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Cruising the Dead RiverDavid Wojnarowicz and New York's Ruined Waterfront$

Fiona Anderson

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780226603612

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226603896.001.0001

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Protest and Preservation on the Waterfront

Protest and Preservation on the Waterfront

(p.130) 4 Protest and Preservation on the Waterfront
Cruising the Dead River

Fiona Anderson

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the relationship between homophobic municipal and federal legislation in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s and the rapid escalation of the gentrification of downtown Manhattan in the same period. A study of the gentrification of the waterfront in this period provides a vantage point from which to consider the city’s long-standing disinclination to archive itself, evident in its promotion of urban developments that resist the renewal of existing buildings and landmarks, and to explore the commitment of queer writers, artists, and filmmakers to preserving the ruined waterfront. This chapter brings to the fore queer appropriations of the New York waterfront and nearby bars, its identity as a gay men’s cruising space, as a place that facilitated the political organizing of gay men and lesbians, as a site for sex work, and as a home for displaced and at-risk trans people. I examine the civic battleground of the city’s historic waterfront from the perspective of those who were absent from mainstream accounts of its use, exploring histories of activism, preservationism, and protest that have been obscured by the gentrification of both the waterfront and its queer history.

Keywords:   urban renewal, New York City history, activism, Jim Hubbard, preservation, gentrification

In a speech marking the fortieth anniversary of the New York City Planning Commission in January 1979, recently elected mayor Ed Koch remarked, “If there is one thing that I want my administration to be identified with, it is that we brought the harbor back to the city of New York, that we built on our greatest treasure, that we opened the waters to the people of the city.”1 Koch’s plans were buoyed by emergent signs of economic recovery; by the end of the 1970s, New York’s fiscal condition had rallied, its financial markets were improving, and waterfront redevelopment projects were under way at Battery Park City and the World Financial District. With New York no longer economically dependent on its port, as it had been through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, municipal focus moved toward developing its 578 miles of waterfront for commercial investment and public recreation.

As noted in the introduction, in a 1980 study on waterfront development, deputy mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. wrote euphemistically (in municipal terms, at least) that throughout the 1970s “the least desirable activities were assigned to the waterfront.”2 His and Koch’s pronouncements reflected a broader push for waterfront redevelopment across the United States in the late 1970s, seen also in cities including San Francisco, Boston, and Jacksonville. Their comments were symptomatic, too, of a shift in public attitudes toward New York’s maritime history, epitomized by the popular tall-ship tours and riverfront festivals held in celebration of the national bicentennial in 1976. In his study, Wagner asserted that New York’s vast waterfront “must be viewed as a mosaic, made up of a variety of elements, each of which exists by its own character and strengths and yet are united by their strong ties to the heart of the City.”3 At the same time, he supported the multibillion-dollar Westway project, first proposed in 1974, which would have seen four and a half miles of abandoned (p.131) piers on the Lower West Side, along with the ruined Miller Highway, destroyed and replaced by 182 acres of landfill, 50 of which were to be zoned for commercial or industrial use. The Westway proposal met with extensive public opposition and struggled with mounting costs and court actions. Campaigners criticized the proposed development on environmental grounds, for preservationist reasons, and because it prioritized highways over local mass transit services.4 By the time of the bicentennial tall-ships parade in July 1976, the plans were so unpopular that Koch made scrapping Westway a prominent feature of his mayoral campaign, arguing that the federal funds funding it were being misappropriated to provide opportunities for private developers. Once in office, Koch backed down on this early promise, but popular opposition to Westway continued. The project was abandoned in 1985 after a court ruling determined that building a highway over the remaining wharves and ridding the Hudson of its rotting pier footings would destroy an important breeding ground for the striped bass.5

Waterfront planning and development in New York in this period was, according to Wagner’s report, “hampered by a maze of overlapping and competing government jurisdictions that blur[red] lines of responsibility and accountability and unduly lengthen[ed] project approval processes.” Five interstate agencies, four regional authorities, sixteen city agencies, three commissions, two locally elected bodies, fifteen community boards, and five borough boards claimed “some jurisdiction over waterfront development,” and were responsible for the issuing of over seventy-four different permits for various uses of the largely postindustrial harbor.6 Like many previous mayoral administrations, Koch’s had sought to determine a homogeneous public function for the waterfront in this midst of this paralyzing bureaucratic mosaic. But the size of the port, the diverse range of municipal and commercial interests with stakes in its redevelopment, and its place in the collective imagination of the city’s public made large-scale regeneration difficult to achieve. As Raymond Gastil has noted, although the failure of the Westway project gave a boost to community organizers and local activists, it “delayed the transformation of the waterfront for another fifteen years.” Indeed, the most significant piece of waterfront redevelopment on the Lower West Side in the 1980s was the demolition of the Miller Highway in 1989, sixteen years after it had collapsed between Little West Twelfth and Gansevoort Streets under the weight of a dump truck carrying asphalt to be used in its ongoing repairs. But Gastil’s assertion that the removal of the Miller Highway left the city “ready to engage with its waterfront again” after decades of exclusion overlooks the fact that gay men had been walking under the collapsed highway on their way to cruise at the piers for years.7 As Douglas Crimp notes in an article on Alvin (p.132) Baltrop’s pier photographs, although the highway came to represent a psychic boundary as much as a physical one, “a ghostly barrier between ‘civilized’ Manhattan and the Hudson River,” it did not prevent queer appropriations of the undeveloped waterfront; it encouraged them.8

As in this book’s earlier chapters, I am interested here in what is cast in relief at the city’s edge. Homophobic municipal and federal legislation in the 1970s and early 1980s coincided with the rapid escalation of the gentrification of downtown Manhattan. Redevelopment, as Neil Smith has argued, was framed as positive transformation through a “language of revitalization, recycling, upgrading and renaissance [which] suggests that affected neighborhoods were somehow devitalized or culturally moribund prior to gentrification.”9 “Suffering from years of neglect and divided authority,” Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton had lamented in 1966, that the city’s waterfront “has too long been regarded as marginal land, a dumping ground for industries, highways, rotting piers, and raw sewage.”10 Here I consider the preservationist efforts of queer writers, artists, and filmmakers in the face of mainstream narratives that tend not only to resist the renewal of existing buildings and landmarks, but to erase minority histories. Cruising, as an illicit appropriation of the city’s derelict spaces, was itself a means of preserving them as noncommercial, as spaces for political organizing among gay men and lesbians, and as a home for displaced and at-risk trans people.

Waterfront development on the West Side was rife with bureaucratic complications and underhand tactics. In 1972 the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) issued a number of “moral obligation” bonds to finance the demolition of several piers and the construction of office buildings on newly created harbor landfill without the usual referendum, on the condition that a proportion of the space be set aside for low-income housing. Despite the fast-track maneuver, the developments were not completed until 1976, by which time the city was on the brink of bankruptcy and “the office market glutted with space.”11 The New York State Urban Development Corporation condemned the site and bought it from the BPCA for a dollar. The BPCA’s commitment to low-income housing was scrapped, and architects Alexander Cooper and Stanton Eckstut were commissioned to transform the landfill into a commercially appealing office complex. Their plan, Susan Fainstein notes, claimed to “draw on familiar New York neighborhood images and (assemble) them in a street and block pattern which extend (as view corridors) the Lower Manhattan streets to the waterfront.” Yet the finished development was little more than “a recreation zone for the relatively well-to-do,” lacking “the spontaneous contrasts of the real twentieth-century metropolis” and appealing to an imagined city public, rather than those citizens who already lived and worked in downtown Manhattan.12

(p.133) The push for commercial and municipal redevelopment of the waterfront—which, with tensions between private and municipal ownership, and public and private use, remained unfunded and unfinished into the mid-1980s—must be read as part of the gentrification being implemented across New York City in the period. This process was a consequence not only of national “Reaganomics” but of decades of poorly managed industrial decline. As Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan have argued, urban neglect in New York in the 1970s was largely not a matter of negligence but a considered political strategy, “abandoning buildings, harassing and evicting tenants, and rapidly turning over neighborhood property in order to escalate real-estate values.” By 1984, for example, the city had acquired 60 percent of property on the Lower East Side by way of tax defaults and abandonment by incompetent or insolvent landlords. “Contiguous lots” of derelict or neglected housing were “put together to form what is known in the real estate business as ‘assemblages’ … sold for large sums of money at municipal auctions to developers who thus amass entire blocks for the construction of large-scale upper-income housing.”13 Careful management, that is to say perpetuation, of abandoned spaces and empty buildings was key to these municipal strategies of intentional neglect and exclusionary public access and citizenship. One “general public” was being evicted to accommodate another.

