On a cold December day in 2010, LGBT rights activists, elected officials and homeless youths gathered on the steps of City Hall in New York to protest proposed funding cuts to homeless youth services, particularly street outreach and drop-in shelters. 1 Yet a year before it was Mayor Bloomberg himself who had appointed a commission to study the plight of LGBT youth, and it was the commission’s recommendation to increase street outreach and to add 200 drop-in shelter beds. 2 That a city would seek to cut social services to a community in need is unfortunate, but not surprising (especially these days). What is notable is the rising incidence of homelessness among LGBT youth even in such a queer beacon as New York City.
According to a 2006 report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, between 20 and 40 percent of the up to 1.6 million homeless and runaway youth in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. 3 In New York City, a 2007 survey found 3,800 homeless youths on city streets, many queer people of color. 4 Young people who have been kicked out for being LGBT, or queer youths who’ve fled violent or unhealthy homes, routinely overwhelm the approximately half dozen public and private shelters in New York’s five boroughs. Predictably, the condition of the shelters is mixed. Migratory, transitional, often in financial crisis and on the verge of closing, shelter spaces are usually makeshift, perfunctory, a product of low-bid construction or a hasty result of donated materials and volunteer labor. Their drabness is often counterbalanced by cheerful decorations, schedules, posters, snacks, etc. And, of course, by the inhabitants: resilient young people who’ve developed the life skills to adapt to uneasy and provisional spaces.
A good example is MCCNY Homeless Youth Services: Sylvia’s Place, in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan. Located on the ground floor of Metropolitan Community Church of New York Sylvia’s Place can harbor six people for short-term stays of 90 days, and up to 20 more on an emergency basis, according to former shelter director Lucky Michaels. The youth sleep on cots on the floor and must leave in the morning; the church doubles as a food pantry during the day. Sylvia’s Place is run by overworked staff and volunteers on a shoestring budget, and space constraints threaten its survival. Yet for many homeless young adults — too old to access city family services and too young and vulnerable for adult centers — a program like Sylvia’s is the best chance for a roof for the night.
Greenwich Village, then and now
In millennial New York, the predicament of LGBT youth is compounded by the twin pressures of rampant gentrification and the ongoing privatization of public space. For years now these scenarios have been playing out vividly in neighborhoods that have historically been accessible — sometimes even hospitable — to queer congregation. No neighborhood has been more accessible than Greenwich Village. With its history of bohemianism, of artistic experimentation and radical politics, the Village was the epicenter of the growing gay liberation movement in the 1960s. Over three nights in June 1969, the movement exploded from within when gay, lesbian and transgender protestors stormed Christopher Street and fought back after yet another police raid on a popular gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. Young LGBT activists, including Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, were prominent in the burgeoning movement, agitating for safe spaces for homeless transgender youth. The Stonewall Rebellion would prove to be a decisive moment; from then on queers refused to be confined, imaginatively or politically, to private interiors, to the dark and often ephemeral spaces of bars and baths, to the dimly lit zones of parks at night. The first Christopher Street Liberation Day march, in June 1970, commemorated the Stonewall uprising and cemented the new public-ness of the LGBT liberation movement.
In the decades since Stonewall, certain places in the Village, perhaps most famously the Hudson River piers at the western edge of Christopher Street, have become centers of public queer life. Not only at a literal edge, a land’s-end, the piers are also at a political and cultural edge. In an earlier article on queer urbanism, I wrote: “Like the bodies of those who inhabit them, the piers epitomize the wary comfort of the edge, and, like so many edges — especially where land and water meet — [they are spaces] of possibilities. The crumbling infrastructure, left to rot after the city’s maritime heyday, offers an in-between space for those [who sought both to escape and to belong]. The piers became not only popular cruising grounds, but also centers of community, where a boy or girl getting off a bus [perhaps fleeing an oppressive home], could count on finding support and becoming part of an extended family.” 5
In Greenwich Village today, such spaces of possibility — at the political and cultural edge — are increasingly endangered. Today the West Village — along with the Meatpacking District, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen — is witnessing a tug-of-war between market forces, on the one side, and the rights of youth to gather and find safe and affordable shelter, on the other. Again, from my earlier article: “In recent years the piers and adjacent Hudson River Park have reflected the continuing demographic and economic changes in the West Village. Piers and park are now smartly landscaped, with popular jogging and biking paths; nearby residential towers are home to some of the priciest square footage in the world; and the Stonewall Inn, a few blocks down Christopher, is now a gay tourist destination, a mere symbol of an uprising.” 6 The sparkling glass towers on Perry Street, designed by Richard Meier — and housing, at various times, Calvin Klein, Nicole Kidman and Martha Stewart — were recently joined by 100 Eleventh Avenue, the work of Jean Nouvel. This is the new Village. Amid the brownstones, celebrated half a century ago by Jane Jacobs, you will find a splurge of cupcake joints and no less than six Marc Jacobs boutiques.
