Street Hassle


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.

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.

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.”

photo: Staci Schwartz

Manhattan chauvinism notwithstanding, the Village has become 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.

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.”

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.”

At a post-9-11 meeting, Berk, a former publicist, had announced that she was forming a new group called Residents in Distress, or RID. She had named it after a louse killer, Berk explains. Its mission was to combat crime. But Berk herself has a criminal record. She has been arrested three times, stemming from a series of altercations with a neighbor. She is suing the police for false arrest, charging among other things that they conspired with her neighbor against her. But whatever their bias, Berk was tried and convicted by a jury on three counts of aggravated harassment. The case is on appeal. Worth knew this, Berk says, but he didn’t find her record fit to print. (The Times did not return requests for comment.)

The paper of record eventually published a second piece, by Denny Lee, that dug deeper into gay youth culture in the Village, and it included more reassuring crime statistics. But by then the die had been cast. The precinct received 23 new officers, the police commissioner announced a new West Village Initiative, and Berk became a quality-of-life celebrity. She claims to have answered hundreds of requests for interviews, and her days of trembling whenever a police car passes by are over. Now she is immersed in police lore, and she boasts that the precinct commander “calls me all the time.”

Berk is out at all hours documenting quality-of-life offenses. She says she has made some 200 reports to the police in the past month alone, resulting in more than 30 arrests. But fame has its price. Berk claims to have received numerous death threats (“I’ve applied for a gun permit”), and when she met this reporter, she had just come from the precinct, where she complained about a neighbor who disrupted a filmmaker’s interview with her by shouting, “No one knows what a bitch you really are.” Her enemies, she says, are jealous of her renown. Some are drug dealers or prostitutes, and as for the rest: “People hate me because I’m suing, I’m not gay, and I’m not a transvestite.”

On two quality-of-life walkabouts with Berk, one by day and the other by night, this reporter was alerted to the following evidence of criminal activity: A used popper bottle was mistaken for a crack vial, a panhandler was spotted holding a bank door (“I’m targeting him for arrest”), a busy porn store was described as a drug den, and virtually every black man on the street was sized up. Some were regarded as drug dealers; others were not, depending on whether they “look you in the eye.” Dealers, Berk explained, have a blank stare.

photo: Staci Schwartz

In recent months, lees and berk have made the rounds of community groups, drumming up support for their final solution to this crisis: a three-strikes-you’re-out law for repeat offenders. A bill, which recently passed the state senate with Governor Pataki’s backing, stipulates that the fourth class-A misdemeanor committed after three others can be treated as a felony. On February 14, Lees and Berk met with a staffer from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office to propose that he support that statute, along with a bill that would raise the penalty for public urination, putting it on a par with prostitution. A spokesman says Silver hasn’t dismissed the idea, but he expressed several concerns: It could clog the courts and increase the prison population. Besides, there’s been no groundswell of quality-of-life complaints from around the state. “We haven’t even heard about this issue from folks in other parts of the city.”

Lees says she isn’t wedded to the three-strikes quota: “I assume it would be more like four or five. The problem is recidivism. They go back on the street time and time again, and there’s no tool for the police.” Yet the proposed law will have a limited impact on quality-of-life crime, since the misdemeanors it applies to don’t include disorderly conduct, public lewdness, or even hooking. But one thing is clear: Ever since Giuliani time, there’s no political liability to cracking down on petty crime. And Lees is widely regarded as an ambitious politician. In 1999, she ran for the City Council seat won by Christine Quinn, and since then she hasn’t stinted on accusing the elected officials who represent the Village of being indifferent to the quality-of-life crisis.

As she goes from meeting to meeting organizing around her agenda, Lees gets a warm reception, especially from longtime residents. These holdovers from a more liberal era are a major contingent in the quality-of-life crusade. In the 1960s, they fought developers and got Greenwich Village declared a historic district, and today they are the first to squawk about unwanted change. But they’ve seen their cherished community altered in uncontrollable ways. They cannot stop the proliferation of tourists, or halt the flow of development, especially west of Hudson Street, where the boundaries of the historic district end. And as the waterfront park nears completion, veteran watchers of real estate see a building boom in the making.

One local politico describes “an absurd number of variances” being granted by the city around West Street south of Christopher, and to the north a struggle is being waged to keep the meat market from being eviscerated. These are major quality-of-life threats, but nothing can be done about them. In the pro-business Bloomberg era, soaring rents, endless traffic jams, and incessant noise (which has always been the number one complaint to the quality-of-life hotline) are here to stay. The residents are helpless before the real engine of change. What can be controlled is the class and race of visitors, especially when developers and residents share an agenda about who belongs on the street and who does not.

Not many quality-of-life crusaders have considered the way these laws are actually enforced. Nor are the police about to hip them to the facts. The department won’t reveal how many people of color are charged with petty offenses in Greenwich Village. It would be “racial profiling” to keep such statistics, one Sixth Precinct official told the Voice. But Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, can make an educated guess from his visits to the pens where people who have just been arrested are held. “One of the things that’s startling is how rarely you see a white face,” Gangi says. “And the great majority of charges against these defendants are quality-of-life crimes.”

Jesse Ehrensaft-Hawley remembers the guy who shared his holding cell after they were busted on West Street Thursday night. He was a 35-year-old Latino nabbed for smoking a joint. It was his second such offense, and he was very worried. “I was just trying to relax after a hard day’s work,” Jesse recalls him saying. He had come to the Village to chill, but he ended up with a second strike.

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