Writing in the New York Times in 1979, almost contemporaneous with Koch’s pledge to “[open] the waters to the people of the city,” architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable bade a bittersweet farewell to the “shabby” East Side harbor, as she criticized the young developer Donald Trump’s emergent plans for a commercial restructuring of the still-abandoned riverfront:

I guess what I am really doing is saying good-bye. Because what will surely be lost is the spirit and identity of the area as it has existed over centuries—something that may only be important to those of us who have loved the small, shabby streets and buildings redolent of time and fish, or shared the cold sunlight of a quiet Sunday morning on the waterfront with the Fulton market cats, when the nineteenth century seemed very much alive.14

Huxtable’s nostalgic writing acted as a public mourning ritual. Her recollection of “buildings redolent of time” and her sense of personal loss in the face of the material redevelopment of the waterfront reveals the difficulty of reconciling past with present. Sensory memories and descriptions of affective attachments to the harbor imbue Huxtable’s valediction with a bodily urgency. While Henri Lefebvre argues that for progressive urban politics to be successful, “the most important thing is to multiply readings of the city,” Huxtable’s farewell to “the spirit and identity of the area” speaks to municipal (p.134) and commercial tendencies toward homogenization in renewal and redevelopments efforts as the city recovered from financial crisis in the later 1970s.15

Beyond the administrative complexities that shaped waterfront renewal programs, proposals for commercial and municipal waterfront redevelopment in New York in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were dependent on a false narrative of the trajectory of the waterfront’s abandonment and a homogeneous, sociopolitically exclusive conception of the identity of the general public—“the people of the city”—whose access to the harbor Koch touted. In 1930 the City’s Regional Planning Association had noted in a press release that “it is not within the power of any one body to carry into effect a plan for any proportion of the waterfront of Manhattan.”16 By the mid-1970s, however, the push for a homogenous function, typified by Koch and Wagner’s approach, had severely limited public access to the space. Central to these proposals was the production and maintenance of homogeneous narratives asserting that the warehouses and piers along the waterfront were entirely empty, that the public had no access and no use for them, and that a plan for appropriate civic and commercial reuse was required. As Sarah Schulman argues in The Gentrification of the Mind (2012), “Gentrification literally replaces mix with homogeneity, it enforces itself through the repression of diverse expression.” “Endless crackdowns on cruising and ‘public’ sex,” she writes, are vital components of the gentrification process. Cities are recast as “centers of obedience instead of instigators of positive change,” shaped by what she calls “suburban values.”17

The complex activist politics of the queer cruising and bar scene in and around the waterfront—for example, the appearance of political graffiti at the piers, the establishment of bar owners’ organizations to protect managers and customers from continual police raids, and the close connections between activist groups, bars, and sex clubs—have often been obfuscated by a critical tendency to historicize the late 1970s in terms of vague allusions to the Whitmanian democracy of the dark room and the bathhouse, explored in chapter 1, and by singular narratives of the waterfront’s abandonment that aimed to bring about regeneration quickly and smoothly.18 “Key to the gentrification mentality,” Schulman argues, “is the replacement of complex realities with simplistic ones.”19 The obscuring of this rich history of the queer waterfront is not only an effect of the contemporaneous process of gentrification; it was one of the means through which that gentrification was effected in the first place. This chapter draws on archival paraphernalia, films, and photographs to trace a political and preservationist history of the piers and of the neighboring queer bar scene that has slipped from view or never been publicly historicized. To Kenneth Jackson, “historic preservation was a preoccupation of social factions that were losing out in the contest to control New York’s (p.135) future.”20 This sense of loss points to a long-standing and deep-rooted view of New York as a city that progresses by destroying what came before, that continually rewrites the story of its own heritage and progress, a practice that gathered pace in the late 1970s with real estate developments, and concomitant tax breaks, designed to attract white-collar labor back to the city it had fled in the 1960s. This city, Gregg Bordowitz has suggested, “is about as archival as a trade paperback whose spine is meant to be broken by mass transit consumption.”21 By focusing on what archival traces remain and on visual records of queer appropriations of the city’s piers, I examine the civic battleground of the city’s historic waterfront from the perspective of those who were “losing out,” exploring the “complex realities” of activism, preservationism, and protest that have been obscured by the gentrification of both the waterfront and its queer history.

Cruising and preservation

Recording the queer life of the piers appears as an earlier form of Wojnarowicz’s later activist aim to “make the private into something public,” an “action that has terrific repercussions” in what he called “the pre-invented world.” “Sexuality defined in images,” he wrote in the essay “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” “gives me comfort in a hostile world. They give me strength.” For Wojnarowicz, this desire to share “diverse representations of ‘Reality’ on a gallery wall or in a book or a movie” was imbued with a powerful urgency in the midst of the AIDS crisis.22 This exposure is about preservation as well as publicity. A comparable queer preservationist ethics suffuses Arch Brown’s pornographic film Pier Groups (1979), in which he documents both queer waterfront culture and the imminent redevelopment of the West Side harbor. Filmed in 1979, the year Koch vowed to restore the city’s waterfront “treasure” to the people, Pier Groups reflects on the neglect of the piers and emphasizes the urgency of chronicling their queer reuse in the face of emergent gentrification. The film follows a day in the life of Joe, a straight construction worker played by Johnny Kovacs, and his neighbor Rik, played by Keith Anthoni.23 While Rik wakes up to sex with his lover, Joe, lying quietly in bed with his wife, receives a call from his manager, who informs him of a change of plans. “The city,” he says, “is taking bids on the demolition of those rotten piers on the Hudson,” the four piers “between 10th and West 12th Street.” Their boss, Buzz, “thought that since you lived not far from the piers that you might go over there today … and work up a report. … They’re burned down and rotten, though, so be careful.” “Will I see somebody?” Joe asks. “No,” his manager replies. “They’re abandoned, … no-one uses them.”

(p.136) As Joe prepares for his working day at the piers, Rik receives a call informing him that his job for the day has been canceled, leaving him with an unexpected day off. He decides to spend it at “the warehouses” since he “hasn’t been there in months.” Rik and Joe leave their apartment building at the same time, both dressed in plaid shirts and work boots, neither realizing that the other is also wandering toward the waterfront. The film follows Joe as he inspects the warehouses at Tenth Street, measuring the widths of walls and doorways and scrutinizing the material condition of their corridors, ceilings, and floorboards. As he does so, he encounters men who, unbeknownst to Joe, cruise him as he leans, suggestively it seems, over hard-to-reach portions of the buildings. He soon stumbles across groups of men inside the warehouses themselves, blowing each other in stairwells or fucking inside empty cupboards. Brown underscores the fact that every inch of space in this dilapidated structure is being used for queer erotic ends. He emphasizes the contrast between the bright daylight outside and the permissive darkness inside. The wild dereliction of the piers and warehouses is evident in every frame, as Joe steps over fallen beams and walks through collapsed doors and windows.

The longer Joe spends in the warehouse, the longer he lingers watching these cruising men. We see him peering through a small gap in a steel wall, watching his neighbor Rik with another man. We see him in a darker interior space in the warehouse, framed by a sliver of light, watching while languidly smoking a cigarette. A disembodied voice asks who the guy in the helmet is: “He’s hot,” another responds. “He looks straight.” As Joe moves further inside the building, he overhears snippets of cruising talk. Men direct other men toward pleasurable portions of the warehouse, invite others to rooms catering to particular erotic interests. The film’s climax shows Joe watching, from above, an orgy in a large, vaulted space inside one of the warehouses, in which Rik is strung up by his wrists from a beam in the ceiling, surrounded by three, then four, other men. Joe and Rik acknowledge each other’s presence in the pier, but Joe does not join in; he only watches. The film culminates with Rik and Joe returning, separately, to their apartment building, where Joe is welcomed home by his wife, and Rik, intrigued, lingers in the stairway as Joe shuts his door without looking back.

