Eric Leven

The Importance of the West Village and those God-Damned Christopher Street Kids

Filed By Eric Leven | July 15, 2008 6:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Christopher Street, gay youth, New York City, Stonewall, street kids

I want to start this blog entry by prefacing that, yes, I realize the Christopher street kids are loud, that they loiter and yes, I feel for those residents plagued by the noise pollution, crowded and dirty sidewalks and youths running amok. I realize all of this and I sympathize with the problems and annoyances the residents of Christopher St. face regarding these children and their noise.

Christstreetmain.jpgBut I'd also like to say that I sympathize with the youth too. It's a fact- these mostly minority, almost all inner-city youths come to Christopher Street because for 40 years this street stands as the known place where one can be as openly gay as they are. Just take a look around. If you want to know where community pride is- look to these kids. Many of them unapologetically effeminate, the young fems hold the hands of their butchie partners and all of them are decked out in some form of rainbow attire. They're here, they're queer and they are on Christopher Street to be just that. There is no Christopher Street in Newark or The Bronx or Brooklyn or Queens- so is it any wonder these kids take hour-plus train rides, escaping their homelands to be here, on this small strip of a street?

I have blogged about this several times: The kids are hanging out at all hours of the night, loitering outside of the bars, because that's the "cool" place to be and despite the best and deeply appreciated efforts of The Gay and Lesbian Center, the kids just don't find "The Center" a "cool" place to hang. I've said it before, to a tiring degree- It is not the kid's fault that they have nowhere to go but it is the fault of a city and a community too disinterested in creating a safe, well supervised, "cool" 18+ venue for these kids to go that isn't any kind of "Center." I'll vouch for it- I grew up in a white, wealthy, tree lined New Jersey suburb and although these kids' street-cred is far superior than mine ever was I still scoffed at the notion that my mother expected me to have fun at High School or Hebrew School dances. It's the same thing as a center- a party organized by authority. The two will never fit into the same equation.

ChristStreetKiss.jpgNow despite the statements above the article below details a Center of the city that has some working ingredients: culture, dance, and expression. The article also offers a window into the mind of 2008 gay youth, upholding his sense of cultural history, The Ball Culture, through the years that passed while still upholding what Christopher Street means to all of us and why it is year after year that we regard this paved spread of blocks as a home.

From the NY Times:

ON a recent Monday afternoon, scores of young people gathered in a mirrored-wall dance studio at the Door, a youth center on Broome Street in the West Village, where they cranked out thumping house music and competed in vogueing, a dance style influenced by modeling poses that was popularized by gay people in the 1980s.

The center's vogueing competition, which has categories like runway, performance and face, takes place weekly and is called a mini-ball, a tip of the hat to the grand balls of the established vogueing scene. The event was added to the center's schedule two years ago. It is one of a series of programs intended in part to offer gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teenagers who flock to the Village from elsewhere in the city an alternative to hanging out on the streets and Pier 54, thus helping smooth relations between them and neighborhood residents who had increasingly complained about their raucous behavior.

Among the party's regular competitors is Dwayne Garner, a lithe 20-year-old with full lips and high cheekbones who dreams of becoming a model and an actor. On a recent afternoon between dancing in the mini-ball and rehearsing a routine for Manhattan's annual Gay Pride Parade, which will be held today, Mr. Garner spoke about the art of vogueing and coming of age as a young gay man in the West Village.

[cut]

It was beautiful when I first came to the Village in 1992. I was 14. In the Village, every block you went on, you saw at least 20 gay people. I wanted to spend as much time as I could down there. I didn't do drugs, didn't smoke weed, didn't smoke cigarettes, didn't drink liquor, nothing. It was just a natural high to be around men who were attracted to me. When I went home, I had to become more butch. Down there, I could be free. I could breathe.

By the way I dress and carry myself, people in my community see that I'm gay. Some people treat me like a normal person. Some people say, "Oh, faggot." Plenty of young people are dealing with the same issues I did, and the West Village is the only place that offers comfort.

There was a lot of protest last year about young people being down there late at night. Residents think we're rowdy. But if I was a resident of the West Village and had people who don't live in my neighborhood there all day every day, standing in front of my building, smoking, drinking and having loud conversations while I have to get up and go to work the next morning, I would be upset, too. I understand the animosity.

