Christopher Street, Back in the Day
It’s a hot, dark, airless Tuesday night in summer. Inside the bar, the air is thick with cigarette smoke. Donna Summer whispered she’d "Love to Love Ya, Babe". Men stood shoulder to shoulder, warily inspecting one another; here a clone, there a cowboy, by the window a Lacoste preppie. Outside, the men leaned against the railings of the Lutheran Church, sauntered past the entrance to the basement bowling alley, and lingered by the Papaya King adjoining Village Cigars, serenaded by the grunts, shouts, and clanging iron drifting from the open second floor windows of the raw, hardcore 24-hour Sheridan Square Gym.
Below, the Seventh Avenue IRT roared every few minutes, with another 100 guys getting off the train. Looking west down the street, as far as the eye could see, hundreds of men of all ages drifted, strolled, and searched the night for a quick pick-up -- or more.
Hundreds. On a Tuesday night.
It’s Christopher Street in 1975. The bar is Boots & Saddle. There’s a neon beer sign, sawdust on the floor, kegs to sit on, a rusty toilet in the back, an unusually good jukebox on the east wall. And there’s a red light in the window, the telltale beacon advisory from the not-so-distant past.
The Rainbow Coalition flag wasn’t yet even a gleam in anyone’s eye, for the Stonewall Riots of June, 1969 were still a not-so-distant memory, and the police still routinely shepherded "loiterers" from the other Village streets with an admonishing "Let’s move along, now," toward the five-block stretch of Christopher between Seventh Avenue and West Street.
Let’s not forget: only six years before, a man appearing in public dressed as a woman risked arrest. The times, they were a-changin’.
Why Christopher Street? Named in 1799 for Charles Christopher Amos, who acquired the 300-acre Greenwich Village estate of British Naval Officer Sir Peter Warren, Christopher Street is the oldest street in the Village. The broad basin of what is now the intersection of Christopher and West Streets was designed to accommodate the loading and unloading of the busy harbor’s cargo ships, the wide expanse allowing horse drawn wagons and carriages to turn around.
The Village flourished during the late 18th Century when many of the wealthier inhabitants fled Lower Manhattan to escape a smallpox epidemic. By the late 19th and into the 20th centuries, Greenwich Village had become a vanguard district favoring the artist, the social and political reformer, the avant-garde and devotees of alternative culture.
Author George Chauncey, in his 1994 study Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, offers compelling evidence that the two World Wars brought servicemen and women to the city’s ports by the hundreds of thousands, and the long-established bohemia enjoyed by Greenwich Village residents offered comparative freedom of sexual expression. Perhaps the wide boulevard of lower Christopher and the piers beyond was simply the broadest access into the winding, inviting, famously cow-pathed neighborhoods. The accommodating subway stop, and later, the PATH station, ensured a steady flow of visitors.
Whatever the reason, the organizers of New York City’s first Gay Pride Parade in June, 1970, one year after the Stonewall Riots, chose Christopher Street as the parade route. Gay bars began to receive liquor licenses, and although by 1975, the Mafia still had a business stranglehold on the operations, an identity was emerging. Christopher Street was the gay cruising paradise, a new American Main Street, matched only by The Castro and Folsom Street, more than 3,000 miles away.
The Stonewall Inn on Sheridan Square was shuttered only a few months after the riots; by 1975, it was a Bagel Land. For many, Boots & Saddle was the first stop for a night on Christopher. Today, it’s a bright and cheerful classic Village dive. Back then, it was the first dark, inviting oasis on the street, for the management appeared to understand its strategic position in the hierarchy; few men lingered past their first drink in Boots & Saddle, for there were other bars to check out further west down the street.
Two blocks east, at Waverly and West 10th, the cozy preppie Julius Bar was generally quiet on weeknights. Its special glory had become its lock-hold on Sunday afternoons, a brunch-like gathering of the city’s increasingly visible gay professionals. The Monster had not yet appeared. Off Christopher, Limelight, on Seventh Avenue, and Marie’s Crisis on Grove Street, were on the radar but ineffective pick-up places; far more active off the Street was The Ninth Circle on West 10th, with its collegiate pretty-boy crowd and basement pool table.