While the primary value of Brown’s film is the unembellished view it presents into the cruising scene at the piers in the late 1970s, it also offers an evocative impression of the tensions between corporate redevelopment and creative erotic reuse of the waterfront. While, clearly, Brown is keen to address the misconception that “no-one uses them,” recording their appropriation as a cruising space, the prospective demolition that Joe is recruited to assist with casts a shadow over the film. Pier Groups captures a cruising scene (p.137) at risk of disappearance as the piers are threatened with demolition and the surrounding waterfront area with redevelopment. Like Gordon Matta-Clark’s cutting work Day’s End, which appears in the film, it chronicles the scene’s “historical passage into outmodedness, illuminating the twilight of the pier itself.”24 Brown uses the erotic longing that the film invariably generates strategically, arousing in the viewer both a straightforward sense of sexual desire and, like Rik standing perplexed in the stairwell as Joe walks back into his apartment with his wife, a melancholy impression of the cruising culture that would be lost were the piers demolished. This dual effect evokes David Wojnarowicz’s contemporaneous concern with documenting the cruising cultures of the piers, recording “not just sexuality, but the slow disintegration of these architectural structures” and “visions of people that appear out of darkness and disappear into darkness.”25 Later, in the text “Biographical Dateline,” he recalled a sense of urgency in recording “the gradual decline of these places as … poverty spread throughout the country” in the years preceding Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in November 1980.26

For Wojnarowicz, as for Brown, preserving the queer sexual culture of the piers through word and image as they became the subject of the gentrifying gaze of municipal forces was as much political as it was personal. In a similar way, Ivan Galietti’s film Pompeii New York sought to “preserve” and “visually document the graffiti, murals, ravage, ravish, lust et al. of this womb of alternative life-styles and ‘unnatural’ acts” as Pier 46 faced imminent demolition.27 This queer preservation, enacted through writing and image-making, did not stem from a concern for maintaining the buildings themselves, or for preserving them in any normative material or economic sense. The failure of municipal preservation efforts, their industrial and material collapse, was in fact one of the conditions that made their queer reuse possible. Documenting and preserving details of these creative queer appropriations, however, “serves as a dismantling tool against the illusion of” what Wojnarowicz calls the “ONE-TRIBE NATION.”28

For both Wojnarowicz and Brown, creative preservationist work like this was motivated by a desire to record queer appropriations of New York’s ruins and to preserve at least the conditions for the existence of sites where the city’s heteronormative functionality was compromised or became unsustainable after abandonment, places where the ideological homogeneity of the city was itself abandoned. As an illicit appropriative occupation of the city’s derelict spaces and a mode of being in the city that is discontinuous, fragmentary, and economically nonproductive, cruising can in itself be seen a form of preserving these sites as noncommercial spaces and as places for queer association and community. Queer records like Wojnarowicz’s and Brown’s posit equally (p.138) fragmentary, discontinuous, and original forms of recording and sharing these histories, while further challenging the false municipal narrative of the waterfront’s utter abandonment and ideal civic reuse. As Wojnarowicz himself acknowledged, an important aspect of his waterfront writing was the act and process of bearing witness to the “decline” of the harbor, to “the architectures’ exposure to elements and fires,” and to those who cruised this decaying space.29 If historic preservation in New York was, as Kenneth Jackson argues, the “preoccupation of social factions that were losing out in the contest to control New York’s future,” then this waterfront writing had a distinctly preservationist agenda.30 “Soon,” Wojnarowicz observed as he wrote about the cruising space of the derelict piers, “all this will be picturesque ruins.”31

Ruins, Rebecca Solnit writes, “are evidence not only that cities can be destroyed but that they survive their own destruction, are resurrected again and again.” They “stand as reminders.” “To erase the ruins,” she argues, “is to erase the visible public triggers of memory; a city without ruins and traces of age is like a mind without memories.” The “ruins themselves, like other traces, are treasures: our links to what came before, our guide to situating ourselves in a landscape of time.”32 The image and experience of the ruin as ephemeral, temporally complex, and resistant to homogeneous historicization is central to Wojnarowicz’s queer preservationism. The history of the ruin is a history of power. Creating a fiction of total abandonment in the 1970s, writing out the ruined harbor’s unsanctioned social and sexual appropriations, was a municipal strategy of social exclusion. Wojnarowicz’s waterfront writing works, in part, to resist and redirect this process of renewal and gentrification through the disclosure of personal erotic experiences. But memory, Solnit reminds us, “is always incomplete, always imperfect, always falling into ruin.”33 Wojnarowicz’s focus on the erotic and political potential of the waterfront ruins in his late 1970s art and writing was one among many efforts to resist this totalizing renewal of lower Manhattan by recording its queer erotic appropriations. The “larger the range of representations,” he wrote later, “the more I feel there is room in the environment for my existence, that not the entire environment is hostile.”34 In The Gentrification of the Mind, Schulman similarly stresses the importance of sharing diverse narratives as itself “an antigentrification process,” an “individuation of perception.”35 If we “lift the curtains for a brief peek,” Wojnarowicz asserts, “the term ‘general public’ disintegrates.”36

Safety, gentrification, and the politics of pier cruising

While the number of bathhouses, gay bars, and sex clubs on Manhattan’s Lower West Side expanded rapidly in the early 1970s, safeguarding a distinctly (p.139) queer presence along West Street and the waterfront, anti-queer violence perpetrated by both citizens and police was a continuing problem. In a 1975 article for Our Town, John Turcott describes the piers as “a mugger’s paradise.”37 Both Wojnarowicz and John Hall, chatting in December 1980, share their fear of being mugged or stabbed while cruising at the piers.38 In Rushes, John Rechy writes that “haunted male figures lurk for nightsex in the burnt-out rooms” of waterfront warehouses, while “in recurring forays with sticks, slashed bottles, knives, guns, crowbars, packs of gaunt young marauders also prowl those areas, for ‘queers.’” The quiet is disrupted by “the crunch of assaulted flesh—and the filthy floors are bloodied.”39

Wojnarowicz’s first book, The Waterfront Journals (1982)—a series of monologues drawing on conversations with strangers collected during his journeys across the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s—captures the homophobic violence that undercut the queer pleasures the piers permitted and the institutional disinterest of law enforcement officials in the routine nature of gay bashing on the waterfront. In “Man on Second Avenue, 2:00 am,” the narrating subject remarks casually to Wojnarowicz that “kids come around all the time throwin bottles and screaming Queer and then takin off.” One evening, however, after sharing a beer in a harborside bar, this man and a friend were walking down West Street when “this car from Jersey … cruised by real slow and some kid leans out the window saying Suck my dick and my friend gives him the finger and said something.” The narrator’s friend is subjected to an aggressive beating, with “five kids” stomping “on his head and chest,” breaking ribs and leaving him lying on West Street, “his face just a puddle of blood”:

the kids chased after him but he ran faster and faster through the streets and outta the neighborhood and he kept running until he collapsed somewhere on some street … later he woke up in the hospital and found out he had been out for about five or six days. The doctors told him he was found by the cops unconscious on West Street surrounded by a bunch of guys … apparently he had hallucinated the whole thing of getting up and running away.

The kids from New Jersey, the narrator concludes, “got away” without retribution or legal charges.40 As Wojnarowicz’s writings make clear, attacks like this and fear of them were an everyday experience for men cruising the piers and patronizing the bars by the waterfront in the mid- to late 1970s.

Throughout New York, muggings and murders were on the increase as poverty rates increased and the city’s law enforcement agencies and other municipal bodies failed to respond effectively to increased crime and public disorder. Between 1960 and 1968, robberies in New York had increased more (p.140) than eightfold and burglaries had more than quadrupled.41 The number of homicides in New York tripled between 1965 and 1975.42 Between August 1976 and August 1977, the city was in thrall to the serial killer David Berkowitz, known by the self-assigned moniker “Son of Sam,” who murdered six people, all women, and wounded seven others, sparking an extensive police manhunt and equally expansive press coverage. In the midst of this spiraling violence and continued urban neglect, the safety of queer New Yorkers was additionally compromised by homophobic policing, epitomized by the many raids on gay and lesbian bars, which continued after Stonewall into the 1970s, and by limited civil rights legislation. Beginning in 1971 the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) sought to challenge New York’s continued failure to protect its gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens from violence and discrimination by sponsoring a bill in the city council, titled Intro. 554, to extend the prohibition of “discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations based on race, religion or sex” to include that based on sexuality.43 The bill did not pass until 1986.

In the summer of 1975, Jim Ryan, a West Village resident and, by then, retired pier cruiser, began producing a safety-oriented newsletter about the waterfront cruising scene, which he distributed each weekend throughout the Village, printing between 2,500 and 3,000 copies and leaving them “next to Kellers hanging on the gates of the caterer also next to the Underground and tied on the fence in Christopher Park.” Distribution points in the warehouses appear in some of Leonard Fink and Alvin Baltrop’s photographs (figure 4.1). The anonymously written newsletter identified muggers and other troublemakers active on the waterfront and detailed recent muggings and homophobic attacks, as well as documenting “the dangerous physical conditions of the ruined buildings.” In the first issue, published in August 1975, the lead headline told of a fire that had destroyed a section of Pier 48, likely sparked by a “SMOLDERING CIGARETTE.” Another article ran with news that “ROBBERIES AND ASSAULTS CONTINUE ON PIERS AND IMMEDIATE PIER AREA,” noting that on August 17 “5 YOUNGSTERS” had been challenged by cruisers in relation to the spate of attacks. These youngsters “did not venture out to the far end of the pier, but did have in their hands pipes and sticks.” “DAY TIMERS ON [Pier] 48,” Ryan observed, ignored “WARNINGS TO STAY OFF.” The September issue carried news of a “WAVE OF SERIOUS STICK-UPS WITH GUNS & KNIVES ON PIER 48 & 49.” “NITE TIME IS PRIME TIME FOR MUGGERS ON BOTH PIERS,” Ryan warned: “WATCH YOUR BACK WHEN CRUISING 48–49.”44

Other articles detailed the continued risk of fire “ON ALL PIERS” and news of a young man “killed instantly” by a truck on West Street one Thursday afternoon. The protective aims of Ryan’s newsletter were seen also in the spray-painted safety messages that appeared on warehouse walls in the mid-1970s, intended for nighttime cruisers. “Pickpocket paradise area,” read one: “they work in teams every night, be careful.” “Muggers and gay bashers operate here,” warned another. Graffiti at the piers was not, however, limited to messages of personal security. Some of Fink’s photographs document the façade of a rotting riverside building emblazoned with graffiti urging readers to “STOP ANITA,” a reference to the efforts of former beauty queen Anita Bryant in 1977 to repeal an ordinance in Dade County, Florida, outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Others advocated “queer youth” power and unity, and another, on an upper-level warehouse window, urged pier cruisers to help “BEAT WESTWAY.” (p.141)

Protest and Preservation on the Waterfront

Figure 4.1. Alvin Baltrop, Piers (two men sitting in window, graffiti on wall “Free Pier Warehouse Newsletter, take a copy, tell your friends the truth about the piers”), n.d. (1975–1986). Silver gelatin print.

