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 sounds—with 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 Empowerment—has 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.
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 people—gay 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.
But that's no consolation to residents, who think the plan will only attract more kids. The problem, as Donaldson puts it, "has become a political hot potato." The neighbors realize many of the gay youth have had hard lives. Last fall, the city commissioned a brief study of the pier crowd; its results are expected before summer. Yet somehow, the question of what to do about the street noise gets muddled as board members seek information on the kids' risk factors, from homelessness to harassment. "All of a sudden," says Elaine Goldman, of the Christopher Street Block Association, "kids are screaming about how they have nowhere to go, and adults are wondering about social services."
She and others are looking to a higher power—maybe the mayor, or the governor. The Hudson River Park Trust, the joint city and state entity operating the pier, can do what it wants to address the debate, with or without the board. Spokesperson Chris Martin says the trust is in no hurry: "We're not making any decisions until we see what this resolution is, if at all."
Back at the pier, Dave Poster is taking in the tame midnight scene. "Now, these kids are good kids who want to hang out," he says, motioning to a handful who are dancing on benches. He remembers himself as a teen, when he wasn't necessarily a church mouse.
But then, he points out, "If I was one of 300 kids acting out, we wouldn't have lasted in my neighborhood."