On the Upper West Side, The Wildwood, and the ever-valiant Candle Bar (still open today) were the neighborhood magnets. Uncle Charlie’s South, at 37th Street and Third Avenue, was always packed with an impressive crowd blending the preppie, the professional, and occasionally, the military. Openly gay discos were beginning to flourish: this was the era of the legendary 12 West, The Cock Ring, and the undisputed king, Flamingo, at Broadway and Houston, the ultra-exclusive members-only after hours dance club which set the circuit trends for years to come (The Black Party and The White Party had their debuts at Flamingo).
But Christopher Street reigned supreme in 1975, and Ty’s Bar, nestled strategically midpoint between Bleecker and Bedford Streets, was the place to be -- or to be near, at least -- for the most results-oriented pick ups during the week. Crammed with big, broad-shouldered, often leather-garbed men, most of whom faced east (the bar was on the east wall), Ty’s was even busier than twinkie bar The Ninth Circle, and packed in comparison to the dwindling, if steady, crowds at Boots & Saddle.
The Age of the Clone
The air crackled with a newly discovered energy. It was the age of the categorical look: the clone, the cowboy, the leather man, the preppie, the drill sergeant, the muscle man, the swimmer, the gymnast, the dancer, the model. Contrary to the history, it wasn’t simply a celebration, an ongoing party; the seriously cruising men of Christopher Street were tough, competitive, and had an attitude. Determination was in the air.
Here, at least, men could search openly without societal hindrance. Here, on Christopher Street, men and women could not only be who they really were -- for the first time in American history, there was a swelling urban gay crowd to mingle with, to drink with, to party with, to choose from, or simply to get lost in.
On Sundays, however, everyone relaxed, if just a little. The uptown men who generally turned their noses up to the milling, sweaty energy of the Village might find their way first to Julius at Waverly and West 10th, and then to the throngs who gathered in late afternoon to the basin of Christopher and West Streets. Here it all really came alive: it was an open block party as the young and -- may we say more mature -- men came by the thousands, most of them shirtless, lingering with a beautiful carefree laziness, traveling breezily between the river front bars Badlands, The Ramrod, Keller’s, an ongoing, milling, celebrating, every-weekend street party.
After sunset, the place to be was The Cock Ring dance floor, in the basement of the then Hotel Christopher (long since converted to the quiet HIV residence Bailey House). The drug of choice was amyl, though the hardcore often preferred the lethal Angel Dust. Keys were worn on either the left or the right, as were back pocket hankies, the unsubtle flags of preference. Even the upscale men who preferred Flamingo on Saturday night into Sunday morning, or spent their weekends on that then highly exclusive, expensive sandbar out in the Great South Bay, might follow Flamingo’s legendary DJ Howard Merritt to The Cock Ring by Sunday evening.
By nightfall, if a man hadn’t yet found his perfect weekend playmate, there was always a selection of late hour final stops. The Anvil, at 14th Street and Tenth Avenue, with its wild stage performances, its busy back room, and its banner -- "Lee Radziwell was NOT here" -- offered continued sexual energy and enticement.
A little further uptown, on Tenth Avenue at 20th and 21st Streets respectively, The Spike and The Eagle didn’t offer the back rooms but did offer the crowds, and The Eagle even had video, a strange, new concept. Closer to Christopher, The International Stud on Washington Street was barebones, back-room action. There were other, smaller, equally teeming back room bars, and, for those who craved a bit of danger, there were the parked trucks and the rotting piers of the waterfront.
The Cock Ring is long gone. So are Danny’s, The Ramrod, Badlands, The Anvil, The Spike, Sheridan Square Gym, The International Stud, The Christopher Street Bookstore, Peter Rabbit, Keller’s, the trucks, and the piers. Ty’s Bar and Boots and Saddle remain, and a few new, history-less pretenders are in the neighborhood now. The Stonewall Inn, refurbished for present day, reopened more than a decade ago.
Christopher Street still entices gay men and lesbians, only now many of them are younger people of color, who flock here from the outer boroughs and suburbs, attracted by the name alone, which has become synonymous with gay identity. Many of the residents -- gay and straight -- complain about the sometimes rowdy youth. But their presence is a sign of the street’s continuing legacy.
Just the same, compared the halcyon days of the ’70s, Christopher Street is quite quiet today, and respectable, a frontier town forever vanished. Meanwhile, those few of us who remain might take a walk down Christopher on a dark, hot summer night, and still hear Donna Summer crooning "I Feel Love" somewhere in the distance -- or see the shadows of thousands of men dancing and drinking beer, glowing in the Sunday sunsets at the darkened basin of West and Christopher Streets. We thought it would last forever.
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