Photograph courtesy of the Alvin Baltrop Trust. © 2010, Third Streaming, NY; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York. All rights reserved.

In his newsletter, Ryan urged men to stay out of the crumbling piers, in no uncertain terms. “It is a hell of a thing to print, say, or even think,” he asserted,

but every last one of you guys who goes into Pier 48 deserves what happens to you because you have all been warned, experienced others being ripped-off, know positively that things occur there, many of the pier regulars know the muggers on sight, and yet continue to go there.

“Are you guys so bent on sucking cock,” Ryan admonished his readers, “that you can’t read or comprehend what you read in print? Is the scent of ass so (p.142) overwhelming that your reading ability or common sense won’t prevent you from going to the Pier at nite?” If “taking the chance of being confronted with a gun, knife or whatever instead of being confronted with a cock is your ‘stick,’” Ryan wrote, failing to recognize the erotic appeal of the dangerous cruising space,

then go ahead—it is your life to do with what you will. If getting ripped off, stabbed and held up at gun point is a way of getting your rocks off that satisfies your desires, Pier 48 is just the place for you. Perhaps you should wave a sign in front of you or something equivalent so the muggers won’t have to waste time looking for you and you can all get thing off for effeciently and in less time so the muggers can move on to their next victum. STAY OUT OF THE PIERS AT NIGHT—ALL OF THEM!!!!!!!!45

Ryan was particularly critical of cruising men who were reluctant or refused to file police complaints about muggings and assaults, and of those who declined to get involved when they witnessed them. “The apathy shown by the majority is pathetic!” he wrote:

If half of the readers who have commented to me in a positive way about the effects of the NEWSLETTER, would get up off their pathetic, apathetic asses most of the problems we have in or near the West Street Pier Area would be solved. But NO—everyone complains, but no one ever bothers himself to lift a hand to help someone out.

Outside his writing for the pier newsletter, however, Ryan was very clear about the “catch-22” situation in which men attacked at the piers found themselves, with many feeling unable to report assaults or muggings to homophobic and otherwise hostile police officers. “It’s against the Waterfront act” to go out onto the piers, he noted in an interview with John Turcott for Our Town in 1975, “and if caught one could be charged with a misdemeanor. Invariably the cops will ask someone reporting a crime on the piers questions like, ‘What the hell are you doing on the pier in the first place?’”46 “When a spokesperson from Ports and Terminals was asked about the piers,” Turcott wrote, “he said that there was considerable discussion about the problem and that no solution could be found at the present time. ‘We’ve tried boarding them up, people rip it open again,’ the spokesperson said. ‘We have found the placement of a security guard is unsatisfactory.’”47 The spokesperson acknowledges that “plans were formulated to demolish the piers and build recreation areas on the sites this fall [1975], but with this financial crunch that’s out. Maybe we can find federal funds for it, I can’t say. I believe the only answer is to knock them down.”48

(p.143) On the question of why violent assaults and muggings occured at the piers with such frequency, Ryan writes, “Many claim, and I am inclined to agree, that the methadone boat that used to be docked at the foot of Christopher Street drew many undesirable people to the area.” The boat was managed by the New York City Methadone Maintenance Treatment Program, run through the Health Department and Health Services Administration, and docked at the city-owned Pier 45. It served around 550 former addicts and, in 1971 at least, was guarded by a police officer twenty-four hours a day.49 “Originally,” Ryan argued in the September 27–28 edition of the pier newsletter,

the boat was to despence methadone only to addicts who lived in the West Village area. Gradually as other centers closed for lack of funds their clients were told to come to the Boat for their medicine. As a result, addicts from uptown, crosstown, downtown and wherever began streeming into the Village. The summer of ’75 saw our area become “heavy” with many undesirable visitors. Muggers and pick-pockets work openly and brazenly in the Piers at night and a few of them have caused serious problems for people in the pier area during the daylight hours. Literally hundreds of people have fallen victim to these scum types.50

Although ostensibly an attempt to raise awareness among cruising gay men of the increasing number of assaults and muggings at the piers, Ryan’s diatribe is a critique of the creative mixed use of the derelict waterfront that privileges one sort of appropriation and asserts a right to safe association and protection from violence shaped by a discriminatory attitude with regard to class and race. Christina B. Hanhardt has noted that in neighborhoods like Chelsea and the West Village in the mid- to late 1970s, “the departure and displacement of racially diverse working-class communities from dilapidated housing stock was followed by an influx of middle- and upper-income whites who refurbished homes and businesses.” She adds that this same area was, of course, “also home to the majority of New York’s gay leather and S/M bars, courtesy of its emptying industrial spaces and proximity to the popular public sex spot of the piers along the West Side.”51 The gentrification of the area can be gauged in part, Hanhardt suggests, by tracking the growing hostility of its white gay male residents toward teenaged people of color in the neighborhood, and their efforts to formalize it.

Ryan’s pier newsletter can be seen, then, as part of a broader neighborhood effort to protect gay men in the area from assault, and to “increase police presence and a neighborhood wide recognition that antigay violence was unacceptable.”52 It was followed in 1976 by the foundation of the Society to Make (p.144) America Safe for Homosexuals (SMASH), a “vigilante” group formed “by a small group of new gay residents of the gentrifying neighborhood.” Hanhardt notes that SMASH patrolled the piers and neighboring streets with the intent of “rousing” anti-queer violence in order to document and publicize the threat.53 Although the threat of homophobic violence on the piers was a very real one, resistance efforts like Ryan’s newsletter and SMASH’s nighttime patrols relied on the stoking of racial tensions and class antagonisms. They suggest a rejection of solidarity between the white queer people moving into the Village in the 1970s and members of the poor black and Latinx communities who had been resident there for many years, regardless of the extent to which both groups were impacted by poor policing, exclusionary municipal rights legislation, and discriminatory private policies affecting access to housing and employment. SMASH, Hanhardt writes, predominantly patrolled areas “that were largely home to low-income people of color” and failed to recognize and deal with the racialization of urban poverty and the correlations often made publicly between racialized poverty and violence.54 Ryan’s evocative image of “scum types” infiltrating the Village by way of the city-run methadone boat presents the presumed perpetrators of violence against cruising gay men as infectious agents attacking the body of the proper citizenry, despite the fact that, as the ambivalence of many cruising men toward the police suggests, it was the readers of the pier newsletter, not those making use of the methadone boat, whose appropriation of this urban interzone was illegal, while the police, through continued bar raids and cruising crackdowns, were often the perpetrators of violence.55

Ryan’s vision of the piers under threat from “undesirable visitors” also suggests the appropriation of the derelict waterfront and neighboring portions of the West Village by other marginalized groups, and the antagonism between the different groups who appropriated these ruined spaces. In an interview with Benjamin Shepard, Adonis Baugh, a homeless person from Brooklyn who lived at the West Side piers in the 1970s and 1980s, remembers that in 1981 the piers were a populous utopian space where “you [could] go, no matter what age you were, and be you. … Drag queens, transgenders. … Everybody not considered the norms could go there and be themselves and not looked at any other way.”56 In 1971 activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson formed Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), the first political organization dedicated to fostering and supporting the rights of trans people in the United States (figure 4.2). Their primary objective was to give food and shelter to the growing numbers of young, homeless trans people, many of whom were, like Rivera and Johnson, low-income people of (p.145) color, who lived out on the West Side piers. They established a residence in “a parked trailer truck in an outdoor parking lot in Greenwich Village,” where up to two dozen kids would sleep every night. STAR House existed in two locations, in the trailer near the piers and then at a building on Second Avenue on the Lower East Side, for two years. “We fed people and clothed people,” Rivera said of STAR’s work, and “we kept the building going. We went out and hustled the streets. We paid the rent. We didn’t want the kids out in the streets hustling. They would go out and rip off food.”57 The same qualities of empty space and a lack of thorough policing that first appealed to cruising gay men in the late 1960s made the waterfront a popular spot for sex work through the 1970s. Its proximity to New Jersey roadways and, later, to the financial district, appeared to make West Street and the Meatpacking District an ideal place to hustle suburban commuters. Efrain John Gonzalez, who worked in and around the area in the late 1970s and 1980s, sometimes as a cab driver, documented the lives of sex workers in the area in a series of black-and-white photographs, which were exhibited at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division bookshop in New York’s LGBT Center in 2015 (figure 4.3).

