Volume 75, Number 18 | September 21 - 27, 2005

Talking Point

Villager file photo

A woman wearing a rainbow bandana on her wrist walking on Christopher St.

Gay youth gone wild: Something has got to change

By Dave Poster and Elaine Goldman

Muggings and purse-snatching on Bedford Street! Neighbors attacked and beaten by a group of kids (some as young as 14), again on Bedford Street! A man slashed on Christopher Street while his wife was robbed! Drug dealings on Perry Street! Pizza deliveryman jumped and robbed on Barrow Street. Prostitution from Greenwich Street to Greenwich Avenue! Shopping bags pushed out of the arms of older residents on Christopher Street! The list of offenses goes on and on.

What have been the Village’s greatest assets — its acceptance and diversity — have become its greatest liabilities. Villagers have witnessed and tolerated questionable behaviors by disruptive youths on their streets. Over time, questionable behaviors escalated to unacceptable behaviors; unacceptable behaviors spiraled out of control to dangerous behaviors, leaving residents scared and appalled. Our tolerance has been abused and taken for granted; our community has been taken advantage of.

The quality of life in the West Village has continued to decline since 1990, and the problems caused by gangs of unruly youths are escalating with no end in sight. Many individuals and groups have written to our public officials for help — to no avail. A recent appeal to our public officials via a large letter-writing campaign of over 2,000 letters from residents, businesses and visitors has resulted in no response and no known actions by these officials.

How did we get to this point? One factor has been the clean up of Times Square in the late ’80s. The displaced porn stores from Times Square moved down to the West Village — and drug dealers and prostitutes followed, and their numbers keep growing along with their visibility. Drug dealing and prostitution are no longer covert activities done in the dark but activities now visible mornings and afternoons throughout a wider section of the West Village. Another factor has been the significant decrease in police assigned to the Sixth Precinct. Under the leadership of Deputy Inspector Shortell, the Sixth Precinct has been doing their best with this insufficient manpower. In many cases, however, the New York Police Department is hampered by nonexisting or weak laws. Prostitutes are arrested dozens and dozens of times but are handed no meaningful sentences by the courts. As a result, the police see these prostitutes on the street over and over again. In 2000 the State Senate voted on a recidivism bill that would put an end to this revolving-door policy by mandating meaningful sentencing for repeat offenders. It is noteworthy that State Senator Tom Duane was only one of two senators who vetoed this prostitution recidivist bill.

At the same time as the influx of the drug dealers and prostitutes to the West Village, the neighborhood was flooded with problematic transient youths, some of whom were also drug dealers and prostitutes. Crime continued to rise; the quality of life continued to go down.

To deal with these problems, two major initiatives took place during the early 1990s. The first initiative was the creation of the Christopher Street Patrol in 1990 to walk the streets of the neighborhood to help deter crime and to better the quality of life for residents, merchants and visitors. This patrol, comprised of local residents and the Guardian Angels, is still active and works closely with the Sixth Precinct.

The second initiative was a joint effort involving elected officials and residents to open a drop-in center on Christopher Street for gay youth. It was believed that such a center would alleviate some of the problems caused by the large numbers of gay youth who frequented the streets and piers of the West Village. John Pettinato, executive director of the Greenwich Village Youth Council, was invited to start up a nonprofit facility called the Neutral Zone in 1991. The intent was to provide a safe haven for gay youth who did not live in the area, while providing constructive activities and programs for them. Unfortunately, what the community got was a facility that began advertising in Homo Xtra magazine as a “Juice Bar,” attracting a large number of youths from the tri-state area, who often remained outside the facility, flooding and blocking the public sidewalks in front of the Neutral Zone. The neighborhood now had double or triple the number of youths they once had.

For many of these youths the Zone became nothing more than a “pit stop” to the Christopher Street Pier and to West Village streets. The sidewalk in front of the Zone became a magnet for prostitutes, drug dealers and those who would do business with them. As time passed, the community realized that the Neutral Zone was not fulfilling its obligations to the youth it professed to help or to the community. It was a big mistake. David Kaplan, associate executive director of the Greenwich Village Youth Council, responded to community complaints by stating that what the community saw as a problem, he saw as “youth empowerment.” The neighborhood and the Neutral Zone management were at odds.

