Race, Class and Sex Breed Contempt in Greenwich Village

Young people on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village are straining the nerves of a more settled generation.
Young people on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village are straining the nerves of a more settled generation. (Photos By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Michelle García
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006

NEW YORK -- A pair of shapely legs in low-slung jeans strut through Greenwich Village, sequined rainbows stitched onto the back pockets jiggling from side to side. A lanky teenage girl with red-dyed braids, wearing baggy red basketball shorts, gazes at the rainbows and yells, "I like your jeans."

The rainbow-wearing girl yells back: "I like you ."

The girls trade flirtatious smiles and rejoin the nightly parade along Christopher Street, past Village Pleasure with its inventory of gay erotic toys, past a church, and a gay bar with an older black and Latino clientele, and another frequented by white gays. Just beyond is Badlands, once a notorious leather bar and now a triple-X video shop.

They stroll toward the Hudson River and the action on Pier 45, where the gay teenage crowd practices vogue moves (runway poses immortalized by Madonna), flirt and gossip. But at 1 a.m., when the pier shuts down, the crowd that looks and oozes fabulous chic strolls back up Christopher Street. Their screaming and music drives the locals nuts.

"The young people . . . are raising holy hell," said David Poster, 68, president of the Christopher Street Patrol, a neighborhood watch group. "We pray for rain and snow."

Forget the image of the Village as gay haven; forget the gay liberation movement that rose from its cobblestone streets. The scene has moved north to Chelsea, and what's left in the Village is a gay neighborhood gone older, wealthier and stodgier. Some in the area of $4 million townhouses and lofts says it is under siege by gay kids of color who bring loud talk, drug dealing and prostitution.

It is a conflict, thick with issues of race and class within the gay community, that is now coming to a head.

"They didn't want black faces on the street," said Bob Kohler, who is white, explaining the outcry against the pier crowd. Kohler, a longtime Village resident and former business owner on the strip, took part in Gay Liberation Front that organized some of the first gay rights protests.

He remembers the methadone-clinic houseboat docked at the piers. And the junkies who shot the real deal through their veins and nodded out on brownstone stoops. That generation now visits the gay senior center where Kohler regularly gets into heated arguments about the teenagers.

"Those kids . . . get them off the street," says Kohler, feigning the whining voices of seniors at the center. "They come here and mess up the Village. They steal." Then he adds wearily, "Meanwhile, these old men are trying to score for pot."

The mostly nonwhite teens on the pier are from the Bronx, Brooklyn and New Jersey. The youths and their advocates argue that the Village has always welcomed all types, all colors and all stripes. They say residents unfairly pin problems and crimes, including those generated by the bar scene, on them.

"It wasn't our decision to be gay," said Webster Duvell, 22, who is black and lives in Harlem. Duvell and his friends, dressed in long plaid shorts, laughed and joked while showing off new dance moves. "This is the only place to be ourselves, to be with people who are like ourselves and not be looked down on."

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