A FIERCE Fight in the West Village

It’s cold on the Christopher Street Pier in the wintertime—not the kind of place you want to stand still after the sun sets and the wind whips off the Hudson. For a lot of New York City teenagers, however, the Greenwich Village waterfront is the best place to be in any weather. To thousands of youths, often kicked out of their home for being gay or lesbian, the Christopher St. subway station is a where you can be yourself and not be afraid.

All photos of Pier 40 by Michael Short.

“Forty percent of the homeless youth population in this city identify as LGBT,” said Glo Ross, lead field organizer at Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment, or FIERCE. “This is a significant population whose needs are not being addressed.”

For the past eight years, FIERCE has organized and empowered the LGBT youth of color in the West Village, who remain largely unknown to the city at large and a sore point to some West Village residents. FIERCE has slowly developed this community into a mobilized group that is trying to carve out a space for themselves in the West Village. 

In their latest fight, FIERCE collaborated with an alliance of Village neighborhood groups advocating for the People’s Pier proposal for the development of Pier 40.  FIERCE hoped for a 24-hour drop-in center for LGBT youth, but in October, the Hudson River Park Trust—the organization charged with planning the development of the Westside waterfront—rejected the People’s Pier proposal for lacking a money-making element.

“The more community uses put in, the less revenue generated,” said Bethany Jankunis, a spokesperson for State Assembly member Deborah Glick, who represents the West Village.  “There just wasn’t a real revenue-generating purpose to the People’s Pier proposal.”

While the loss was devastating, there were bright spots for FIERCE.  This fight marked the first time the young LGBT community on the waterfront fought for a common cause  with the wealthy neighbors that live in the townhouses.

“We are an important part of the fabric of this community now,” emphasized Rickke Mananzala, Executive Director of FIERCE.  “I remember in the original meetings for the People’s Pier proposal, our LGBT youth would stand up and advocate for the drop-in center. People would get up to speak after them and they’d actually say, ‘I didn’t get up here to say this, but I believe in the need for that center, as well.’ It was phenomenal.”

FIERCE has fought hard for the right of  simply having their interests heard by the community. In 2006, they won a battle to keep the Christopher St. Pier open into the early morning hours. Now, to see their adopted neighborhood come out in support of a center for homeless LGBT youth included in a new development proposal is remarkable. 

Access to the pristine waterfront and its community is vitally important to LGBT youth of color in the city; but in the wintertime, the need for a 24-hour shelter becomes obvious. “Where do you go?” Rickke says, with a hollow chuckle.  “Starbucks, as long as you can stay, before they kick you out for not buying something; the subway, as long as you can sleep without being harassed; maybe a friend’s house who has accepting parents.”

There is the Ali Forney Day Center for LGBT Youth on 22nd Street and the LGBT Center on 13th Street, but these organizations are not open 24 hours.  And FIERCE is keenly aware that the centers their community so values are being challenged just to stay alive.

“Yes, right now we are in the fight for the Pier 40 center, but the reality is that LGBT youth services are being cut all over the city,” Ross said.  “Our centers, they might not exist next year.“

In troubled financial times, institutions serving the needs of homeless LGBT youth are some of the first things to go as the city budget is massacred. “As we see city-wide budget cuts, we’re seeing cuts first, across the board, to homeless LGBT youth services,” he emphasized. “These institutions are used.  If you walk into the center on 13th Street, you go to the second floor, there’s twenty people in there on any day, just because it’s warm and you can talk to your friends. Well where are these folks going? Where are these folks sleeping? From what I can see, folks are going to stay out on the street. So, of course we are worried.  This is about real life.  Real safety.”

According to Mananzala, when funding for LGBT youth has been freed up, it is often directed away from downtown Manhattan and back to the very neighborhoods from which many teens fled. “We got $1.3 million put into late night centers, but most of them were established in the outer boroughs—out in the Bronx, Queens, Bed-Stuy,” Mananzala explained.  “Kids don’t want to go out there. They’re scared. I live by the one in Bed Stuy and every time I would swing by, it’s closed now, nobody was there. And I have to say, I completely got it.”

Which is why FIERCE has no plans to retreat, even after the rather deflating blow that the HRPT decision has leveled on them. As funding gets slashed for LGBT youth services, FIERCE continues looking to the future, trying to ensure their community a safe space. For now, their Chelsea offices serve as a cramped but welcoming home on an icy day.

On the day before Thanksgiving, Paul Williams was hanging around the office. Twenty-one years old, Paul first began to take the train down to Christopher Street from East Harlem when he was in high school.

“The friends I have now are the people I met coming down to the pier,” he said.  He still lives in East Harlem—“I’ve  been blessed to have an accepting home, with a family.”—But Williams sees the West Village as a home as well.

“Of course,” he said,  “as a young gay male, I am definitely a part of the West Village Community.  Of course.”

 Williams did not come to the Pier to become political: He came to have fun. His contact with FIERCE, however, changed him into an unsuspecting political organizer.

“I work on outreach,” he said, “recruiting people, mobilizing youth to attend meetings.  When I go out to the pier, I don’t think of it as political work. I just go up to people like they’re my friends.”

This strategy typifies FIERCE as a whole. As much as it presents an organizing platform, it is also presents an opportunity for young people with a lot in common to find people they can relate to. In the summer, when FIERCE held meetings to promote the People’s Pier proposal and the drop-in center, an hour and half of slideshows, presentations, and guest speakers was followed by a raucous dance party.

“I first became aware of FIERCE at the trans march a couple of years ago,” Emerson Brisbon said, sitting next to Williams.  “They were out in huge numbers that year. They had everyone dancing. They had chants.”

Brisbon was a student at Hampshire College at the time, but felt an immediate connection to FIERCE’s cause. 

“It’s always important to have a space,” she said. “Being at Hampshire College—so white and so straight—being one of maybe 20 queer folks of color on the campus, I know how important it is to have a place: somewhere we can just hang out, be ourselves, and be warm.”

FIERCE will not give up on a 24-hour drop-in center in the West Village. They are still aggressively trying to convince the HRPT to repeal their decision and allow for the space at Pier 40, but they have also been researching city-owned abandoned buildings in the area with the hopes of owning and constructing their own space. They also will mobilize their nearly 1,200 members against whatever cuts are announced in the city budget against LGBT and homeless youth services in 2009. 

Fighting for a stake for the young, queer youth of color in one of New York’s whitest and increasingly wealthiest neighborhoods is not an easy row to sow, especially in this cash-strapped city. But Mananzala would not want to be doing anything else.

“The story I tell is being out on the pier on a cold day like this one,” he explained.  “Maybe twenty degrees outside: Nobody was out. Except there were two young women—couldn’t have been older than 15 or 16—sitting in the cold, embracing. If there is one neighborhood to be who you are, we need it.”

Contributor

Lucas Mann

LUCASS MANN is a journalist living in New York City. He has written for TheNation.com and New York magazine, as well as contributing often to the community newspaper The Villager.

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