Published in LGNY, Issue 57, July 6, 1997
For recent immigrants to the gay Mecca of Chelsea it might seem that the neighborhood only
turned queer in the 1980s. Through the early 1970s, Chelsea was a drab and gritty working-class
neighborhood, populated by a combination of Irish, often the descendants of longshoremen who
worked the Chelsea docks, Latinos, a sprinkling of upper-middle-class, and some pockets of gay
men. Such demographics made Chelsea similar to San Francisco's Castro before the gay influx
there also enlivened a work-a-day neighborhood.
The queer history of the lower westside of Manhattan prior to the current gay renaissance shows
the way in which activism blazed a path for a true community. As gay men moved into Chelsea in
increasing numbers in the mid-1970s, they opened shops along Eighth Avenue and were pivotal in
helping Chelsea become the vibrant and exciting neighborhood it is today. Before the current gay
boom north of 14th Street made Chelsea a gay neighborhood in it's own right, Chelsea had been a
kind of bedroom community for those who could not find affordable housing just south in
Though not as crowded with lesbians and gay men as today, by the time I moved to Chelsea in
1975, it already had a noticeable gay presence. There were bars for gay men in Chelsea long
before Splash, Barracuda, Rome and G. The most notable were The Eagle, The Spike, The Ramp
(on West Street), and even the first gay dance bar, the short lived Seventeenth Street Saloon on
the site of what is now Blockbuster Video. More than two decades before the Westside Club,
Chelsea was home to some notorious sex emporiums including the wonderfully sleazy Everard
Baths and that infamous cock sucking palace, The Glory Hole. The first of the glamorous private
gay discos was Tenth Floor on West 28th St. By today's standards, the Tenth Floor had a postage
stamp sized dance floor. But before there was Flamingo, Twelve West or The Loft and long
before Studio 54 or the Saint, Tenth Floor was the first private dance club for the gay crowd that
summered in the Pines. Saturday nights found many gay men traipsing between the Everard Baths
and Tenth Floor, just a few doors away. That mini-circuit preceded the Flamingo/Fire Island
Pines circuit and today's scene.
Until 1975, I had been living on Bleecker Street between Charles and Perry in the West Village,
and was reluctant to consider anything north of 14th Street. To me, Chelsea seemed too far away
from the Village, at the time the real center of gay life, especially for young men. But my partner
and I wanted to move in together, and couldn't find anything affordable in the Village.
My friend Rob Kilgallen, owner of the Candle Shop on Christopher Street until his death several
years ago, insisted that I look at a vacant apartment in the building where a friend of his was
living. I complained that it was too far north, so Rob closed his shop and accompanied me to see
the two bedroom apartment I have been living in for the past 22 years. It was large, seemed a bit
expensive at $390 a month, but was rent-stabilized and came with a three-year lease and no
agent's fee. As soon as I saw it, I knew that Phil and I had found our home. That's how two
young gay activists moved to Chelsea.
Everyone knows about Stonewall and most younger lesbians and gay men are aware of recent
activism but few seem familiar with the grass roots of the movement that predated ACT UP,
Queer Nation and all established community institutions. As much as the West Village, Chelsea
was home to some of the earliest organized gay political, social, communal and cultural activities
in the 1970s.
In the mid 1970s Chelsea was a lot less safe than today for gay men. We used to follow certain
rules that then seemed only common sense. We did not walk on the west side of Eighth Avenue
between sunset and sun rise and avoided Ninth Avenue altogether if possible because of a gang of
teenaged bashers who roamed the neighborhood. Walking to the Eagle or Spike, we either
walked north up West Street or west along 23rd Street until Twelfth Avenue and then south again.
It took both courage and community organizing for Chelsea to become as welcoming of gays as it
The Chelsea Gay Association, (CGA) was the first gay and lesbian neighborhood group, recalls
Burt Lazarin, now clinical director of Identity House, one of the nation's first gay peer counseling
organizations based in the neighborhood. Arthur Goodman, a veteran gay activist who lived in the
apartment on West 21st Street where he grew up, was happy to see that more gay people were
moving into Chelsea. He was convinced that it was important for the gays and lesbians of Chelsea
to also get together and organize a presence in the neighborhood, just as so many other block and
tenant associations had done. Using traditional community organizing methods, he placed notices
up around the neighborhood in Spanish and English announcing a meeting to form a gay
neighborhood association. The first meeting held at St. Peter's Church on West 20th Street in
September, 1977 attracted 80 men and women.
CGA never had a formal structure, but was run by a steering committee, without elected officers.
Decisions were made by consensus -- foreshadowing ACT UP by more than a decade.
Spokespersons were designated as needed for projects or events. Initially, the goal was to get our
members to join other neighborhood groups as openly gay people in order to help build political
alliances for purposes like getting a gay rights bill passed in the City Council.
Beginning in 1978 on its first anniversary, CGA held a block party and "closet sale" which became
an annual event, the first large organized public gay presence in Chelsea. CGA invited all gay
community organizations to set up tables at the fair. This gave visibility to the neighborhood's
gays and lesbians and served as a focal point for other political and community organizing.
