waterfront, to the public pier they've long called their own. It's a warm March night, the first hint of spring, and the Village feels electric. Straight and gay couples pop in and out of restaurants, in and out of bars. But the teens, by far, dominate the scene.
"This is typical," Poster says, as he weaves through 15 or so congregating on a street corner, chilling out and carrying on. All night along the strip, he dodges packs of teens who make their presence known. Queer boys, their hands locked, prance outside a pizza store. Queer girls, their bodies intertwined, kiss outside the PATH station. Teens behave like teens, oblivious to the world, projecting a cacophony of soundswith beeping cell phones, blasting boomboxes, slapping handshakes, roaring catcalls.
And when the Christopher Street pier closes at 1 a.m., countless more teens spill onto the street, at top volume. They call out, "Yo, bitch," or proudly preen "Check my ass!" or just plain shout, "FUCK THAT!" They create a ruckus that would irritate anyone looking to sleep.
"You hear that?" Poster asks, as if anyone couldn't. He stands with his arms crossed over his chest, watching the commotion pass before his building. "Multiply it by 100 and that's what we have to put up with all summer."
His complaint may seem as old as the Christopher Street pier itself. Ever since the 1970s, queer teens have flocked to the gay-friendly neighborhood, carving out the pier as a place to be themselves. Residents and business owners have often clashed with them over the years, for sometimes obvious reasons.
But the battle has escalated since 2003, when the pier was renovated and became part of the five-mile-long Hudson River Park. It's now scrubbed clean, and subject to park rules, including a 1 a.m. closing time. The newly improved pier has since become an even more powerful magnet for queer kids. Residents and kids alike say that over time, the crowd has gotten younger, darker, and more likely to hail from the boroughs.
And so, explains Melissa Sklarz, a transgender activist who has served on the local community board, "We've watched this problem escalate. It has turned into a full-fledged culture war."
Lately, both sides have been fighting it out at public hearings before Community Board 2, which is debating the pier's curfew. Residents want to shut down the pier as early as 11:30 p.m. so kids will leave it and, by extension, their neighborhood at a decent hour. The gay-youth group FIERCE! is pushing a 4 a.m. curfew, arguing that teens would end up leaving the pier in smaller, less noisy crowds if they weren't forced out so early. On March 23, the 52-member board will consider the matter. FIERCE! has been passing out leaflets on the pier, trying to get a group of 500 to show up at the hearing.
Meanwhile, one of the city's liveliest street scenes continues to unfold, with residents standing on the sidelines, sizing up the kids at play. At times, you can really see the adults' point. Like when one teenager, dressed in a G-string and tight pants, gyrates his hips as he struts up and down Christopher Street on a Friday night. An hour earlier, he'd stood on the pier pronouncing his desire to eat shit. Now, he's dry-humping a street sign, grunting with each pelvic thrust, as his boyfriend shouts, "Fuck it hard!"
He's just the kind of kid FIERCE! organizers are trying to mobilize in their curfew campaign. Its official slogan: "Safe space saves lives. 4 U. 4 Us. 4 a.m."
Ever since the pier became a swanky park, FIERCE! short for Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowermenthas launched an effort to preserve what it sees as historic queer space, blocks from the scene of the Stonewall riots. For along with the boardwalk, bathrooms, and benches came a sense that the kids were being kicked out.
"It's a little uncomfortable now," says Angel Seda, 24, an outreach coordinator who first started hanging out at the pier in the late '90s. Back then, it was exclusively gay and still a dark, shabby, dangerous place. Now, there are park patrol officers who order the teens to move along. Now, there is the nightly closing time. "The pier has changed," Seda says.
Seda and fellow FIERCE! activists have stepped up their campaign in recent months, urging hundreds of teens to stand up for their rights. They've drafted proposals to end the 1 a.m. curfew, sent postcards to park officials, circulated petitions among residents, lined up support from mainstream gay groups. They have, in short, gone strategic.