West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 19 | October 10 - 16, 2007

Media, critics get whipped into frenzy by Leather Fest

By Jefferson Siegel and Lincoln Anderson

Another in an endless succession of summertime street fairs in the Village was held last Sunday, but funnel cakes and tube socks were not the main attractions.

Tiny Weehawken St., the shortest block in the city, was the setting for the West Village Leather Street Fest, part of New York Leather Weekend.

Ostensibly the fest was an opportunity for vendors to display their finest leather whips, collars and bondage ropes. However, a backlash of the non-leather variety materialized when neighborhood residents learned the fest would be held out in the open.

“This is a fair that went totally under the radar,” said Elaine Goldman, head of the Christopher St. Block Association, as she stood watching vendors set up their tables last Sunday. “There was zero percent community input.”

Goldman said she learned of the fair “by accident” after it had already been approved by the Street Activity Committee of Community Board 2.

As Goldman spoke, several families walked past on Christopher St. One couple pushing a baby carriage stopped for several minutes to watch the activity. When two small children on scooters slowed at the festival’s entrance, their father rolled up behind them, advising his charges that, “We’re not stopping here.”

“We have three schools in the community, kids live in the neighborhood,” Goldman said, adding, “Gay people have kids — so it’s not a gay issue.”

Frank Costanza, a Christopher St. resident for 30 years, had a more visceral reaction.

“If Community Board 2 allowed this, they should not be re-elected,” Costanza said as he looked at the fair. “This belongs in the cellar, not out in the open street.”

Costanza’s sentiment was echoed in a mass e-mail last week sent by Nicole Regne, a parent who lives around the corner from Weehawken St. on Washington St.

In her missive to parents and neighbors, Regne called for the removal of C.B. 2 Chairperson Brad Holyman and the board’s district manager, Bob Gormley, “based on their poor judgement in approving a permit for this ‘S&M Street Festal [sic].’”

Hoylman walked through the fair shortly after it opened at noon.

“The community board reviewed this street fair at four separate public meetings,” Hoylman said. “The reason we approved the street fair had nothing to do with the content but everything to do with the opportunity for people to express themselves.” Hoylman added if the community board hadn’t ruled on the fair, the decision-making process would have defaulted to the city with no community input.

“We imposed two restrictions: no amplified sound and no alcoholic beverages permitted,” Hoylman said, adding that the Leather Street Fest abided by these stipulations and also hired its own security.

For most of the afternoon the event was rather sedate, with festivalgoers wandering past tables selling an assortment of leather whips, bondage videos and T-shirts reading “Master” and “Slave.”

One vendor attracting a good deal of attention was Venus Ropes. Next to a table covered with various lengths of colorful hemp and nylon ropes was a hanging support consisting of several metal rings attached to an overhead support.

A demonstration of “rope suspension” was performed by a 21-year-old New Jersey art student who gave her name as Apah Di.

“I’ve been doing BDSM [bondage, domination, sadism and masochism] since I was 18,” Di said as an orange hemp rope harness was attached to her hips, chest and ankles. Di was then hoisted up into a horizontal position and had her hands bound behind her.

Di hung for several minutes as her feet were tickled and her bottom patted.

“Your doctor probably does this. Your lawyer probably does this. Your Republican senator probably does this,” Di said as she hung sideways.

“Your Republican senator definitely does this,” an onlooker called out.

One of the handful of police officers posted at the fair took a photo of the rope suspension with his cell phone camera.

“Only in the West Village,” he laughed as he snapped the picture.

On a raised stage in an area cordoned off with yellow plastic tape strung between bollards, a man put on a double-fisted display of bullwhip prowess, snapping and cracking his kangaroo-hide whips — at least 10 feet long — in the air.

“Really dangerous. If that were to hit you…it would take a piece of your skin,” observed Red, 47, from Brooklyn, who said she runs BDSM and queer play parties.

“Oooooh!” the crowd groaned as a second demonstrator hit himself in the face with his own whip.

