The Great Gay Outdoors

101705 article sicha The Great Gay OutdoorsAt 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 6, two men were shot and robbed in Prospect Park, just down the hill from the Vale of Cashmere, really just a few dozen feet from the zoo and the heavy traffic of Flatbush Avenue.

“The men were engaged in a sex act,” the Daily News reported. They were shot, in fact, as the 78th Precinct confirmed, prior to being robbed.

On the gloomy Saturday afternoon that followed, just a muddy little twirl of yellow police tape was tangled in the bushes. Nearby, a cop sat idly in a car; two generators rigged to floodlights, now dark, marked a spooky triangle of forest.

And not far away from the crime scene, under a brutal steady rain, a few men loitered and paced, dressed in their Brooklyn casuals, looking for “sex acts.” None of them even carried an umbrella.

That these woods immediately returned to regular use as a cruising ground isn’t unusual. Areas like this are the decrepit, unchanging standbys of man-on-man match-ups. Online message boards regularly update men on conditions in similar places, like the N.Y.U. Bobst library, Equinox steamrooms, the 34th Street N/R station, and nearly every park-and-ride lot on the Long Island Expressway: Have they been raided recently? Are the men hot? Anybody, you know, been shot?

But outdoor Manhattan proper is changing, and rapidly. An emphasis on 24-hour communities built around public spaces dominates new construction, and all over town, the parks are being picked up and shaken so hard that the riffraff falls out like coins from a pair of tangled jeans on a dark M.T.A. platform. Rezoning—and zoning variances—in many neighborhoods are turning manufacturing districts that were desolate and therefore randy in the dark of night into Dullsville, U.S.A.

“The Stroll,” that particular stretch of Ninth Avenue below 14th Street, now looks at night rather more like the downtown strips of Providence and Pittsburgh. And in daylight hours, the market for nickelbags and the kind of date entirely conducted in the front seat of a car has given way to a market for Marcel Wanders’ Bottoni armchairs at Design Within Reach ($1,298!).

What has been displaced in these sorts of speedy transformations of Manhattan’s recent past are the things that people do on a whim, motivated by the desires that seem to spring up out of the landscape and surprise. They’ve been replaced by the sort of complicated desires one needs a subscription to a Condé Nast magalog to articulate.

And whether planned or the result of a rollicking free market, Manhattan’s newest public spaces—from the plans for the waterfronts to the World Trade Center Memorial Plaza—range from the morbidly contemplative to the hideously cardio-aerobic.

When the architectural or municipal plans for downtown and riverside are viewed after a cocktail or two, New York City might look as if it’s building a veritable Disneyland for cruising gays. The East River Waterfront survey proposes pavilions under the F.D.R. and recommends that the city “screen sanitation buildings with new trees and landscaping” and even build trellises and swings. The approved Greenpoint/Williamsburg project, which extends from the top of Brooklyn down to the old Domino sugar plant, would “establish a route for a continuous path along the waterfront,” surely with lots of nooks and crannies for crooks and trannies, to steal a line from the old cruiser’s bible, Betty & Pansy’s Severe Queer Review.

But. The shores of the Village-adjacent Hudson River, now ramrodded into piers and playgrounds and bike paths, were once a place for which gay libertines felt a sense of real ownership.

On a recent stakeout, there was little evidence of gay sleaze at Hudson River Park—besides one little graffito on a bathroom wall. “Eric 212 XXX-XXXX, bottom in Washington Heights 29—blond.” One night, Eric answered the phone:

Hey, is this Eric?

ERIC: Uh-huh … yes?

Hey, I got your number off a bathroom wall.

ERIC: Ha, ha. O.K.

So, is that a cruisy bathroom?

ERIC: Which one?

Oh, at Hudson River Park, by Christopher Street.

ERIC: Oh, at the piers. I guess some days—but not really.

Yeah, it doesn’t seem like there’s any action there.

ERIC: Umm, I’m in the middle of a long-distance long call.

Oh, O.K., sorry! I’ll call you later.

ERIC: O.K.!

It’s not even that easy to get to the Hudson River: As Philip Lopate notes in Waterfront, the West Side Highway can’t be crossed in places by foot during the time allotted by just one green traffic light. But, with success, one is rewarded by a fright of “fast use” and social control. Bicycles screech for joggers as Rollerbladers dodge baby strollers.