Yet cultural memories persist, and the Hudson River piers have remained a popular LGBT gathering place. Motivated by movement history and personal stories (passed along these days via social networking), young people who’ve been pushed out from so many other places look here for a haven, where they can find others like them and freely express their identities. But these days, along with lingering homophobia and racism, they now confront the economic and legal power of established and affluent West Village residents; these latest conflicts often pivot on class and privilege. Some West Villagers have called the cops to complain; they’ve demanded early curfew hours for the park, and, according to youths I’ve spoken with, have dumped buckets of water on kids hanging out on Christopher Street. Tensions boiled over a few years ago, when an op-ed in a neighborhood newspaper, written by block association leaders, accused city legislators of turning the other cheek, and asserted a scourge of “problematic transient youths.” 7 In a series of tense meetings, the community board considered proposals for instituting an 11 p.m. curfew and for barricading the park at night, before eventually passing a resolution to maintain the 1 a.m. curfew and to increase policing of the area. 8
New complexities and contradictions
Lately the socio-political LGBT landscape has gotten increasingly complex — and contradictory. On the one hand, the plight of LGBT youth has become critical. In the fall of 2010, a spate of suicides, driven mostly by bullying, hit the news. The most widely publicized was the case of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after two classmates secretly filmed him on a webcam making out with another man. By some counts there were at least 10 suicides caused by anti-gay bullying in September 2010 alone. These tragic events are compounded by the surge in violent attacks on transgender people — Paulina Ibarra in California, Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar in New York City, Angie Zapata in Colorado, all within the last three years — attacks that rarely get much mainstream coverage. On the other hand, the news is not all grim: just this May, a Gallup tracking poll showed for the first time that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. 10 This latest result, part of Gallup’s ongoing Values and Beliefs poll, reflected an astounding nine percentage-point increase in just the last year.
These two realities underscore the volatility of the issues, the widely diverging attitudes and politics. The increasing acceptance of homosexuality — especially within established socio-economic and cultural frameworks (i.e., mostly white, mostly middle class, and still mostly male, reflecting a kind of homo-normative) — contrasts starkly with the persistence of violence and oppression. This volatility is reflected in both mainstream media and popular culture, which are now dominated by the issues of gay marriage rights and the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military. Indeed, it can take a moment to grasp what profound changes are at work here. In the early 1990s activists from Queer Nation took to the streets with the slogan of the day: “We’re here! We’re Queer! Get used to it!” They were demanding the right to be different. Two decades later, with appeals for equal access to marriage and military service, gays are essentially asking to be viewed as the same as everyone else.
This same sense of fluidity marks the mood in New York City. Undeniably, there are reasons for optimism. The suicides of LGBT teens precipitated an outpouring of support from legislators, celebrities and the public, and some of the new initiatives address homelessness. In February 2010 the West End Intergenerational Residence (supported by celebrities like Cyndi Lauper), broke ground on the True Colors Residence, a permanent housing facility for homeless LGBT youth; it’s expected to open this summer. More recently, Lady Gaga pledged $1 million to several city organizations, including the Hetrick-Martin Institute, home of the Harvey Milk High School and Safe Horizon, whose Streetwork project offers meals and services to homeless teenagers. Yet it’s also clear that there remains a need for new approaches; the scale of the problem demands that we rethink goals and practices — that we develop solutions that grapple with the fundamentals, rather than just react to the emergencies. These are our children, and we need to take care of them.