Commercial and noncommercial sexual communities overlapped at the piers, much like the contemporaneous sex scene around Forty-Second Street, where, as Samuel Delany has written, “peep shows, sex shops, adult video stores and dirty magazine stores, massage parlors—and porn theaters” occupied the same space as “a flourishing trade in female street-walkers, drugs, and hustlers”:

The population was incredibly heterogeneous—white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Native American, and a variety of Pacific Islanders. In the Forty-second Street area’s sex theaters specifically, since I started frequenting them in the summer of 1975, I’ve met playwrights, carpenters, opera singers, telephone repair men, stockbrokers, guys on welfare, guys with trust funds, guys on crutches, on walkers, in wheelchairs, teachers, warehouse workers, male nurses, fancy chefs, guys who worked at Dunkin Donuts, guys who gave out flyers on street corners, guys who drove garbage trucks, and guys who washed windows on the Empire State Building. As a gentile, I note that this is the only place in a lifetime’s New York residency I’ve had any extended conversation with some of the city’s Hasidim.58

In pre-gentrified Times Square, these “two orders of sexual relationship,” cruising for sex and hustling for sex work, Delany wrote, “sat by one another in the sex movie theaters, drank shoulder to shoulder in the same bars, walked down the same streets, and lingered by the same shop windows to make themselves available for conversation in the afternoons and evenings.” At the piers this confluence of erotic uses often sparked tensions between these two groups, themselves diverse and heterogeneous, and, as Delany noted of Times Square, there were “occasionally intense” confrontations.59 While in the early 1990s, Wojnarowicz dedicated Close to the Knives to, among others, the “drag queens along the Hudson River and their truly revolutionary states,” in his early writing, he demonstrated an unsympathetic indifference toward the trans people and drag queens with whom he shared this riverside space.60 In a journal entry from July 1979, he wrote that on “getting out of the pier we walked back along the highway towards Christopher Street, [where] against a doorway were five transvestites all yakkin’ away done up in their personal glories with makeup and low-cut blouses and silicone shots or hormone tits and John was awed that they were really transvestites.” Similarly, in a journal entry from August 1980, he described hearing an assault in one of the warehouses: (p.146)

Protest and Preservation on the Waterfront

Figure 4.2. Sylvia Rivera (holding banner) and Marsha P. Johnson (far left) at the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day Parade, New York, June 24, 1973.

Photograph by Leonard Fink. © The LGBT Community Center National History Archive.


Protest and Preservation on the Waterfront

Figure 4.3. Photograph by Efrain John Gonzalez, ca. 1979.

© Efrain John Gonzalez.

out of one the side rooms that once had been a loading dock there was a series of hysterical high-pitched screams and in all of that gathered darkness a figure of light flew out, speed motions with arms and legs pumping, propelling it towards the far wall, blur lines of movement, an abject silence following in the wake of screams, and I immediately thought to myself: stupid queen.61

Sylvia Rivera left New York in 1973, having broken with the Gay Activists Alliance in 1972 after the group moved to eliminate references to trans people (p.148) from its proposals for a municipal antidiscrimination bill. Protest actions like the Stonewall riots, in which Rivera played a central role, had demonstrated the need for direct action in demanding safe spaces for queer people, but continued institutional homophobia had left gay groups like the GAA supportive of relative assimilation. After drag queens testified before the first city council hearing in 1971, Toby Marotta recalled that the “confusion between transvestism and homosexuality” among council members “played a significant role in the bill’s defeat.” In 1974 GAA activists permitted an amendment to the bill excluding “transvestism from the definition of sexual orientation.”62

In an essay for a 2013 collection of writings by and interviews with Rivera and Johnson, former STAR activist Ehn Nothing argued that “the resistance that STAR faced as a multi-racial group of revolutionary street queens illuminates the wider dynamics of the gay liberation movement” in the 1970s: “Revolutionary street queens of color were an impediment to the goal of assimilation into the white straight capitalist world.”63

The presence of a community of trans people of color at the piers has largely slipped from view, even as popular awareness of the creative reuse of the waterfront as a gay cruising space has increased through the publication of numerous memoirs of gay life in New York in the 1970s. The limited visibility of this queer history of the piers reflects the persistent exclusion of this trans community from many of the predominantly gay spaces and activist groups in the West Village at the time. “These forces of gay normativity and revolutionary management,” Nothing wrote, “marginalized, erased, and silenced those whose bodies, histories, or ethical orientations refused dominant models.”64 This is a gentrification, as Sarah Schulman has argued, of the mind, which has alienated “people who did not have rights, who were not represented, who did not have power,” and who were perceived to be “undesirable” occupants of even the most marginal city spaces.65 Like the false history of abandonment that underpinned municipal harbor redevelopment efforts in the 1970s, this gentrification “enforces itself through the repression of diverse expression” and the obscuring of diverse histories of alternate use. Like the GAA’s earlier rejection of trans inclusion in the city council antidiscrimination bill, this gentrification “literally replaces mix with homogeneity.”66 In the context of these obscured histories of trans occupation of the waterfront, the partial recovery of this narrative in the present elucidates the unexpectedly diverse gentrifying forces that have shaped New York’s physical redevelopment, its material gentrification and the gentrification of its history in Schulman’s terms, and have determined which of its queer reuses remain visible in the present.

(p.149) Queer organizing in the bars

While Jim Ryan’s newsletter provides useful documentation of the kinds of violence gay men cruising the abandoned waterfront experienced in the mid-1970s, his singular focus on the dangers of the piers and warehouses fails to address the continued risks faced by patrons of the gay bars and sex clubs along West Street. Both Ryan and John Turcott failed to acknowledge the continued targeting of gay clubs and bars near the waterfront by the New York Police Department, which shaped queer experience of the area and helped foster the cruising scene at the piers. In March 1970 police raided the Snake Pit, a gay bar on West Tenth Street, just before dawn, led by Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, who had overseen the raid on the Stonewall the previous year. Police removed 167 people from the bar and arrested them for disorderly conduct, though these charges were later dismissed. The raid received public attention after Diego Vinales, an Argentine national living in the United States, feared his homosexuality might be exposed, making his possession of a visa illegal under the 1950 McCarran Act, which prohibited homosexuals from entering the country.67 Vinales jumped out of a window at the police station and impaled himself on a railing below. He was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village, where he was later charged with resisting arrest. The recently formed GAA took up the cause and organized a march through the Village to the police station and a vigil outside the hospital. Months later, police conducted two further raids on gay bars in the area, again pushing patrons out into the street, making them visible to passersby. In these raids police used crowbars and “other implements of destruction in a ‘search’ for drugs and whiskey,” causing more than twenty thousand dollars’ worth of property damage.68

In December 1975, the New York Post ran an article detailing a predawn police raid at the Anvil, a gay bar on West Fourteenth Street near Eleventh Avenue, with the headline “Bust 5 at Swinging Gay Soiree.” It describes the bar as an “an unlicensed homosexual cabaret in the wholesale meat district which allegedly featured a sado-masochist show in which a nude masked man swung from chains while sex acts were performed on him.” Five men were arrested on liquor law and obscenity charges, the article notes, by “10 infiltrators, one of whom was dressed all in leather.” The bar had been operating without a liquor license since September, according to Captain Lawrence Hepburn, part of the NYPD Public Morals Division, who led the raid. Hepburn said that the place had two nude bartenders, two nude male dancers on the bar, and two others on side stages. In another room, “homosexual films (p.150) were shown, and in a darkened kitchen, individuals took turns performing private homosexual acts ‘for no charge,’ Hepburn said.” Police seized 180 cases of beer, 25 cases of liquor, $400 in receipts, and, the article concluded, “sadomasochist apparatus, including two black leather jackets with Police Dept. patches on them and an assortment of whips.”69

In the mid- to late 1970s, many of the bars around the waterfront were seen to be considerably safer than the piers in terms of homophobic attacks or muggings. However, though an article in the New York Post in December 1977 suggested, unconvincingly, that “gays bars have won grudging acceptance in Manhattan,” the Anvil, the Mineshaft, and the Eagle were all raided by police as late as 1979 for liquor law violations, among other offenses. At a raid on the Fifteenth Street club Crisco Disco in August 1979, fourteen people were arrested. Police rejected suggestions that the raids were motivated by homophobia. “We don’t care that they’re gay bars, straight bars, or any other kind of bars,” Sergeant Tambasco, of the Public Morals Division, told the Post. “Each of the raided bars calls itself a ‘private club’ not falling under the state’s liquor laws,” Tambasco continued, “All admit the general public and are not private clubs.” In 1980 Jack Modica, one of the owners of the Mineshaft, suggested that the raided bars “incorporate as a non-profit organization” to protect themselves against the ongoing threat of raids. “It’s time we organized a tavern guild,” Modica wrote in a letter to local bar owners: “there are still laws on the books against us; ‘It’s against the law for a gay person to own a bar,’ and ‘It’s against the law for homosexuals to congregate.’ We still experience prejudice and harassment.”