The new piers and pathways have disclaimers. “Climbing on this sculpture isn’t permitted,” and “Quiet Zone No Radio Playing after 8 p.m.,” and, bafflingly, at the piers: “If you see a discharge during dry weather please call 311.” Signs demarcate dog-free lawns. (Just think, it was only made illegal after 1850 to toss dead animals into the Hudson. Now dogs aren’t even allowed to pee near the river.)

And for all the autumnal-evening sexual tension of workers free from their desks, and for all the cock you can see swinging in shiny workout shorts, well, there’s not much in the way of release, because the whole place itself is built to discourage such acts.

“The ideal setting for homosexual activity is a tearoom situated on an island of grass, with roads close by on every side,” wrote the sociologist and minister Laud Humphreys in Tearoom Trade, published in 1970. “This constitutes a dilemma,” Mr. Humphreys continued, “for those who would engage in impersonal sex of this type: how to find a setting that is accessible and identifiable, that will provide the necessary volume and variety of participants, while preserving at least a minimum of privacy?”

On a recent evening on the piers, a gray-haired man read The New Yorker. Another slept on Astroturf. Black kids sat in aluminum chairs at the end of the pier like South Beach retirees, facing that sign across the river that celebrates Lackawanna. An enraged girl screamed at ex-friends across the pier: “That bitch stole money from me!” A parks employee got out of her truck to escort the angry girl away, but a solemn boy with the screamer held up his hand in the international gesture for “I got it,” and off they self-policed. By sunset, the three near-empty, unloved Richard Meier buildings were all clouds.

And a stakeout of the bathroom in which Eric, 29, bottom, Washington Heights, had written his number—with its two clean stalls, lack of other graffiti and half-asleep attendant outside—revealed nothing but joggers delighted (as they should be) to find a public restroom in Manhattan. The bathrooms close, all the signs say, at 8:30 p.m. anyway.

The High Line, that thin, elevated track of soon-to-be-spruced-up public park that runs along 10th Avenue, is, in the drawings for its rebirth, both giga-modern and abundant. Its sleekly louche looks suggest a prime place for an upwardly mobile man-on-man shopping spree, where two fellas freshly met might consider a bit of juicy contemporary art and end up buying $200 jeans at Jeffrey. (Look, baby, we’re the same size!)

Cruising requires opportunity, critical mass and an excuse for loitering, none of which coalesce in Hudson River Park. But in the plans for the High Line—which aren’t really plans yet so much as notions—architects have considered the site in direct opposition to the speed of the riverfront. Loitering, ahoy!

“[T]he High Line’s design team emphasizes the Line’s distinction as a ‘slow space,’ a more contemplative, meandering experience” compared to Hudson River Park, according to a series of public questions posed to the High Line gang in May 2005.

Slow is their watchword. In fact, “slow stairs” is the most evocative phrase used by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects who, along with Field Operations, apparently will have designed the High Line. “The wide, shallow stairs fulfill a specific design purpose in that they are intended to serve as a transition from the busy, fast-paced city streets below to the wild landscape of the High Line surface above.

“This is intended to be a slow journey, an experience unto itself.

“Along the way … visitors will have the opportunity to come face-to-face with the Line’s construction materials and substructure for a truly tactile sensory experience.” And, undoubtedly, face-to-face with each other.

Charles Renfro, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, seconded that in an e-mail. “In our design for the High Line,” he wrote recently in response to a conversation about public space and cruising, “we are trying to keep and push the qualities of the Line that lend it its sexiness: It’s overgrown, it’s partly a ruin, and it’s outside the city. Our paths meander through high and low vegetation, on occasion ending abruptly. We’re trying to un-linear the Line. So while it may sponsor gay cruising, I think it will also sponsor straight cruising and a general sense of pleasure that few public spaces in New York provide at this moment.”

Few public spaces, indeed—visually or sexually. There is no particular, dedicated street-cruising gay ghetto in Manhattan any longer, although such may erupt situationally, as the sheer carnival that came into life on Eighth Avenue—most notably on the corner of 21st Street during the last blackout—will attest. (Of course, cruising happened everywhere, gay and straight. And most notable about the cruising of the blackout: It was slow. Who had anywhere to go?)