For several years I have been collaborating with FIERCE, a New York City organization led by and for LGBT youth, which since 2000 has been working to keep the West Side piers and the adjacent Hudson River Park safe and accessible. In response to the rising tensions with West Village residents, the group rallied against the proposal to barricade the pier at night, and established a working, if often uneasy, relationship with the community board. In 2008, after learning that the Hudson River Park Trust, which oversees the ongoing development of the park and piers, was considering plans for a large-scale performing arts center at the semi-dilapidated Pier 40, near West Houston Street, the group decided to protest further privatization and for-profit development, and to campaign for the provision of a 24-hour LGBT youth center. My office, SUPER-INTERESTING!, joined with FIERCE and other groups to present an alternate vision for the pier. Our design concept for the youth center emphasized the importance of open community space; the architecture strategy was to cut and slice through the pier, opening up views and connecting recreation fields to the river and the park. Our goal was for the design to support the politics, flattening hierarchies and interconnecting various programmatic spaces (lobby, classrooms, music and art rooms, etc).
My work with FIERCE inspired me to further explore the problem of homeless youth. Last year, funded by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, I researched and developed a new model for the provision of shelter. My project in progress, Queer/Space/Home, envisions a “shelter/not shelter” — a prototype for a shelter with an expanded program. Queer/Space/Home would provide more than emergency services, more than protection for the night; it would offer access to services, education, training and internships; it would focus not simply on emergency relief but more holistically on health and wellbeing.
Queer/Space/Home is inspired by the concept of Housing First. Pioneered two decades ago by medical professionals at New York University, Housing First, or “rapid re-housing,” aims to move homeless people very quickly from the streets to stable living environments, thus doing away with a protracted period of provisional living in temporary spaces. Like Housing First, Queer/Space/Home posits shelter as a basic human right, a core necessity; it then sets up interfaces with a network of social services and educational, community and business groups. Some organizations might be enlisted as partners; for instance, the Harvey Milk High School and various community farms might serve as allied satellite programs, offering education, art spaces, information about healthy diets and food production. Established (and celebrity) lesbian and gay business owners, including fashion icon Marc Jacobs himself and Kelly Bush, founder of the public relations firm ID, as well as media outlets like Go Magazine, would be encouraged to open offices or retail stores, partly to affirm solidarity and also to offer mentoring and internship opportunities. The residents would be encouraged — expected — to take an active role in the workings of the shelter/center/home, and to assume responsibility for their personal health and well-being.
At Queer/Space/Home, green design would go hand-in-hand with social justice. This hybridized shelter/home would be sustainable in its construction (e.g., materials, systems, ecological footprint). Reuse and retrofit would be key strategies; optimal locations might include under-performing city-owned spaces, e.g., neglected parking garages or storage buildings, and abandoned waterfront spaces along the Hudson and East Rivers. Just as important, Queer/Space/Home would be aim to be sustainable in its program and community — to create a viable community space that fosters equality and diversity.
As I continue to investigate the issues, I find myself focusing on a series of questions.
What is queer space? Aaron Betsky has described queer space as “not built, only implied, and usually invisible,” and as “useless, amoral, and sensual space that lives only in and for experience.” 11 Can we envision a different kind of queer space — space that is more permanent, built and visible, even as we embrace the experiential and sensory?
What is teen or young adult space? How might design negotiate the delicate balance between supervision and responsibility, protection and ownership?
And why is Greenwich Village still important? In recent years the Village has been gentrified almost beyond recognition, yet somehow it remains a magnet for queer youth. Are the conditions that created a sense of home for queer youth still there, somehow, amid the Meier and Nouvel, the cupcakes and couture?
One day last summer, a group of young people sprawled along the Astroturf at Pier 46. One teenage boy got up to practice a dance move. He spun himself on the rough surface, sometimes gracefully, sometimes gawkily, and then tumbled down, laughing. Nearby on the pier, well-heeled sunbathers, perhaps from the new towers, soaked up the late summer rays. Despite the challenges they face, and despite the changes in the Village and along the piers, the youth still come. Perhaps that’s the beginning of an answer.