Volume 75, Number 5 | June 22- 28, 2005

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

From left, Aubrey Lees of Community Board 2, George Forbes of Lucille Lortel Theatre, Paula Dossman of The Factory Cafe, David Wong of McNulty’s Teas and Coffees and Jessica Berk of RID are interested in improving Christopher St.

Group tries to put the pride back in Christopher St.

By Lincoln Anderson

It’s known as probably the “gayest street in America,” but as Gay Pride month has rolled around once again, some are saying it’s time to bring a dose of much-needed pride back to Christopher St.

A small group of a half-dozen neighborhood activists and business owners are taking the first steps to improve the street, known internationally as the cradle of the gay rights movement. While their ultimate goal may well be to form a business improvement district, for now the Christopher St. Partnership is an ad-hoc group focused on raising funds for the street and making targeted upgrades, like adding more garbage cans and plantings in tree pits to spiff up the famous thoroughfare.

“Where do we see Christopher St. going? How do we revitalize it? This is one thing we’re working on — green and clean,” said Aubrey Lees, a driving force in the new group. “Simply getting more garbage cans — just starting with basic stuff.” Lees said they plan to enlist the help of the West Village Committee in adding greenery.

A former chairperson of Community Board 2, Lees lives near Christopher St. She recently spearheaded the effort to refurbish Washington Sq. Park, set to begin at the end of this summer. Christopher St. is simply in a bad way, just like Washington Sq. was, and needs similar attention, Lee says.

“First of all, it’s a mess, without even knowing the history of it. It’s just sad, seedy and that’s being generous,” she lamented. The empty storefronts along the street are evidence of the boulevard’s hard times, Partnership members say. Recent years have seen a unique glass-blowing shop, R. J. White jewelry shop and Mona Lisa café close and Li-Lac Chocolates relocate to Eighth Ave.

“There’s a reason stores don’t want to be on that block anymore,” Lees said. “It’s all porno and video places, really. All of the old places are going out of business.”

Another leading member of the Christopher St. Partnership is George Forbes, executive director of the nonprofit Lucille Lortel Theatre, which Partnership members consider the main anchor tenant still keeping the street above water.

“There are some very old institutions on Christopher St., but in the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve lost a lot,” Forbes said. “And there’s an impression among some of the neighbors that there’s been a deterioration of the street. There are issues about cleanliness and the condition of the street.”

Another Partnership member, Tom Burrows, was president of the Christopher St. Residents’ and Merchants’ Association from 1979-’94 and was a member of the Christopher St. Patrol. He recently returned to the city after a nine-year stint in Los Angeles, and though currently living in Williamsburg, is eager to help try to pump some life back into the Village artery.

“Being the home of Stonewall and the place where the Gay Pride parade ends, people have a vision of Christopher St.,” Burrows said. “But when they get here, it’s not exactly like they envisioned it. Tourists come out of the subway and what do they find? There’s no kiosk saying where the Gay and Lesbian Center is or where the poets lived. You come there and — hello? There’s a cigar store and a Dunkin’ Donuts. There’s nothing saying where was the site of the Dutchess,” a former, popular lesbian bar, now the Garage bar and restaurant.

A more sensitive issue, crowding on Christopher St., especially in the evenings, is seen as intertwined with the street’s current state. Both Lees and Forbes say the large numbers of gay and lesbian youth who flood the street, especially after the Hudson River Park’s 1 a.m. curfew, make for claustrophobic conditions. Forbes noted that a certain number of the kids are homeless and that back before the park construction started in the mid-1990s some used to sleep on the piers.

“It’s been a big problem,” Forbes said. “It’s an influx of a large group of people in a community that’s basically a 19th-century community. If they close those piers at 1 o’clock, those kids have no place to go. This is a group of kids that are ‘at-risk’ youth — there has never been a more appropriate title.

“I think it’s hard on the neighborhood when you have a group of 20 or 30 people walking on the sidewalk at 2 or 3 in the morning,” Forbes said. “It’s just intimidating if you’re walking alone.” If the kids had somewhere to go after the park closed, he offered, things might be better. “I don’t have an answer,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in the group has an answer.”

“The atmosphere at night is pretty aggressive,” said Lees. “There’s lots of activity, but it’s kind of negative activity. It’s kids hanging out and lots of noise. And they say stuff to you — it’s a drag. One of the kids once said he wanted to hump my dog.”

Also on the Partnership team is Jessica Berk of Residents in Distress, or RID, quality-of-life group fame. While most of the Christopher St. Partnership’s founding members are gay and lesbian, Berk is straight — though she did try unsuccessfully to have a child a few years ago with gay cloning advocate Randy Wicker.

Melissa Sklarz, co-chairperson of Community Board 2’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Committee, admitted the situation with the droves of youth on Christopher St. has been a thorny issue.

“We’ve tried a long time at Board 2 to reach a solution,” Sklarz said. “But now the young people seem to be getting as angry as the residents. The scene on Christopher St. is a tough scene,” she admitted. “It’s a lot of noise and it’s a lot of people. It’s become very gritty.”

Yet, Sklarz stressed that it isn’t illegal to be young and a minority and walking on the street at 3 a.m. However, she said, “My concern is there is a new mix of kids who are much tougher who are not queer. I’m hearing there’s a new scene now and they’re tougher.” But Sklarz said she’d have to confirm those reports with the local police.

Sklarz said the C.B. 2 L.G.B.T. Committee has advocated eliminating the Hudson River Park’s curfew, so that the kids would be able to dissipate more gradually throughout the night instead of being funneled all at once into the Village’s narrow streets. But she said, “We got nowhere with the city and the Hudson River Park Trust.”

Also, Sklarz noted, homosexuals are coming out earlier than in the past, so there’s a youth scene the likes of which was not known in earlier generations. As a result, Sklarz said, when the park closes, those under age 21, too young to go into the bars, naturally hang out on the streets.

Getting back to the BID, though, while Forbes didn’t mention it, according to Burrows, Forbes has met with the Department of Small Business Services to learn more about the process of creating one. Fifty-one percent of property owners in the BID district — the boundaries of which need to be set — must support the idea. If the BID is O.K.’d by the property owners, the city levies a special tax on them and this revenue is used by the BID for services like sanitation and security and marketing the area to new businesses and shoppers.

The idea of a Christopher St. BID was floated a few years ago, but it faced some opposition and faded, until its current revival. The first time around, people were immediately afraid a BID would pave the way for a chain store invasion.

“There would be GAP’s and Banana Republics and we’d try to close down the Hangar,” Forbes said, recalling the dire predictions. “We’re not even for closing porn shops. They have a right to be someplace — but we just wish their windows were more discreet.

“There really is no controversy, at least I hope not,” Forbes stressed. “This is about taking the street back to its best, or what it used to be — taking it back to its glory days.”

Sklarz, for one, while encouraging the Partnership in its mission of reviving the street, feels the dream of recapturing the nostalgic quaintness of the legendary side street’s glory days is a losing cause.

“It’s not like the Christopher St. of the ’70 and ’80s,” she said. “That’s not going to happen. Not when you have millionaires that are living by the river. It’s a different city. It’s a different Village.”

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