“People will cruise,” Mr. Renfro wrote, “whenever and wherever there are glances exchanged. The ‘L’ train is the cruisiest and sexiest public space in town.”

Well, sure—but where do you get off to get off?

Apart from the temptations of the High Line, when one really looks at the plans and drawings for the other Manhattan improvements in the fluorescent light of day, they suddenly seem indistinguishable from those that prefigured the horrors of Astor Place’s new “Sculpture for Living” building, or even Houston Street’s hideous chunk of housing, Avalon Christie Place. These sort of new private buildings—so middle-class chic!—embody skewed modernist living ideals gone utterly pear-shaped.

“That modernist apartment was the fantasy where you’re Rock Hudson,” said Lee Edelman of Tufts University’s English department, speaking by phone recently. Mr. Edelman is the author, most relevantly, of an essay called “Men’s Room” in Stud: Architectures of Masculinity. “It’s all hard surfaces and gleaming angles. You couldn’t live, and most gay men still can’t, without feeling like the human presence is an intrusion in it …. And I think the next step in it is the relations to design, architecture, and space, in which you yourself are already a flaw in a design.”

Apparently, the plans for these sorts of spaces don’t need us any more. “It’s like HAL in 2001,” Mr. Edelman opined, “saying, ‘Let’s get rid of the humans.’”

It’s even true at the structure (or lack of structure) most conspicuously designed for human interaction. “At the Memorial Plaza,” according to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s current World Trade Center memorial plan, “the visitor enters an unexpected forest in the city, a unique space with a canopy of hundreds of oak trees.” Putting aside the whole, you know, death and horror thing, doesn’t that sound just like a playground for lurkey turkeys?

“Well,” said Larry Shea, 38, an artist and a filmmaker, “I certainly wouldn’t want to go on record saying I’d be cruising at the memorial site. What I thought was the cruisy thing was, when there was a garden on the 70th floor?” (An original, long-scrapped memorial plan by Daniel Libeskind included a wild garden above the 65th floor of the Freedom Tower.) “And I thought, ‘That would be fun to have sex in!’ I was like, ‘Yeah—I want to fuck up there!’”

But over time, that plaza could become Pickup Central. Here’s how fast: The meatpacking district, partitioned off by the Astor family in 1878, and containing 250 slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants by 1900, was in 1959 the “largest meat and poultry receiving market in the world,” according to The New York Times. The Ninth Avenue elevated, which once made a rude sweeping curve not far from present-day brunch-hole Pastis, only came down in the 40’s.

After that, the district took less than half a century to become what it is now, the world’s largest post-frat drunk tank, after a brief incarnation as Sin Central. Very brief: Lickety-split, the infamous Anvil only opened in 1974 and closed in 1986.

Surely, New Yorkers’ relation to the World Trade Center—and to Sept. 11—will evolve more rapidly than certain mythologists might like. In 200 years (given, of course, the existence of nearby human residents and even a mildly healthy economy), won’t the memorial plaza be the last remaining under-built space in downtown Manhattan? Won’t pale sunbathers line the pits in early autumn—while off in the suburbs, youngsters wearing turbans play with toy airplanes, the hodgepodge of 9/11 references the only remaining recollection of a day with a meaning no less confused than Labor Day and Memorial Day?

“Who knows, over time?” Mr. Shea had said about cruising the W.T.C. “But I have a feeling it’s going to be such a policed and boring space that it wouldn’t really be erotic.”

Of course, it might not be just the fault of city planners. Bricks-and-mortar sex may very well be going the way of the mom-and-pop store.

First, the cruising scene started getting brokered online, with mixed results. The Web site http://www.cruisingforsex.com is a bulletin board where men post information about cruising spots around the city. They don’t all see eye-to-eye. Of 71 Broadway: “Busiest times are morning rush and noon time” is followed by “I’ve tried this bathroom a half dozen times, and it has always been closed.” City Hall Park: either “Oh my God! If you want sex, this is the place to go” or “There’s no sex going on here.” The Grand Central Terminal bathroom (downstairs by the escalator) is either packed with married hotties or chockfull of homeless. The Ramble in Central Park is either a hotbed of mingling of the classes (Hello, Olmstead and Vaux!) or a rabidly policed nightmare, depending on who’s doing the narration.

