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Go West! – The Leather & Denim Scene in the Weehawken Street Historic District

The Weehawken Street Historic District (designated May 2, 2006) consists of a small area on three blocks around West, Christopher, and 10th Streets. Although primarily known for its relation to New York City’s maritime industry from the 1830s to 1920s, the tiny district was also the center of New York’s Queer Leather and Denim (L&D) scene in the 1970s and ’80s and for many years after. Weehawken and West Street contained at least seven different gay bars at its peak in the 1980s, and the adjacent areas, including Christopher Street and Pier 45, were enormously important gathering and social spaces for LGBTQIA+ people in our neighbhoords, when few such spaces existed anywhere.

Marlon Brando in the Wild One (1953). Image sourced from Columbia Pictures Corporation

But before we discuss how it manifests in our neighborhoods — what is ‘Leather and Denim?’ These subcultures involve wearing garments (such as leather and denim jackets, vests, boots, chaps, harnesses or other items) that express a heightened or explicitly emphasized sense of masculinity using certain cultural signifiers of such characteristics. L&D has been around since the late 1940s, and strongly references the post-WWII biker culture. After World War II, groups that were labeled “sexually-deviant” by the U.S. Military were discharged from service around America, creating pockets of communities in metropolises with large military presences, like San Francisco and New York. Disaffected from mainstream culture, L&D began as a countercultural movement inspired stylistically by biker clubs and gangs, and their image was largely influenced by the sensationalized 1947 Hollister Riot in California and Marlon Brando’s character in the 1953 film The Wild One. The subculture became popular among some gay men, who used its image to reject the stereotype that homosexual men were “effeminate.” Despite its counterculture origins, L&D started appearing in mainstream media as early as the 1970s with Jay Green’s murder mystery novel, Cruising, which was later adapted into a major motion picture with Al Pacino. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, artists like Tom of Finland, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Peter Hujar pulled the community into political discourses about obscenity, LGBTQIA+ rights, and freedom of expression. Throughout its history, openly queer figures like Glenn Hughes, Freddie Mercury, and, more recently, Adam Rippon have appropriated the subculture’s style to comment on society’s views of gender and sexuality.

Within and around the Weehawken Street Historic District (which Village Preservation led efforts to have landmarked), places that formerly served military personnel, sailors, and those in the maritime industry evolved to accommodate LGBTQIA+ and other sexually marginalized groups. Here are some particularly significant sites where these communities, and especially the leather and denim subcultures within them, flourished:

Christopher’s End

(180 Christopher Street)

The employees of Christopher’s End Bar at the GAA Zap (1971) (Mike Ubers is 2nd from right). Photo taken by Diana Davies and provided by the New York Public Library.
180 Christopher Street, Photograph taken from Google Street View c. Aug. 2018.

In 1971, Christopher’s End was a mafia-controlled club. On July 24th, the Gay Activist Alliance organized a protest there against the club’s management by Mike Ubers, a notorious despot related to the Gambino crime which owned and operated several gay bars in the Village. The club was well known for its go-go boys and mysterious “back-room” where L&D participants met. After a particularly violent raid on July 15th, 1971 where the police smashed the club’s interior and arrested several patrons, the bar took a harsher stance against its Queer clientelle, hanging an offensive sign outside the bar reading “Open Again. Weirdo Sex Inside.” In responce, the Gay Activist Alliance organized a “zap” (a direct, surprise public confrontation against public figures designed to spark media attention) that attracted over 1,000 participants, marching from Christpher’s End to the 6th Police Precinct at 135 Charles Street and then onto the (then) new police station, which had opened the past January. The site’s queer legacy doesn’t stop there. The building is now the Bailey-Holt House, which, in 1985, became America’s first permanent home for individuals living with HIV/AIDS.

Pier 45

(Christopher Street Pier)

Sunbathing Platform on Pier 45 (c. 1970s). Photograph by Alvin Baltrop and provided by the Alvin Baltrop Trust and the Guardian.
“Christopher Street Pier #1, 1976” by Peter Hujar. Copyright 1987 Archive LLC. Photograph sourced from Pace/MacGill Gallery and the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.

The Greenwich Village Waterfront has long been a destination for queer communities to gather and meet. In the 1970s and 80s, Pier 45 was well-known as a popular cruising ground (a place for gay men to meet for sex) for L&D participants, but it also acted as a creative space to display site-based installations, organize photoshoots, paint murals, and host performances. Prior to the HIV/AIDS crisis, photographers Peter Hujar, Alvin Baltrop, and David Wojnarowicz began their careers by taking photos of the men who frequented the Christopher Street Pier, capturing the joy and sense of community these men found here. (Although many are too sexually explicit to post here, many photographs from Baltrop’s The Piers series are available online). In the 1980s, the pier’s status as a Queer space solidified, and it became a refuge for homeless, LGBTQIA+ people of color, sex-workers, and youth hiding from the police and violence. However, the ‘90s saw the pier’s reputation fade. In 1992 Marsha P. Johnson’s body was found dead and floating in the water at the end of the pier, a death which many insist was the result of brutal harassment she faced. Then in the late ‘90s, the city and state planned a waterfront revitalization (what is now Hudson River Park) that sought to clean-up and rebuild the piers from Christopher Street to Chelsea. A movement to save the “Queer Pier” was unsuccessful, and new park opened in 2003 with curfew restrictions.

Ramrod

(394-395 West Street)

Ramrod, ca. 1978. Image via NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project
The Ramrod, from the Village People’s “YMCA” video. Image via NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.

As what is now the Weehawken Street Historic District entered the 1980s, the gay L&D scene reached its peak. In 1983, six of the fourteen buildings within the current Weehawken Street Historic District housed gay bars and L&D clubs. Unfortunately, the neighbhorhood’s sexually liberal reputation attracted unwanted attention and harassment from individuals and groups who perpetrated hate crimes and violence against those who congregated there. Operating from 1983 to 1991, Ramrod was a well-known L&D bar that served gay men. It was one of New York’s most popular leather bars and was even featured in one of the scenes from the Village People’s YMCA music video. On November 19th, 1980, Ramrod was attacked by NYC Transit Authority police officer Ronald K. Crumpley, who shot and killed two patrons while wounding six others. Crumpley believed that gay men were agents of the devil, and activists charged that he and other malicious actors at the time were encouraged and emboldened by the “Moral Majority,” which demonized LGBTQ people and were supported by many of the winners in the 1980 presidential and congressional elections, including Ronald Reagan. Crumpley was apprehended for his attack, but never found guilty of murder because the court found his rampage to be the product of psychosis and drug abuse. The bar closed shortly after the attack, and the area started to gentrify as both the HIV/AIDS crisis and a renewed interest in the area by real estate developers began to displace longtime members of the community.

Other significant L&M sites included:

  • West Beach Bar & Grill opened in 1970, operating to 1980, whereafter Badlands Bar took over, operating from 1983-’91 at 388-390 West Street.
  • Choo Choo’s Pier operated from 1972 to the late ‘70s, when Sneakers Bar picked up its lease and served clients until 1999 at 392-393 West Street.
  • Peter Rabbit operated from 1972-’88 at 396-397 West Street.
  • Dugout operated from 1985-2006 at 185 Christopher Street.
  • And, not far away, the Keller Bar, New York’s oldest Leather bar, operated from 1956 to 1998 on the corner of West and Barrow Streets on the ground floor of the former Keller Hotel.

Further Reading:

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