Modica’s suggestion exemplified a growing political consciousness among both owners and patrons of the gay bar scene in the West Village and the Meatpacking District in the 1970s. In June 1973 the Mineshaft held an “Emergency Benefit” for those affected by the deadly fire at the Everard Baths, in conjunction with the Metropolitan Community Church. “Money is needed,” a flyer for the event read, “to help guys now in hospital for future treatment.” The growth of political engagement at the bars was by generated by the work of the GAA and driven by the challenges faced by city council representatives seeking ratification of Intro. 554. The archives of the Eagle, the legendary leather bar on West Twenty-Eighth Street near the West Side Highway, include a letter from Arthur J. Katzman, the Democratic city councilman for the Twenty-Second District, from the mid-1970s, thanking the Eagle for a benefit it held for his reelection campaign. “It is my hope and belief,” Katzman wrote in the letter, “that justice and decency will ultimately prevail, and that Intro 554, the Gay Civil Rights Bill, will pass into the City Council. Your efforts will certainly help to assure that goal.” A “Picket the Bigots” rally organized (p.151) by the GAA in the mid-1970s was advertised at Badlands, the self-proclaimed “Baddest Bar in the Village,” on the corner of Christopher and West Streets. A flyer read, “Your privacy or the public morals squad! … While hospitals close and the West Side loses its subway service, the Public Morals Squad grows. FIGHT BACK.” The GAA urged Manhattan’s queer bar community to protest against cops “who brutally harass and arrest Lesbians, Gays, Transpeople, Single Women and Youth; who are organizing and funding middleclass ‘protection’ squads against us.” The rally took place on the same night as a benefit at Badlands for the Gay Switchboard. And the political engagement of gay bar and sex club patrons reached beyond the bars themselves. In 1978, for example, the downtown bathhouse Man’s Country hired two billboards above Village Cigars at the intersection of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue. One read “GAY RIGHTS,” the other “REGISTER & VOTE.”

Political engagement in the bars and around the cruising areas on the waterfront gathered momentum in the later 1970s as activists organized, first, for the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1979 and, second, in response to the negative portrayal of the Village gay bar scene in William Friedkin’s feature film Cruising, filmed in the summer of 1979 and released in February 1980. In the early 1970s, clients of the leather bars and sex clubs along West Street had been implicated in a series of murders of members of their own community. The popular media made much of the seeming irony of men engaged with sadomasochism being victims of very real and unanticipated physical violence. Writing in the New York Times in January 1973, Grace Lichtenstein reported that “three similarly violent murders in three weeks in lower Manhattan involving men the police said were part of the ‘leather bar’ scene have sent waves of rumors and fear through the area’s homosexual community.” “The dead men,” she wrote, “had been known as patrons of ‘leather’ bars, which cater to homosexuals who dress in leather jackets and dungarees. They are said by some homosexuals to be synonymous with the ‘S and M’—sado-masochist—scene,” and she named the Eagle’s Nest as a favorite of the three victims.70 The murders, and others like them, were covered with a more sympathetic eye by the openly gay journalist Arthur Bell in the Village Voice. All bore similarities to the plot of the 1970 novel Cruising, written by a New York Times Magazine editor, Gerard Walker. Friedkin’s film drew on the salacious title and popular appeal of Walker’s novel, but Friedkin claims to have “spun a completely original film out of it based on Arthur Bell’s articles in the Village Voice.”71 Friedkin’s Cruising stars Al Pacino as Steve Burns, a New York City police officer investigating a series of murders, believed to be perpetrated by a serial killer who picks up men at downtown leather bars and dumps their mutilated bodies in the Hudson River. Horrified (p.152) by the homophobic brutality of the investigating police officers, Burns agrees to go undercover, is drawn into the world of the bars, and befriends a number of its residents. The film ends ambiguously as a major suspect is shown to be innocent, and Burns returns to his girlfriend uptown, who, in the film’s final scene, tries on the peaked cap he wore as part of his leather “disguise.”

Cruising met with extensive criticism from gay audiences across the United States, not least from Bell, who, having read a leaked copy of the script, described it as “the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen, … the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight.”72 In his Village Voice column on July 16, 1979, he urged Village residents to “give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhoods.” In response to Bell’s very public concerns about the violent image of queer life being presented in Friedkin’s film, activists organized protests that attempted to halt filming at sites in Greenwich Village. They pointed “mirrors at the shoot to interfere with the lighting, and surrounded the set blasting whistles and air horns.”73 That more than five hundred local gay men were hired as extras for the film’s club and bar scenes, many of which were filmed on location in leather bars by the waterfront, appeared to lend weight to Friedkin’s assertion that his depiction of the early 1970s waterfront and leather scene was authentic. Declarations of the film’s realism were key to its success, and Bell’s rejection of the legitimacy of its perspective was problematic given Friedkin’s reliance on his Village Voice writings. When the film was released, it was preceded by a disclaimer: “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world.” Friedkin described the addition as “a sap to organized gay rights groups” who had protested the shooting the previous year.74

As the disclaimer suggests, activists’ critiques centered on what they perceived as the film’s totalizing effects, its positing of a singular narrative of the bar and club scene around the waterfront as not only violent, but homicidal toward its own. In an article for the Village Voice in August 1979, John Rechy responded to the swell of activist energy around the film, criticizing the support for censorship implicit in the protests. “By insisting doggedly on presenting a so-called ‘positive’ image—often a euphemism for heterosexual imitation,” he writes, we deny “the enriching spectrum of our experience, including an abundant sexuality, which needs no apology.”75 For Rechy, the challenges to gay liberation presented by the film hinged upon questions of diversity and narrative multiplicity. Why, he asked, “does every homosexual film or book—unlike heterosexual films or books—have to represent our entire world, each and every one of us, when we have so many rich and diverse voices?”76 Beyond the issue of censorship, then, Rechy was concerned that (p.153) only one vantage point on the cruising culture and bar scene along the West Side Highway in the late 1970s might be preserved. His defense of the film’s merits was, however, short-lived. In early 1980, he was invited by Friedkin to view the film’s final cut, shortly before it was released. “The original first images of the film,” he recalled, “were these”:

On a graffiti-scrawled wall was splashed the slogan of gay liberation at the time: WE ARE EVERYWHERE. There then occurred a quick-cut to the murdered homosexual, being pulled out of the river. The film was opening in New York the following week, and there was no time for major editing. This much was possible: On the telephone I told Friedkin that the juxtaposition was appalling; I suggested that the shot of the wall be deleted, and a disclaimer inserted to indicate that what was depicted was a small segment of a vast world. He deleted the offensive shot and included a revision of the disclaimer.77

One of Cruising’s most prominent supporters had, upon seeing the film’s troubling juxtaposition of gay liberation and antigay violence, felt it necessary to demand explicit affirmation of the partial nature of its content.