What all this inconsistency means is that the cruisers, and would-be cruisers, have given up their power as a bloc. They wander aimlessly through toilets and parks, or just stay home, never knowing where to lurk and deculturated from sexual history. Hey, Netflix delivers porn!

And increasingly, gay men are taking to Web sites like Craigslist to contract sexual encounters online, which then take place in one or the other’s apartment (“I can host” or “I can travel” or “Manhattan only” are common provisos there). It’s the cruising equivalent of eBay.

“I would imagine—and I have no empirical evidence of this—but I imagine the online community has drawn more and more identified gay people out of the public spaces,” said Clarence Patton, the acting executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Antiviolence Project, during a discussion about police action in the wake of the shooting in Prospect Park. (In general, in addition to complaint-generated attention, “the other time policing goes up is when something like this happens.”)

Cruising in New York among the self-identified gay classes might now be taking a breather; maybe now it’s just something for the closeted. Do gay New Yorkers even want to feel the thrill of the rakehell when they can work out their psychosexual derangements without even leaving the apartment? (And how misguided, then, was the guy from Staten Island who posted to Craigslist’s “Men Seeking Men” page last week, asking: “Where can i go to cruze at around here?”)

“Our fantasies are really colonized by media in such a way that I think reality is a little scary for people,” said Mr. Shea. “There’s all these reasons why people have retreated in this sterile world of Internet communication and sharing statistics. The actual dirty work of desire is almost too scary for people, and also it has a bad name. Whereas computers? You’re being efficient.

“Because part of the beauty—if you want to use the word ‘beauty’—is being surprised by what you like. It’s kind of like that iPod attitude: “I want that song, I don’t want the whole album.” In the end, sexual interaction is a mystery. You surprise yourself, and that’s what’s lost with the Internet.”

Or perhaps New York never recovered from Rudy Giuliani and his strident “public nuisance” crackdowns. When he left, in fact, so did his opponents—among other stalwarts of the pro-sex 90’s scene, Michael Warner, a professor at Rutgers and a founder of the group Sex Panic, which militated about the line between public and private sex, didn’t return calls and e-mails about the state of cruising.

Or perhaps everyone’s left for Berlin, a city which subscribes to a model of post-industrial city growth by importation of the culture class—read: wild gays and bohemians—propagated by the academic Richard Florida.

“When I first moved here,” said the American artist D-L Alvarez, who left for Berlin a few years ago, “one big eye-opener, one thing that got me to move here … I was coming home from a movie theater with a friend late at night. We took a shortcut through the park, one of those warm summer nights. I see these cop lights ahead. I freaked out a little, because I don’t know the rules …. But instead of busting people, cops were there with safe-sex pamphlets, and telling people which parks were safer and which were more dangerous. Cops were there to protect the people. It was this whole new concept.”

Of course, in Berlin, the foxy daddy-figure Mayor Klaus Wowereit even frequents cruisy gay bars, according to Mr. Alvarez—a sharp contrast to creepy, unpredictably asexual Mike Bloomberg.

In Prospect Magazine this month, Joel Kotkin savaged Mr. Florida and his pro-hipster theories as a dot-com-era washout, and the results that Berlin has (not) achieved; Mr. Kotkin makes a convincing, if entirely sad, case that the middle class is the strength of a city.

And non-rich Manhattanites, with their awful Murray Hill and their full-service buildings and their bloody Whole Foods, are nothing if not safely middle-class. Along with the death of bohemian Manhattan, decent places for a guy to get some have evaporated.

There are a few pockets left, most of which will be promptly shut down with any public scrutiny. At Siberia—the bar made semi-famous as the place where Jayson Blair drank while not reporting stories—on Columbus Day weekend, Dean Johnson, old-school gay party promoter, hosted the redundantly titled party Triple XXX. “Don’t go into the basement w/o checking your wallet,” read the e-invite. “It’s hard to avoid pickpockets when your pants are on the floor.”

But one wonders if that’s just nostalgic and utterly wishful thinking.

As the city builds, maybe the friends of Mr. Johnson will regroup to try the new public spaces, looking for that magical alchemy of opportunity and plausible deniability and, of course, odd beauty. “Gay people have good taste,” said Mr. Shea. “The cruising sites around the world are sometimes the most beautiful places.” Good buildings make people hot—as Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow so concisely sang: “I feel sexy, sexy Eiffel Towers!” Let the architect beware.