“The media made a big deal out of this,” complained one vendor at his table of studded leather collars and flagellation paddles. “Walk down Christopher St. and look in the stores. Look at the Halloween Parade. This is pretty much a private affair.”

Admission to the fair was by a $5 donation. Part of the proceeds were earmarked for the L.G.B.T. Community Center on W. 13th St. and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.

About 5 p.m., an hour before the festival’s end, two Sixth Precinct officers, who asked that their names not be printed, said police had not issued any tickets and that there had been no problems.

“We’re just here. It’s just like any other parade or street fair,” one of them said. “Very nice crowd, no arguments.”

“To each his own,” the other said, as a pale-skinned man wearing only a black hood, black underwear and black boots moseyed by.

Although New York magazine reported women would be walking around bare breasted, they all had their tops on Sunday afternoon. It’s legal for women to go topless — they have the same right as man in that regard, the officers noted — but it’s illegal to expose one’s genitals in public, they said.

Speaking on Friday before the festival, Gormley said, “My understanding is that everything that might be considered indecent will be hidden from the street” in tents.

Yet there were no tents in which flogging and humiliation occurred — though there was conspicuous public humiliation. At one point, a man in a black latex unitard and kneepads could be seen crawling on all fours like a dog, while being led on a metal leash by a large, leather-clad man. People petted the “dog” on the head and he made whimpering sounds of pleasure.

Gormley said he won’t give up his job over the Leather Fest flap. The community board members, whose positions are volunteer, are appointed by the borough president, while the district manager is a paid employee hired by the board.

“No, I’m not going to resign,” Gormley said, adding, “I serve at the pleasure of the board.”

Hoylman also wasn’t beating himself up over the board’s decision, saying they continue to stand firmly behind it.

“I disagree strongly with those who felt it was inappropriate,” Hoylman said of the Leather Fest. “I didn’t view anything from the street that I would consider inappropriate. I think I speak for the board when I say we strongly support the right of the organizers to express themselves in the manner they did. I’m not saying it was suitable for children — that’s why the activity took place away from direct view of the public. Certainly, the cause was worthwhile, raising money from the L.G.B.T. Center. Certainly, the claim that we have a pro-leather bias is false,” Hoylman said of C.B. 2.

Hoylman said the board — which covers Greenwich Village, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Hudson Square and part of Chinatown — is trying to diversify the street festivals in its district, moving away from the traditional sausages and wallets.

“It certainly wasn’t a street fair that was generic and cookie-cutter,” said Hoylman of the Leather Fest. He added that the board’s new Street Fair Committee was formed precisely to focus on trying to increase the variety of street festivals and, hopefully, reduce their number.

“We’ve recommended a reduction,” he said. “The number has declined a bit since last year. C.B. 2 gets the most [street fair] applications in the city, though not the most street fairs. The concern about the number of street fairs is valid,” Hoylman stressed.

Hoylman noted that in 2006, C.B. 2 had 52 multiblock street fairs and 36 block parties, whereas in 2007, the board has reduced this number to 51 street fairs and 29 block parties.

“Thus, we have cut down the numbers of street fairs by eight since the community board established a standing Street Fair Committee to examine this issue separately, require applicants to appear before the board and have hearings where testimony is taken from the public,” Hoylman said. “While we are making some progress, our work isn’t done in reducing the number of street fairs in the C.B. 2 area.

“What we don’t want is these professionally run street fairs selling tchotchkes that are bland and don’t express a viewpoint,” he added. “What we want are ethnic, cultural and geographic diversity represented in our street fairs.”

Hoylman said the Leather Street Fest had many points in its favor.

“This was a fairly tame affair in my opinion,” he said. “They hired their own security, no amplified sound or alcohol. In many ways they were the ideal sponsor. This is a completely behaved applicant demonstrating their First Amendment rights. And that should be encouraged — in, of all places, the West Village — not discouraged.”

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