In a three-year attempt to salvage this program, the community, elected officials and the Neutral Zone management met on numerous occasions. With Tom Duane’s involvement, the Zone was shut down three times and supposedly reorganized. New sets of plans and promises were made each time, but to no avail. Finally, in 1995, the community asked the Neutral Zone to leave. After the Zone closed its doors, it was apparent that the program had attracted many more unruly youths to Christopher Street and to the surrounding area. Not only did the Neutral Zone not help the problem; it compounded it and left the West Village in a very complicated mess.

Over time, it became clear that the Christopher Street Pier, governed by the Hudson River Park Trust, had, in effect, become the new Neutral Zone. To appease the youths frequenting the pier and their advocates, the pier closing time of midnight on weekends was changed to 1 a.m. seven days a week. Connie Fishman, president of the Trust, when questioned about the wisdom of keeping the pier open so late at night, responded that the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual community wanted it open 24/7.

A task force did a survey of existing parks and open spaces in the area and found that 1 a.m. was the latest closing time. Christopher Street Park located at Sheridan Square closes at dusk; Tompkins Square Park closes at midnight. This late 1 a.m. closing time on the pier became a magnet (especially when all other places were closed), attracting many more disruptive youths to the pier and to West Village streets — leaving West Village residents to deal with the problems and dangers created by hundreds of unruly youths descending on their streets at 1 a.m.

Noise has no prejudice. Many gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and straight residents have not had a good night’s sleep in years. Unlike other parks, the Christopher Street Pier has only one means of egress — Christopher Street. This makes the situation truly unique and very troublesome, warranting special considerations — not inconsiderations. While residents and merchants attempt to carry on with their lives and businesses on Christopher Street, hundreds of unruly youths parade this only thoroughfare to and from the Pier, creating havoc on the way. Compounding the problem is the ineffectiveness of the Park Enforcement Patrol police, who have been under harsh criticism for years. However, Connie Fishman has ignored calls and letters from the community regarding the infinite problems that the Christopher Street Pier has caused. Anyone in disagreement with this “gay community” has no voice, for this “gay community” does not include the majority of gays who live and work in this neighborhood.

Meanwhile, these youths continue to frequent the streets 24/7 with an “anything goes” behavior that has escalated to dangerous proportions. The recent incident at Malatesta restaurant on Christopher Street is a good example of what these groups of disruptive youths can and will do. In this case, they started fighting in front of Malatesta restaurant and ended up picking up anything and everything from the outside tables while diners were eating. With the knives and forks and smashed bottles of wine and oil, etc., they picked up from the tables, these youths continued their fight while terrified patrons ran inside, covered in food and wine, and watched in disbelief. How long will such behaviors be ignored by our public officials? These unruly youths must be made accountable for their actions. Neither they nor anyone else should be above the law. Being a minority or gay cannot be used as an excuse for an “anything goes” behavior. This attitude of “let them be” by our public officials is the ultimate prejudice, for life on the street 24/7 is a dead-end life.

Verna Eggleston, New York City commissioner of Human Resources, publicly stated that the Christopher Street Pier is the only place where these youths can feel safe. According to Tim Gay’s article, “Goodbye gay ghetto; We’re everywhere in the city” (The Villager, June 15, 2005), Christopher Street and the West Village are not the only places where gay youth can feel safe. “Unlike the ’70s and ’80s, there doesn’t seem to be a few insular neighborhoods (i.e., the West Village) with a predominately gay influence…. If anything, in New York City, gays and lesbians can live in a number of neighborhoods safely and securely.” Staten Island’s L.G.B.T. community recently had its first gay pride parade. “Times,” Gay states “have changed, and we don’t need the ghetto anymore.”

It is puzzling that Councilmember Christine Quinn, Tom Duane, Verna Eggleston, and Connie Fishman appear to want to encourage at-risk youth to hang out in the West Village. By their silence in responding to community pleas for help, our public officials appear to support these problematic youths and groups such as FIERCE, who are anti-police and anti-resident. Such silence speaks loudly for condoning the unruly street behavior and escalating crime in the West Village created by these youths.

When it involves quality of life issues, our elected officials do not represent their gay and straight constituents in the West Village.

It’s time for a change!

Poster is president, Christopher Street Patrol Association; Goldman is president, Christopher Street Block & Merchants Association

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