As early as 1976, gay activist David Rothenberg had initiated a dialogue between members of the
Village gay community and representatives of the 6th Precinct in order to sensitize police officers
serving the city's largest gay neighborhood. In 1977, CGA followed David's lead and began to
meet with officers at Chelsea's 10th Precinct to do sensitivity trainings about working with lesbians
and gay men. I was one of those who, every other week on Saturday mornings, met with groups
of officers who were bored, or indifferent. Clearly, they attended our sessions because they were
ordered to. Sometimes the officers were rude, condescending or even overtly bigoted, and CGA
had similarly mixed results with different precinct commanders and community relations officers.
When we felt our concerns were not being taken seriously, we organized telephone barrages
badgering both the local precinct and police headquarters until we got satisfaction.
By summer of 1978, the growth in anti-gay harassment and violence along Ninth and Tenth
Avenues and along West Street between 14th and 23rd Streets was putting a chill -- but no halt --
to gay social life that centered around the bars and clubs. There had been little police response to
the attacks, despite CGA's pleas for police protection. Out of this indifference was born a
grandparent of the short-lived Pink Panthers. It was at this time that CGA began it's anti-violence
Louie Weingarden, a Chelsea musician and opera composer well known in the leather community,
had a good friend hospitalized after being beaten by homophobic kids on his way to the Spike.
Louie felt that since the police were not doing anything to protect us, we had to take matters into
our own hands, and a gay vigilante group, SMASH (Society to Make America Safe for
Homosexuals) was born. We consisted of only six or seven individuals, all leather men, fed up
with being victims in our own neighborhoods. My lover, Phil Ryan, wrote a press release
announcing the formation of SMASH and that we were going to patrol the streets of the West
Village and Chelsea to protect gay men. GaysWeek carried the story, so did The Villager and
The Chelsea Clinton News. SMASH was at first, a smoke and mirrors operation to attract
attention to the problem.
But Louie did not believe public relations alone was a sufficient response to the gay bashings. So
we began "homopatrols" from the safety of a car with five leather men, all ready to scare off any
thugs harassing gays on the street. One night, Louie had the idea to have a decoy walk alone
from the Anvil on 14th Street to the Spike on 21st Street and to have us follow behind. I drove the
Sure enough, an hour later along West Street, our decoy was jumped by three local teenagers.
But before they could do any harm, the car doors flew open and out jumped the men in full
leather, punching and knocking around the thugs, delivering the message if they continued to
attack gays, we were ready. The decoy ploy was repeated only twice in the next two weeks,
before the community relations officer of the 10th Precinct telephoned Louie, to report that the
leaders of the three gangs who lived in the nearby projects wanted a truce. Louie, responded,
"No way. Just tell them to stop attacking gay men and they will have nothing to worry about. If
they don't stop they have to be willing to face the consequences. We have nothing else to say."
For the rest of that summer, the attacks ceased.
In 1980, Louie opened up a combination boot store and homoertoic art gallery called Stompers
on West 4thStreet in the Village. His first exhibit was Tom of Finland's drawings. For the opening
of the show, Louie arranged that Tom be greeted at Kennedy Airport by an "honor guard" of a
dozen Leathermen on their motorcycles. After clearing Customs, Tom was escorted to the buddy
seat of the lead cycle and taken directly from the airport to the opening at Stompers. Talk about a
hot entrance for a short, round, impish, older guy! We were all delighted by the drama.
In May of 1980, in response to a new rash of anti-gay beatings in the neighborhood, CGA called a
community forum, which was attended not only by lesbians and gay men, but other Chelsea
residents as well. A meeting was called just for gays followed in July, out of which a violence
hotline and court monitoring program were initiated. In addition, other neighborhood gay and
lesbian therapists and I volunteered to provide free crisis counseling to victims of anti-lesbian or
anti-gay violence. By 1982, this subgroup of CGA became a separate group that evolved to
become the NYC Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. The final CGA street fair was held in
1983 and CGA phased out shortly afterwards as its members put their energies into other projects
since CGA had successfully accomplished its goals of establishing an organized gay presence in
The AVP is not Chelsea Gay Association's only contribution. Around the same time gays began to
become involved in Community Board #7 -- as well as in the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club.
Tom Duane was an early and active member of CGA, but also an activist on behalf of all of
Chelsea. In 1991, the night that Tom won the Democratic nomination for City Council which was
tantamount to being elected, the party flowed out of his election headquarters onto Eighth
Avenue, and the occasion felt like a lesbian and gay coming of age. At last we were to have one
of our own as an elected representative. Today, Chelsea is internationally recognized as the heart
of New York's gay community. Gay Men's Health Crisis, the world's first and largest AIDS
service organization found its first home in the early 1980s on West 22ndStreet in Chelsea and
through several expansions it has remained in the neighborhood. A Different Light Bookstore's
move from its West Village origins into a more spacious venue on West 19th Street in 1993
signaled to many Chelsea's coming of age. The AVP has posted warnings that gang attacks on gay
men leaving clubs and bars in Chelsea is on the rise both in number and severity. Does anyone
care to resurrect SMASH?
Michael Shernoff, MSW is a writer and psychotherapist in private practice in Chelsea. He can be
contacted either at his web site http://members.aol.com/therapysvc or via e mail at