Piers Fears Go Racial

With No Christopher Street Solution, Community Board Faults LGBT Youth of Color

After months of discussion and three public meetings about late night crowds and noise in the West Village, a committee of Manhattan’s Community Board 2 effectively chose to take no action in response either to resident complaints or to a proposed solution from the queer youth of color who for many years have gathered in the Hudson River Park at the end of Christopher Street.

“I don’t think we have a solution that’s going to make anyone happy,” said Richard Stewart, a member of the Committee on Waterfront, Parks, Recreation, and Open Space, during a March 6 meeting, that was marked by rancor because of an official statement from the committee that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth of color are at the root of the problems.

Some residents have complained that when the park closes at 1 a.m., the people in the park move into the West Village on Christopher Street. Residents have complained about the noise. At an earlier meeting, some residents proposed closing the park at 11 p.m. and allowing people to exit only at 14th Street or Houston Street.

The youth, represented by Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE!), proposed closing the park at 4 a.m. to allow people to exit the park gradually over a longer period of time and in smaller groups.

The youth group said it would increase its outreach in the park “to alleviate noise and overcrowding,” establish a complaint system for residents and youth, and create an advisory group of youth and residents to monitor the effectiveness of these efforts. The FIERCE! proposal was endorsed by 21 gay, AIDS, social services, and political groups that serve the queer community.

On March 6, the committee offered a draft resolution to close a portion of the park at Christopher Street, or Pier 45, at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Park enforcement patrol officers would start the closing at 11:30 p.m. and people would be “encouraged” to head north to Pier 54, which is across the West Side Highway from 13th Street. Pier 54 would close at 2:00 a.m., when people would be “encouraged” to exit the park onto 14th Street.

The committee also proposed that community groups, including FIERCE!, do outreach on the piers and that portable toilets and food and beverage vendors operate on Pier 54. This plan would have been tested between May 1 and June 30 of this year.

“It’s our idea to turn Pier 54 into something special,” said Arthur Z. Schwartz, the committee chair. “It would provide something new, something special for the youth… and do something for the community that is concerned about noise and rowdyism from a bunch of teenagers.”

While earlier committee proposals have been rejected by residents and youth, this latest proposal won support from residents.

“We think it’s a great idea,” said David Poster, president of the Christopher Street Patrol and a longtime West Village resident. “The only thing I would suggest, if I may, is instead of just on weekends, it be seven days a week.”

Melissa Sklarz, a community board member, transgender activist, and past president of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, a political club, said the board’s proposal would create “a safe space for LGBT youth of all colors.”

These were two of a small number of endorsements. Roughly 200 people packed the room, most of them youth organized by FIERCE!, and speakers consistently knocked down the committee’s proposal.

“They’re not going to be effective if they are on a pier that nobody wants to use,” said Rickke Mananzala, the FIERCE! campaign coordinator, referring to the amenities proposed for Pier 54.

In contrast to earlier meetings, where race was in the background, it was thrust to the forefront on March 6 by the committee’s proposal. The third paragraph read, “Whereas problems have arisen involving noise and also involving some rowdyism resulting from large crowds of young people, mostly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth of African-American and Hispanic origin leaving Pier 45 at 1:00 am on Friday and Saturday nights.”

The 50-member community board has just one African-American member and represents neighborhoods that are predominantly white. The youth who spend time on Pier 45 are a mix of races and ethnicities, including African-American, Latino, Asian, and white. Opponents pounced on the paragraph.

“The fact that that was even thought to be put in there shows what the problem really is,” said Ashley McKenzie, a FIERCE! member. Another speaker said of the committee’s proposal, “You’re talking about segregation” while another called it “blatant racism.”

An African-American man and father of two, who used to hang out on the piers in the ’80s, said of the committee’s proposal, “I’m getting a little sick of hearing that we have to leave to make it better for somebody else.”

While one committee member said the offending language would be removed, Schwartz, who drafted the proposal, was unapologetic. While the language was “inartful,” it should not be “depicted to be hostile, to segregate people,” he said.

“For anybody to say that’s racism, that’s absurd,” Schwartz said. “I have been a civil rights attorney in this city for 35 years.”

After the meeting, Mananzala said that liberals will often say they are “not racist or homophobic,” but, he said of the language, “It’s hard to think of it any other way.”

During the committee’s executive session, some comments suggested its proposal would not work. A representative from the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT), which administers the entire park that runs along Manhattan’s West Side from 57th Street to Battery Park, said Pier 54 had no lighting or even electrical power.

“The concept of having something by May that would be potentially attractive is not possible,” the HRPT representative said.

Schwartz also disclosed that the Adrian Benepe, the city parks commissioner, had already indicated that he opposed changing the 1 a.m. closing time. Benepe sits on the HRPT board and controls half the votes.

The committee’s 13 members had a series of straw votes on four different proposals and none garnered a majority. Surprisingly, a vote to change the closing time to 4 a.m. had some support. Sklarz said of that proposal and one to have no closing time, “The residents are going to have a fit. They’re going to buy guns.”

The committee decided to recommend that the full board vote on a proposal to keep the 1 a.m. closing time and a recommendation that FIERCE! and other community groups continue their outreach on the piers. That vote will happen on March 23. The full board could amend the committee’s recommendation.

After the meeting, Schwartz expressed unhappiness that local elected officials were not stepping up to address the problem.

“Public officials have stayed away from this because they don’t want to get caught in the crossfire,” he said.

The city’s 59 community boards are made up of volunteers appointed by the borough presidents with the advice of City Councilmembers and they act in an advisory capacity only.