Later in the year, two gay bars along West Street were the scene of a very real homicidal attack. The violence was wrought not from inside, as in Cruising, but from without. On November 19, 1980, Ronald Crumpley, a former Transit Authority officer in his late thirties, opened fire with a stolen Uzi rifle on men waiting outside the Ramrod and Sneakers, a gay dive bar further along the block. Two men were killed, six others wounded. According to articles in the New York Daily News and the New York Times, Crumpley referred to men walking around West Street as “ghosts” and “apparitions”78 “I’ll kill them all—the gays,” he was reported to have said on his arrest: “they ruin everything.”79 The murders sparked expansive protests. Two thousand people marched by candlelight, in silence, from Christopher Street to the Ramrod on West Street, directly opposite the Christopher Street Pier. In front of the bar, in a patriotic appeal for protection, protestors sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”80 At trial a year later, Crumpley was found not responsible for the attack “by reason of mental disease or defect.”81

The filmmaker Jim Hubbard recorded the protests against the filming of Cruising on Super 8 film, using the material in a short film he titled (Stop the Movie) Cruising (1980; figure 4.4). Hubbard’s film switches between footage of street protests in the West Village, aiming to disrupt the filming of Cruising, and voyeuristic recordings of extras on the set, chatting, laughing, and dancing inside the waterfront leather bars in which Friedkin filmed. Recorded without sound, it becomes difficult to tell how these two animated crowds relate. By filming the extras from outside the bars, peering in, Hubbard utilizes the vantage point of cruising, and the representations of the leather bar scene in the Village acquire an unanticipated kind of realism. It is clear that the set locations are real bars, well-established sites in the queer landscape of the Lower West Side. As Hubbard moves between the club and the street, between inside and outside, he sets up clear parallels between the multiple queer bodies congregating, fictionally, in the bars and the crowds of gay and lesbian activists rallying against the film in the streets of the Village. Rather that emphasize the differences between these gatherings, Hubbard plays with the thin line between fact and fiction that Friedkin made use of in his own work. Hubbard’s vision of efforts to “stop the movie” is complex and nuanced, and has an archival bent. In juxtaposing scenes of real protest and of fictional queer congregation in the bars, (Stop the Movie) Cruising does not reject the suggestion that the dramatized bar scene is realistic but, instead, underscores its totalizing narrative effects. The confusing proximity of fact and fiction stresses the risk that the breadth of queer life in the Village in the 1970s was being obscured by the violent vision presented in Cruising. Like the street protests it records, and like Arch Brown’s earlier, queerly preservationist film Pier Groups, Hubbard’s work has a distinctly preservationist agenda, resisting at a structural level the viability of Friedkin’s singular narrative of queer life in Manhattan in the late 1970s and documenting collective efforts to reject it. (p.154)

Protest and Preservation on the Waterfront

Figure 4.4. Jim Hubbard, (Stop the Movie) Cruising, 1980 (still).

Courtesy of Jim Hubbard.

Sane recreation: The waterfront after the 1970s

Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the future of Manhattan’s harbor remained a point of mayoral concern. In the summer of 1998, echoing Percy Sutton’s and Ed Koch’s calls for waterfront renewal over twenty years earlier, (p.155) New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani signed the Hudson River Park Act into law, empowering a state-owned corporation to transform the still largely derelict West Side waterfront into a series of public parks and sports venues, “replacing a once unsightly and deteriorating waterfront with … a five-mile riverfront esplanade that will be enjoyed by New Yorkers and tourists alike.” State governor George Pataki echoed Giuliani’s grand claims with nationalistic hyperbole, celebrating it as a “public” city space integral to the country’s democratic claims. The river park, he argued, “is in every sense a renewal of New York’s commitment to open space, the Hudson shoreline and the very history of our state and nation.”82

This Hudson River Park legislation came after almost five years of a rigorous “quality of life” campaign that saw an increased and increasingly aggressive police presence throughout Manhattan, and numerous antivagrancy and public order laws ushered in under Giuliani’s mayoralty. Brutal police crackdowns on loitering, unlawful assembly, and public urination, along with strongly enforced curfews, continued to push unwelcome guests out of the near-ghetto of the waterfront, whose queer hospitality had been fostered by decades of municipal neglect of the city’s perimeter. The push for a safe space for queer youth, particularly queer youth of color, was especially urgent given the closure of Keller’s in 1991 and the Two Potato, a gay bar on the corner of Christopher and Greenwich Street and “a ‘legendary’ gathering place for queer and transgender people of color,” particularly during the AIDS crisis, in 2004.83

The queer activist groups Sex Panic! and FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment) have battled with wealthy neighborhood associations like Residents in Distress (RID) and the Christopher Street Patrol against police harassment and racial profiling of waterfront visitors.84 Former FIERCE leader Jay Dee Melendez accused these residents’ associations of “putting water, piss and garbage out of their windows onto the youth” during a “Save Our Space” rally in October 2002.85

These protests drew on earlier anti-gentrification actions by local queer community groups. In a 1994 New York Times report on “the new world near West Street” and the tensions it had begun to generate, Randy Kennedy wrote:

In the last six years, the area west of Washington Street on Christopher, including parts of West Street, West 10th Street and tiny Weehawken Street—long a hustling and cruising area—has attracted a much younger crowd from outside Manhattan. The growing population became noticeable enough by 1992 that Community Board 2 began to talk about how to control it, said Maurice Engler, the site director for a community youth center, the Neutral Zone, that grew out of those discussions. “I think the neighborhood was freaked (p.156) out, plain and simple,” Mr. Engler said. “In place of the 20- and 30-something mostly white gays, there was a growing number of ‘fem’ and ‘banjee,’ black and Latino teen-agers.”86

At the Lesbian and Community Center in the West Village in September 1997, the historian Allan Bérubé presented a slideshow of images showing queer reuses of the waterfront in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and gave a talk on the multiple erotic, social, and activist appropriations of the site, the histories of which were in danger of being lost entirely as municipal regeneration efforts gathered pace in the mid-1990s. Afterward, Sex Panic! led the audience toward the piers and held a rally there. The combination of academic lecture and demonstration recalled Bérubé’s article “The History of Gay Bathhouses,” which was, in part, a protest against the forced closure of bathhouses in the mid-1980s as part of a nationwide crackdown on supposed “routes of transmission” for HIV, with no regard for their value as sites for queer community building and the sharing of safe-sex practices and AIDS education. “Public policy regarding bathhouses,” Bérubé writes, “has been criticized as being based on political expediency rather than on medical or social science.”87 The removal of spaces where supposedly private activities—sex, political and social dissent—could be performed in public and where communities could develop was and is a key regulatory tactic in waterfront renewal, urban renewal, and social exclusion in New York more broadly. This process of neoliberal gentrification began in the ruins of the 1970s. As the city faced bankruptcy toward the end of the decade, Sarah Schulman writes, “the remaining poor, working-class, and middle-class residents simply did not provide a wide enough tax base to support the city’s infrastructure,” and “city policy began to be developed with the stated goal of attracting wealthier people back to the city in order to pay the municipal bills.” “We now know,” she concludes, “that real estate profit was a motive” for tax breaks and legislative support for converting old industrial buildings into condominiums.88

Waterfront anti-gentrification campaigns by queer activist groups gathered pace in the early 2000s in the light of attacks on LGBT young people in the area. In May 2003 Sakia Gunn, a fifteen-year-old black lesbian, was murdered on her way home to New Jersey after a night on the pier. Her killer was sentenced to twenty years for aggravated manslaughter, arguing that Sakia ran into his knife.89 In 2006 four lesbian teenagers, also from New Jersey, were sentenced to between three and a half and eleven years in prison for attempted murder for defending themselves against a homophobic knife attack that took place near the Christopher Street pier. A working group appointed by the Hudson River Park Trust Advisory Council was advised by (p.157) local community groups to “expand both the recreational spaces and income-generating uses, and provide more park space and increased revenue, without large-scale private development.”90 Since 2007, as part of its Safe Space campaign, FIERCE has been agitating for a twenty-four-hour LGBT youth drop-in center on Pier 40. The organization interviewed close to three hundred LGBT youth from across New York City to determine what services are needed: a covered space in the winter, space to produce art, access to healthy foods, mental health and emotional support, GED training, provision of clothes, HIV testing, and safe-sex education from a “transgender-sensitive medical staff.” “A successful LGBT youth center,” states FIERCE’s initial proposal, “would work in unison with the Hudson River Park’s own mission to create a park that is available for all of New York to enjoy.” “We propose,” they stress, “not only to maintain but to re-emphasize Pier 40 as community and recreation space.”91

The present zoning of the pier, however, presents major limitations for this proposal. As a M-2/3 zoned area, or “medium manufacturing district”—which these parts of the waterfront have not been for over forty years—but a legally required “passive and active open space” under the Hudson River Park Act, “drug and alcohol counseling services, HIV testing services, or mental health counseling” are not permitted. Gardening and the growing of vegetables would violate the River Park Trust’s rules against keeping gardening tools “to plant, prune, maintain, fertilize, or interfere … with any vegetation in any area under the jurisdiction of the Trust.”92 Not-for-profit medical services are zoned to be allowed only in residential districts, meaning the LGBT youth who frequent the piers are pushed out by residents’ associations, “quality of life” legislation, and commercial zoning regulations simultaneously.

