Volume 73, Number 49 | April 7 - 13, 2004

Group hopes to better relations on Christopher St.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

Tensions between gay and transgender youth and local residents have run high in around Christopher St. in the West Village in recent years. Residents complain of noise and rowdy, sometimes illicit, behavior. The youth, many of who are black and Latino, say all that the residents are concerned with is their property values and, in some cases, are simply racist.

Representatives from a new partnership of Village social service agencies, politicians, businesses and other organizations hope to increase communication and understanding among residents and young nonresidents in the West Village and improve the quality of life for those who live, work and play in the neighborhood.

UNITTY, Using New Ideas Together with Today’s Youth, brings together local organizations to focus on the needs of young people who make the Village their official and unofficial home. Organizers hope that the partnership will help to build a greater sense of community in the West Village.

“Our goal is to work with the community to increase opportunities for young people, and also to introduce the community to young people,” said Margo Hirsch, executive director of the Empire State Coalition, one of the participating organizations. “These aren’t aliens from outer space, they’re just young people.”
Other partnering organizations include: the Greenwich Village Youth Council, the Children’s Aid Society of Greenwich Village, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, Judson Memorial Church, the Ali Forney Center, Project Omnibus, Community Board 2 and the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation. A member or two from each organization sits on UNITTY’s steering committee. City Councilmember Christine Quinn and State Senator Tom Duane are also ex-officio steering committee members.

“UNITTY is trying to find positive ways to solve some of the neighborhood issues,” Shawn Willett, program coordinator at the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation said. “We got involved because the theater is pretty much an anchor business on Christopher St., and brings a lot of traffic into the neighborhood.”

The committee’s first project, “Around the Corner and Worlds Apart,” a study examining the demographics of residents of the West Village, will help committee members understand ongoing issues unique to the Village, such as conflict between area youth and residents, Kaplan said. The study was compiled using census data and data from New York City agencies such as the New York City Housing Authority.

On March 26, UNITTY’s first public collaboration premiered at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher St., a free, one-hour talent showcase for the neighborhood, featuring performances by 10 area high school- and college-aged youths.

“The idea behind the talent show was to begin to build that bridge between the community and young people,” Hirsch said. “Showing off young peoples’ talents was an obvious benefit.”

Over 200 young people, residents and local business owners attended the show that focused on young people’s feelings about coming out and about being racially stereotyped — several of the performers were Asian, African-American and Latino youths. Several of the performances were self-written monologues, and others more traditional — a soliloquy from Shakespeare and a song from the musical “West Side Story.”

“The talent show was a vehicle to bring everyone together,” Kaplan said. “We wanted to show people that there are things that can be done in the community that involve everyone and can be done peacefully and collaboratively. It was also very therapeutic for the young people.”

A representative from Senator Duane’s office played the keyboard during the show, Judson Memorial Church offered rehearsal space, the Lucille Lortel Theatre provided the free performance space and local residents helped with publicity. UNITTY created a survey designed to measure the play’s effect on audience members. Almost all attendees filled out the questionnaire, and half said they would be interested in working with UNITTY, Kaplan said.

Future plans for the partnership include the creation of a transgender youth employment program and another talent show before the end of the summer. “We would really like to have the talent show as an ongoing event every few months,” Hirsch said.

UNITTY is trying to find additional funding, and would eventually like to run after-school programming, Kaplan said. Committee representatives also plan to use their monthly meeting time to organize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender; adult resident; and youth resident focus groups and to develop a survey that would solicit local businesses’ perception of the issues facing the community. On May 22, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., a UNITTY-sponsored arts and crafts fair will take place on Jones St., between Bleecker and W. Fourth Sts., with proceeds to go towards UNITTY programs in the West Village.

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