Volume 75, Number 23 | Oct. 26 - Nov. 01, 2005

Villager photo by Gary He

Young park users exit Hudson River Park at Christopher Street early Tuesday morning.

Gate may be closed to gays in park’s crowd-control plan

By Lincoln Anderson

Responding to persistent complaints from Village residents about droves of gay youth streaming off the Christopher Street Pier onto Christopher Street, the Hudson River Park Trust is reportedly contemplating enacting a new crowd-control tactic that will keep the gay youth from going onto the world-famous gay boulevard — at least when they initially leave the park.

For decades, the Village waterfront has been a gay stomping grounds. With the opening of the Hudson River Park’s new Greenwich Village segment in the summer of 2003, the riverfront area has become even more popular, attracting young gays from all over the city, as well as New Jersey. But with the park’s popularity have come complaints from residents about boisterous packs of youth streaming into the neighborhood after the park’s 1 a.m. curfew, crowding sidewalks and making noise.

Under the new plan said to be being mulled, at the park’s curfew, the Park Enforcement Patrol officers contracted to provide security for the park would bar the Christopher Street exit with movable metal barriers, and direct park users to exit the park at the north and south ends of the Village, at 14th and Houston Streets. The park users would be blocked by metal barriers and PEP officers from leaving at other exit points in between Christopher Street and the two designated exits.

Once out of the park, people would be free to walk back to Christopher Street if they choose.

According to a source, everyone, from gay youth to dog walkers, would be forced to make the trek to the designated exits — no exceptions would be made for the no-exit policy at Christopher Street — otherwise it would be a discriminatory policy.

There were conflicting reports on when the policy change would be implemented. According to one source, the Trust is just waiting to get enough extra PEP officers to enforce the plan and keep people from running across the West Side Highway instead of walking to 14th or Houston Streets. But another source said the plan will probably be put in place in the spring when the park is more heavily used, as opposed to now during the cold weather when park usage has dropped off.

Arthur Schwartz, chairperson of the Community Board 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee, said Connie Fishman, the Trust’s president, recently contacted him and asked him if the item could be put on the agenda and if she could talk about it at his next meeting. Schwartz said there will be a discussion of the issue at the meeting, on Mon. Nov. 7, at the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center at Clarkson Street and Seventh Avenue South, third floor, starting at 7:30 p.m. However, he said it was unlikely there would be a vote by the committee on the issue.

Julie Nadel, a member of the Trust’s board of directors, said the issue will also be on the agenda at the Dec. 5 C.B. 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee meeting, at the same place and time, but that the Hudson River Park Trust’s Advisory Council will also join this meeting.

Two meetings were recently held at which the Trust hatched the plan. The first was chaired by Nadel, who heads the Trust’s new working group on PEP officers in the park, and included Captain David Calderone, head of the Hudson River Park PEP force; Deputy Commissioner Kevin Jeffrey of the Parks Department; two Trust Advisory Council members; Fishman and Noreen Doyle, the park’s vice president; and Maria Derr, chairperson of C.B. 2.

The second meeting was held at the Sixth Police Precinct and included Deputy Inspector Theresa Shortell, commanding officer of the precinct; a representative of Councilmember Christine Quinn; a mayor’s aide; Fishman; Derr; Nadel; PEP Captain Calderone; and residents representing streets most affected by the nightly park exodus — David Poster, president of the Christopher Street Patrol; Elaine Goldman, president of the Christopher Street Residents and Merchants Association; Kathryn Donaldson, president of the Bedford-Barrow-Commerce Block Association; and a member of the West 10th Street Block Association.

The Trust’s thinking is that they know the gay community will not accept an earlier curfew on the pier, so the crowd-control exit strategy is a way to keep Christopher Street from being overwhelmed when the park closes. In fact, gays would like to push the park’s curfew back to 4 a.m., feeling in this way gay park users will trickle out of the park in a more manageable fashion instead of in one big rush onto Christopher Street.

Poster, who leads a volunteer anticrime patrol along with a contingent of

Guardian Angels, and who is an advocate for a 10 p.m. curfew on the pier, said the new tactic is welcome.

“It hasn’t been finalized or anything yet,” he said. “I strongly wanted a 10 p.m. closing. Connie was not willing to do that and she came up with an alternative option. I’m happy that for the first time people are agreeing that something has to be done. I would love it to be implemented soon. Why not do it now and see if it works — and carry it over [into the spring]?”

Asked what the gay youth would do once they leave the park at 14th and Houston Streets, Poster, noting there are many subway lines on 14th Street, said: “Let them go home. Let them go where they want. The idea that they have to be on Christopher Street is a fallacy. Maybe they’ll find something much more positive than being with prostitutes down there. Maybe it’ll help them.”