I've been coming to the Door since I was 15. Me and my friend Joshua used to play around in the Door's dance studio trying to learn how to vogue. People came and watched us dance. We said, "Since you're watching us, you might as well make yourself useful and judge us." They judged us on our vogue, our stage presence. After we were done battling, they chose a winner. We were like, that's cute. We just did our own little mini-ball.

ChristStreetboys-1.jpg

Breathe with these kids. Sympathize with them- because whether it was Christopher Street or any other Mecca of gayness, at one time or another each and everyone of us have come upon these lands and said, "I'm home."


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Thanks, Eric. You said a mouthful.

I've recently been reading a well-researched book on the Stonewall Riots (it's sitting at home, else I'd cite the exact title and author) where it is very clearly documented and accepted that a LARGE portion of the people who took part in the riots (in fighting-back against the corrupt police) were the street kids. Especially once the riots were in full-swing, many of the people at the "front lines" of the riots were the street kids, taunting and teasing the cops, even forming impromptu "kick lines" in front of rows of police in full riot gear.

Everyone gives credit to the drag queens and transvestites as the driving force behind the riots, when in fact, there were not really that many true cross-dressers out at the riots (however, at least a few actually were some of the first to fight back instead of going along meekly to get arrested). Most of the people that were referred to as "queens" in that day and age were the gay men who were by nature obviously effeminate (but not necessarily drag queens or cross-dressers). And most accounts of the riots mention how it was/were these "queens" (the most effeminate and "nelly" of the crowd) who fought back the most and even showed more courage then the more "butch" straight-acting gays.

Anyway, it's an extremely interesting book.

I used to walk Christopher Street on my way to work - in the Archives building - when this animosity was just budding. I was living in Washington Heights with half the kids who hung around in the the West Village, and I know they couldn't be who they were where they lived, because I lived there too. I worried about the young queens especially.

It's so entirely frustrating; so many neighborhoods were settled first by undesirables - queers, artists, strippers, etc. - and then once it's "settled" the money rolls in & we're not supposed to be there anymore.

Thanks for saying it.

On one of my visits to New York in the late 90's, I went down to Christopher Street and checked out the pier. It was just as you depicted it, a spot where 'the children' could be themselves, even if it was only for a few hours.

Before Sakia Gunn was killed in Newwark, she and her girlfriends had been on the Piers.

I also noted the gentrification of the neighborhood leading up to the piers and told my homegirl at the time, based on what I knew about the similar clashes in Montrose (Houston's gayborhood) there was going to be drama between the peeps in the expensive condos and the kids.


Thank you for writing this Eric.

As someone who works daily with "those god-damned Christopher Street kids" I am constantly frustrated by those in the queer community who are so negative towards queer youth populations, especially those of color or who come from poor or working class families. Instead of writing them off as an annoyance we should be celebrating their bravery and courage for their refusal to be anyone else than who they are.

These are youth who are breaking gender and sexual norms, and doing so with pride, in every corner of New York City. They often face abandonment or even attacks from those in their family, their schools, and their neighborhoods. Then, in the one place in the city where they should be free from all attacks, they are written off as a nuisance. Christopher Street is a haven for all of us, not just those who can afford (or legally drink) a $15 martini or thrown down $300 on designer jeans.

On top of The Door, I'd like to give a shout out to other community-based organizations doing excellent work with "those god-damned Christopher Street kids": The Hetrick-Martin Institute, the Youth Enrichment Services program at the LGBT Center, People of Color in Crisis, Bronx Community Pride Center, Gay Men's Health Crisis, and FIERCE among others.

As a veteran of those piers I still have a hard time understanding why anyone who moves there then turns around and complains about what was there since BEFORE they got there. If you didn't want to deal with the culture of the West Village, why the hell did you move there in the first place?

It's like the Ugly Americans in Europe. You expect the culture of the place to bend to your dictates and sensibilities. It's not gonna happen. Chrisotpher Stree was already a cultural institution for people like me when I got there in the mid 1980s. Twenty years later that role is not only cemented in the minds of Queer youth of all colors, it's been enshrined. And thank goodness for that. No other segment of the LGBT community has seen fit to sanctify the history of LGBT struggle and the blood that was shed on those streets for our collective freedom. These kids do it every single day.

Wari Shade

I completely agree, Wari. It's not like these people living in the neighborhood all moved in during the 40's...