This rhetoric of renewal and exclusive access is essential to the success of present-day development of the waterfront and characterizes contemporary popular literature on the topic. In newspapers and in public discourse, the history of the space is rewritten as one of desperate and accidental neglect, its regeneration a moral imperative. Nathan Ward’s history of organized crime on the waterfront, Dark Harbor (2010) was heralded by an op-ed piece in the New York Times in which Ward praised the development of spaces for “sane recreation” at the harbor under Giuliani and his successor as mayor, Michael Bloomberg. While in Dark Harbor, Ward muses on there being “a forlorn beauty to the slow dilapidation” of the space, in the more public space of the New York Times he praises “former Williamsburg beer plants … reborn as luxury condos; and Brooklyn’s old Pier 6, where many a sailor once stepped ashore, … now filled with playing children.” The city, he argues, “has celebrated the reclamation of the waterfront. But the effort, laudable though it (p.158) is, obscures a not-so-insignificant historical misunderstanding: we are in fact claiming the waterfront, not reclaiming it.”93 Like Koch’s proclamation to open “the waters to the people of the city” in the late 1970s, Ward’s support for the work of the River Park Trust is based on a false conception of the extent of the waterfront’s abandonment and a misunderstanding of the city’s attitudes to its harbor and its rich past. Oblivious to the multiple “mis-uses” of the waterfront as an unregulated public space and sexual interzone, Ward’s description of the postindustrial harbor as “a place most people never wanted to be” is part of the long-running misrepresentation of the long-standing queer appropriation of New York’s piers that has been essential to constructing the contemporary waterfront as a space for “sane recreation.”94

As contemporary conflicts over the piers demonstrate, the gentrified waterfront remains the setting for a bitter battle over the permissibility of queer space, the preservation of supposedly public space, the meaning of open access, and the limits of public and private citizenship. To continue to tell the stories of these queer appropriations, to document their persistence and their struggle in the present, to resist, like Schulman, the elimination of complex narratives of its use, might, as Wojnarowicz’s waterfront writing did, serve “as a dismantling tool against the illusion of the ONE-TRIBE NATION,” preserving a historical heterogeneity, shaping the way we record the past lives of this queer space, and a material one, shaping how we occupy it in the present and continue to relate to its liminal and littoral form in the future.95


(1.) Ann L. Buttenwieser, Manhattan Water-bound: Planning and Developing Manhattan’s Waterfront from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (New York: New York University Press, 1987), 205.

(2.) Robert F. Wagner Jr., “New York City Waterfront: Changing Land Use and Prospects for Redevelopment,” in Urban Waterfront Lands, Committee on Urban Waterfront Lands (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1980), 78.

(4.) See William W. Buzbee, Fighting Westway: Environmental Law, Citizen Activism, and the Regulatory War That Transformed New York City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).

(5.) Raymond W. Gastil, Beyond the Edge: New York’s New Waterfront (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), 42.

(8.) Douglas Crimp, “Alvin Baltrop: Pier Photographs, 1975–1986,” Artforum, February 2008, 269.

(9.) Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London: Routledge, 1996), 30.

(11.) Susan S. Fainstein, The City Builders: Property Development in New York and London, 1980–2000 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001), 165.

(13.) Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” October, no. 31 (Winter 1984), 96, 95.

(15.) Henri LeFebvre, Writings on Cities (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 159.

(17.) Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 28, 27.

(18.) See Dennis Altman, The Homosexualization of America: The Americanization of the Homosexual (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982), 206, and John Paul Ricco, The Logic of the Lure (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 19.

(20.) Randall Mason, The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), xiii.

(p.181) (21.) Gregg Bordowitz, The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 180.

(22.) David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage, 1991), 120, 121.

(24.) Pamela M. Lee, Object to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 127.

(25.) Barry Blinderman, “The Compression of Time: An Interview with David Wojnarowicz,” in David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame, ed. Blinderman (New York: D.A.P., 1989), 54.

(27.) “Ephemera—Bars,” International Gay Information Center archive, New York Public Library.

(32.) Rebecca Solnit, “The Ruins of Memory” (2007), in Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 151.

(37.) John Turcott, “The Village Piers: A Mugger’s Paradise?” Our Town (New York), November 14, 1975, 1.

(38.) David Wojnarowicz Papers, series 8, subseries A, media ID 092.0530 (John/David conversation, 12/31/1980, Pt 2), Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

(39.) John Rechy, Rushes (New York: Grove, 1979), 13.

(40.) David Wojnarowicz, “Man on Second Avenue 2:00 am,” in The Waterfront Journals (New York: Grove, 1996), 104.

(41.) Laura L. Finley, ed., Encyclopedia of Juvenile Violence (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 166.

(42.) Daniel J. Flannery, Alexander T. Vazsonyi, and Irwin D. Waldman, eds., The Cambridge Handbook of Violent Behavior and Aggression (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Kindle edition.

(43.) Ira Glasser, “The Yellow Star and the Pink Triangle,” New York Times, September 10, 1975, 45.

(44.) Jim Ryan, untitled pier newsletter, International Gay Information Center archive, New York Public Library.

(49.) Kenneth Brodney, “A Methadone Ferry in Village Waters,” Village Voice, August 19, 1971, 3.

(51.) Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 110.

(56.) Benjamin Shepard and Greg Smithsimon, The Beach beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces (New York: State University of New York Press, 2011), 110.

(57.) Leslie Feinberg, “Lavender and Red 73: Street Action Transvestite Revolutionaries,” Workers’ World, September 26, 2006, accessed August 31, 2016, http://www.workers.org/2006/us/lavender-red-73/.

(58.) Samuel Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 15–16.

(60.) Amy Scholder, ed., In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz (New York: Grove, 1999), 169.

(62.) David Paternotte and Manon Tremblay, eds., Ashgate Research Companion to Lesbian and Gay Activism (London: Routledge, 2016), 95.

(63.) Ehn Nothing, “Introduction: Queens against Society,” in Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries: Survival, Revolt, and Queer Antagonist Struggle (New York: Untorelli Press, 2013), 5, 6.

(67.) Rachel Kranz and Tim Cusick, Gay Rights (New York: Facts on File, 2000), 36.

(68.) Karla Jay and Allen Young, eds., Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 12.

(69.) “Ephemera—Bars,” International Gay Information Center archive, New York Public Library. The following two paragraphs also rely on documents in this file.

(70.) Grace Lichtenstein, “Homosexuals in ‘Village’ Fearful after Series of Similar Killings,” New York Times, January 18, 1973, 88.

(71.) William Friedkin, interviewed in Linda Williams, The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 135.

(72.) Nathan Lee, “Gay Old Time,” Village Voice, August 28, 2007, accessed August 24, 2016, http://www.villagevoice.com/film/gay-old-time-6419214.

(75.) John Rechy, Beneath the Skin: The Collected Essays (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004), 80.

(78.) “Ephemera—Bars,” International Gay Information Center archive, New York Public Library.

(79.) David W. Dunlap, “New York’s Own Anti-Gay Massacre, Now Barely Remembered,” New York Times, June 16, 2016, A18.

(80.) Thomas L. Long, AIDS and American Apocalypticism: The Cultural Semiotics of an Epidemic (New York: State University of New York Press, 2005), 107.

(82.) “Governor, Mayor Recommend Head of Hudson River Park Trust,” June 16, 1999, accessed July 16, 2012, http://www.nyc.gov/html/om/html/99a/pr235-99.html.

(p.183) (83.) Benjamin Shepard, “Sylvia and Sylvia’s Children: A Battle for a Queer Public Space” in That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, ed. Sycamore [Mattilda Bernstein] (New York: Soft Skull, 2004), 145.

(84.) See Rickie Manazala, “The FIERCE Fight for Power and the Preservation of Public Space in the West Village,” S & F Online 10, nos. 1–2 (Fall 2011/Spring 2012), http://sfonline.barnard.edu/a-new-queer-agenda/the-fierce-fight-for-power-and-the-preservation-of-public-space-in-the-west-village/. Accessed 14 July 2017.

(86.) Randy Kennedy, “Neighborhood Report: West Village. The Young: Risk and Refuge: The New World Near West Street,” New York Times, June 19, 1994, accessed July 14, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/19/nyregion/neighborhood-report-west-village-young-risk-refuge-new-world-near-west-street.html.

(87.) Allan Bérubé, “History of Gay Bathhouses,” Journal of Homosexuality 44, nos. 3–4 (2003): 33.

(89.) Mick Meenan, “Sakia Gunn’s Killer Pleads Guilty,” Gay City News 4, no. 10 (March 10–16, 2005), accessed July 14, 2017, http://gaycitynews.nyc/gcn_410/sakiagunnskiller.html.

(90.) Arthur Z. Schwartz, “Recommendation of the Pier 40 Working Group of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council regarding the Development Proposals for Pier 40” (June 28, 2007), 5, accessed August 24, 2016, http://www.gvshp.org/documents/pier40wkggrprecs.htm.

(91.) FIERCE, with the Urban Justice Center, “LGBT Youth Center: Pier 40 Recommendation” (January 29, 2008), 10, 8, 14; accessed August 24, 2016, http://www.fiercenyc.org/sites/default/files/resources/2889_Pier40Proposal.pdf.

(92.) Hudson River Park Rules and Regulations, quoted in FIERCE and Urban Justice Center, “LGBT Youth Center,” 12, 13.

(93.) Nathan Ward, “Take Me to the River, Finally,” New York Times, July 4, 2010, A17.