Poster said even if the youth want to return to Christopher Street after leaving the park to the north and south, it will be better, because maybe only half of them will return, and that since not everyone walks at the same speed, they’ll return in a staggered manner, as opposed to all at once.

However, Rickke Mananzala, project director of FIERCE, a gay youth advocacy group, said the plan is misguided and won’t work and that they would meet it with protest.

“This is a tactic to push L.G.B.T. youth out of the West Village. It won’t work,” he said. “As much as they say this is not a race issue, people are concerned that people are coming from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey. Overwhelmingly, the youth that use the pier are low income and from the outer boroughs.” They plan to turn out in numbers at Monday’s C.B. 2 meeting, he said. Mananzala regretted that FIERCE and gay advocates had not been included in the discussions up to this point. He said he backs changing the park’s curfew to 4 a.m. as the solution to Christopher Street crowding.

Melissa Sklarz, co-chairperson of the C.B. 2 L.G.B.T. Committee, likewise expressed concern about the new initiative. “I heard about this idea third hand. I asked to be invited to the meeting. I wasn’t invited,” Sklarz said. “Is it legal? Who has the authority to decide who leaves what exit? What about First Amendment right of assembly? Also, beyond representatives of block associations, shouldn’t representatives of elected officials and of the L.G.B.T. community be involved? I think we should open the dialogue. What do the attorneys have to say about this — about an artificially created exit? What happens if you don’t leave via 14th Street? Will you get a ticket for going down Christopher Street? I was at the [Oct. 6 C.B. 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee] meeting and heard the Christopher Street Patrol say the PEP officers need handguns, more firepower. I think other voices need to be heard.” Sklarz also backs a 4 a.m. park curfew as an alternative remedy.

In response to the ongoing debate about Christopher Street, the city’s Human Resources Administration has asked The Door, a Soho-based adolescent services agency, to do a study on the gay youth that come to the West Village. Michael Zisser, executive director of The Door, said the study is based on 300 interviews and other surveys, and while hastily pulled together, will offer valuable insights. Any plans to change the park’s rules should wait until the report is finished, he said.

“It would seem that this would be the wrong time for anyone to be making decisions that affect the use of the piers by these young people,” Zisser said. “We would at least like the opportunity to finish the study and allow kids to try to work out differences with the neighborhood. I don’t understand why they would do it now instead of waiting to have a discussion.”

Detective Mike Singer, community affairs officer at the Sixth Precinct, said the Trust has jurisdiction over the park and that the Christopher Street initiative came from the Trust, not the police. He said the police are ready to deal with whatever the protocol may be.

In response to an e-mailed list of questions from The Villager about how exactly the Christopher Street park exit closing will work and when it will start being enforced, Christopher Martin, the Trust’s spokesperson, in an e-mail response, did not mention anything about the reported plan, but rather about the park’s curfew.

“The Trust will be attending the public meeting of Community Board 2’s Parks and Waterfront Committee to discuss the various issues pertaining to the closing time of the park and to follow up on last month’s discussion,” Martin said in the e-mail. “There are no plans right now to close the park earlier than the current 1 a.m. closing time, nor are there plans to extend the closing time past 1 a.m. The Trust would like to be helpful in resolving the closing time issue and takes seriously the problems that are experienced in the community after 1 a.m. during the summer months. No decisions have been made by the Trust at this point and, we will continue to work with all sides on this debate, including C.B. 2 and the local elected officials, to try to develop a fair and balanced solution.”

Asked about the reported Christopher Street closing plan, Martin said, “There’s no plan to do that at this point. We haven’t made any decisions yet. We’re going to listen to all sides and hopefully come up with a solution that works for everyone.”

Last Friday night was cold, around 40 degrees, so Hudson River Park wasn’t particularly crowded. Shortly after 1 a.m., Felicia Hernandes, 14, sitting on a concrete barrier at Christopher Street by the highway outside the park after the curfew, thought the plan to keep people from leaving the park there would not be well received.

“It’d be a lot of people complaining,” said Hernandes, a student at Chelsea Vocational High School. As her friend, Tamara Rivera, 15, leaned her head on her shoulder, she said she often comes to the park after school.

“It feels like home, comfortable,” she said.

Asked her sexuality, she shrugged and with a laugh, said, “What do you think? — I’m a dyke.”

As the cars rushed by noisily on the highway, she said, “There aren’t many places we can be ourselves, except for here.” Despite the cold and the whooshing cars, they looked at ease.

When a Villager reporter entered into the deserted park past the metal barriers, three unsmiling PEP officers quickly approached him at once in what critics of the officers’ tactics have called “bunching,” their silver handcuffs shining on their belts. When the reporter identified himself, they said they didn’t know about any plans to close the Christopher Street exit. “They never tell us until the last minute,” one of them said with a smile, allowing the reporter back through the barrier.

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