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Witness the scene on a recent Tuesday at the FIERCE! headquarters, an unpretentious office on West 16th Street. Homemade signs inside read: "We have a right to public space" and "Bitch, start a revolution." A dozen teens talk about the upcoming week's community board meeting, honing their message about the need for a 4 a.m. curfew.
"Because curfews are stupid," suggests one teenage girl.
"Because public spaces are for everyone," adds a boy.
Yet another offers: "Because I want a space where I can be myself."
It's a sentiment you'll hear at the pier on any weekend night. Angie Correlier, 17, of the South Bronx, has been coming here for years because, she says, "It's my kind of peoplegay people." A tiny spitfire, Correlier says her neighborhood peers don't get her. "I'm a female, yet I dress like a male," she says, noting her baggy jeans, oversized T-shirt, and silver chain. But on the pier, she adds, "We can express ourselves."
And they do. Teens "vogue" on the lawn. They lounge on benches, hold hands, and kiss by the water's edge. They prowl for dates, smoke cigarettes, play music, and pass joints.
"I do think people are loud," says Precious Cox, 19, of Harlem, acknowledging that residents have legitimate complaints. "I'll be joking with my friends as we go through the neighborhood and we'll be all loud and we'll yell and curse and scream." But, she adds, "Is that any reason to kick kids off the pier early?"
No, says Keith Mitchell, a 19-year-old Bronx resident who calls the pier "my heaven." He has a theory about why he and his queer friends have become so controversial: "Let it be a white gay person and the residents won't be up in arms like this. It's prejudice."
The idea that racism might play a part in the residents' annoyance at the kids is a delicate one in a liberal stronghold like the West Village. Folks here pride themselves on their tolerance for diversity. Certainly, the ones fed up with the whole street scene aren't buying that argument. "Why is this being made into a racial issue?" asks Terri Howell, of Bedford Street, incredulously. When she gets jolted out of bed by a raucous crowd, she doesn't think about skin color or sexual orientation. She thinks about one thing: "It's bad behavior."
Bedford Street resident Kathy Donaldson, who heads a 300-member block association pushing for an early curfew, seconds that. She sees the racism charge as an easy out for teens who can blame the area property owners and avoid taking any responsibility. "Noise is a fact of life in the city," she says, but you shouldn't have to put up with the noise of hundreds of teens traipsing through your neighborhood in the wee morning hours.
"If the kids would behave, it wouldn't be a problem," Donaldson says, sighing. "I want people to enjoy themselves, then go home. Don't hang out on the street, don't be loud, don't stake out your territory. Just go home."
People seeking a resolution to this in-tractable turf war have found themselves caught in the middle, attacked by both sides. Supportive gestures have backfired. Arthur Schwartz, of Community Board 2's waterfront committee, which has held the hearings, tried to encourage the neighborhood to confront the apparent racial dynamics. "It's important for everyone to deal with the fact that the kids out there on the pier are largely black and Hispanic," he says. That means they have a different relationship to the area's white residents than white gay kids would, he notes, as well as a different need for safe queer space.
On March 6, Schwartz drafted a resolution calling for a midnight curfew. In the text, he noted that the "rowdyism" was coming from crowds of "mostly" gay youth of "African American and Hispanic origin." FIERCE! immediately tagged him with the label of racist. Schwartz, a civil rights lawyer for 30 years, says he was only trying to help the kids.
Likewise, Sklarz, the activist who formerly headed the board's gay committee, has defended the teens' claim to gather on the Christopher Street pier. But when she pleaded with FIERCE! members to recognize that the West Village was gentrifying and becoming a haven for young families, too, she got booed. "It's nasty, and feelings are hurt, and the effort to find a solution is rejected," says Sklarz, who resigned from the board earlier this month.
Community board members thought they'd ironed out a compromise with the March 6 proposal. The plan included keeping the nearby Pier 54, in the meatpacking district, open until 2 a.m. Village residents would get their early curfew; gay teens, their safe space. But some 200 FIERCE! members at the meeting rejected the proposal, seeing it as a move to get them out of the West Village. Without buy-in from the kids, the waterfront subcommittee wouldn't recommend the measure.
The latest official proposal before the community board sticks to the 1 a.m. curfew. Yet it would hand the kids a victory: It calls for food, bathrooms, and social services on the pier. FIERCE! has promised to police the teens. "The board is beginning to see we'll do what we have to do to work with the community so we're not kicked out of the Village," says FIERCE!'s Rickke Mananzala.