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Christopher Street – Walk on the Wild Side|
by Robert Heide
© April 2014, Robert Heide
One of the most famous and traveled intersections in New York City, and certainly in Greenwich Village, is Christopher Street at Sheridan Square. Both the uptown and downtown sides of the IRT subway feature mosaic signs on the walls of the platforms that read in big letters CHRISTOPHER ST and just below that SHERIDAN SQ. At Seventh Avenue South at Sheridan Square the main arteries that meet are Christopher Street, Washington Place which includes a short stretch named Dave Van Ronk Way, and West Fourth Street (Grove Street comes through here as well) and this is the central point where it all begins to happen.
Of course to many, the most interesting street in the Village may be Christopher Street itself, a thoroughfare that is rich in both history and gaudiness at the same time. A lyric by Betty Comden and Adolph Green of a song with music by Leonard Bernstein entitled “Christopher Street” from the Broadway musical “Wonderful Town” states… “such interesting people live on Christopher Street” and “Here we live, here we love – this is the place for self expression.” Naturally, that sentiment comes out of a time when Greenwich Village was referred to as the “Cradle of Bohemia.” Now, I am told that a small apartment in a renovated former tenement building at 89 Christopher Street recently was rented by a couple, who both work on Wall Street for, $4,500. In the cultural revolutionary days of the 1960s and l970s, rents in that same building went for under $l00. The latest price for a top brownstone in the Village is $15 million upwards; but shop around, you may still find one for less, that is, if you have a good job, credit, and represent the new wealth of the upper one percent.
Returning to Christopher Street, where I live in an historic 1840s four story brick building, I for one still think there is a lot going on that is of “interest,” although I’m not sure you will find too many of those Comden and Green “interesting people” who come in search of finding themselves, or to live out a creative artistic lifestyle. All of that may be gone-with-the-wind as, yes the carpetbaggers have arrived to change everything, but we mustn’t cry in our beers – there is still fun to be had – but with a stiff upper lip. Where there once was a quaint coffee shop you may now find a bank – or you could try Starbuck’s on Sheridan Square.
A local streetwise character has described the short portion of Christopher Street which I call my home-base-block as “Trannie Central” referring to the disenfranchised transgender youth who often travel in from Jersey, way uptown or elsewhere, to hang out, scream, and play all night long. Boots and Saddles, which used to be a cowboy-style gay men’s bar has transformed itself into a whatnot raucous loud entertainment spot for all manner of straights, gays, and transsexual folk some of whom dress-up just like the garish Divine, John Waters’ late trash diva and belt out songs to a loud thumping disco-style beat. At other times you may find go-go boys, or whatever, or sometimes a drag may be shouting out card numbers to a crowd playing a win-for-one kind of Bingo game. This is part of the new kind of underbelly of fun and games happening on Christopher Street; don’t get me wrong – these may be the new “interesting” people. Some also can be found at the Starbucks on Sheridan Square. Recently, I had a conversation with a female-to-male transgender named Razor at Starbucks. Dressed in a black leather jacket with studs and with a royal blue Mohawk hair-do Razor, while working on his computer told me he was homeless and slept most nights on the steps of a synagogue. Razor seemed well read and intelligent and while sipping a Starbuck coffee he said to me, “Please don’t call me ‘she’!”
By the way speaking of a three-prong vortex, it should be noted that Christopher Street, West 10th Street, which was formerly called Amos Street, and Charles Street were all named after Charles Christopher Amos who was himself an heir to the trustee of the three daughters of the principle Greenwich Village landowner Sir Peter Warren, who, by 1748, had a farm of more than 300 acres. Its southern boundary was Christopher Street which, before the English showed up, had originally been the old Saponickan Indian trail. Going back in time, I recently came across a New York Guidebook called “Where It’s At” from 1973, in which I had written an article entitled “The Moon Is Always Full On Sheridan Square.” The piece was mainly focused on old time oddball characters that still haunt the Village like Maxwell Bodenheim, DeHirsch Margolies, Edna St. Vincent Milay, Eugene O’Neill, Aaron Burr, or Thomas Paine, whose plaque still adorns the outside wall of Marie’s Crisis on Grove Street.
In 1973, some of the Village characters who were then very much alive included Dick Higgens, the heir to the Wooster Steel fortune who helped create the Fluxus movement and wrote concrete poetry, Ray Johnson the collagist who called himself a Zen Scavenger, Maurice the newspaper and magazine man who resembled Walt Whitman in a white beard and with long white hair, Bambi a gay street alcoholic who ordered his Riker’s hamburgers by shouting his order out to a parking meter on Christopher Street, and Ian Orlando Macbeth who dressed in Shakespearean garb and spoke in Iambic pentameter. One of the most famous and outrageous of these was H. M. Koutoukas, who lived at 87 Christopher Street, where he wrote many camp, chamber style plays for places like the Caffe Cino. Some titles were “With Creatures Make My Way,” “Tidy Passions, or Kill, Kaleidoscope, Kill” and “Two Camps” by Koutoukas, the later presented off-Broadway on Sheridan Square at the Actors Playhouse. “Harry,” as we knew him, often wore gold lame outfits and embraced those who, like himself, were “different.” H. M Koutoukas left this world three years ago, and some who cannot forget his fool-moon-madness personality claim he is now haunting the street. However, today, what would he say about the astronomical rising rents? His was originally $40 a month. In the old days, Jerry Ragni and Jimmy Rado, who created “Hair,” were looking for Harry every day for inspiration. Jimmy is thinking of getting a Koutoukas plaque affixed to the building proclaiming his hilarious play “Christopher at Sheridan Squared.”
Christopher Street Walk
Christopher Street was known as the cruisiest street in town; but while this still is an element of the walk most gay men went away to Chelsea. Meanwhile, leather stores and tattoo parlors continue to proliferate. If you walk up or down Christopher Street as I do all the time, there is still a lot to see and do that is edifying. I think of the history as I note what is new and what has disappeared. At the corner of Christopher and Gay, I glance down the crooked street and think of Ruth McKenna who lived at number 14 with her sister and wrote a book called “My Sister Eileen” about their crazy Bohemian Village lifestyle which then became a play, a movie, and a Broadway musical called “Wonderful Town.” Further along the block is the Stonewall Inn since 1969 a focal rallying point after the riots for gays, lesbians, and transgenders and it still has its raucous party atmosphere as does the Monster across Christopher Park. Two years ago large crowds celebrated in front of the place when New York State passed the marriage equality law.
Across the Avenue is the United Cigar with its distinctive red and white sign, a landmark to be sure featured in “Next Stop Greenwich Village” and the current Inside Llewyn Davis. Passing the Country/Western bar Boots and Saddles I recalled that from the 1920s through the l960s the place was known as George Herdt’s Bar – hangout for down and outers and alcoholics. In its newer incarnation, it featured hitchin’ posts, cowboy hats, and on the wall framed sheet-music for Western hits like Gene Autry’s “Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddles” which was also on the jukebox. Not anymore. The place was practically emptied out by the AIDS crisis. Across the street is the Fat Cat, a hip swinging singles bar downstairs with bands, pool, ping pong, and a $3 cover. The beautiful white St. John’s Lutheran Church which was built in 1821 is a spiritual refuge for many. Mark, the new pastor who lives in the Church Rectory next door with his husband, has an outreach program and performs Jazz Sermons. The three-story building on the corner of Christopher and Bleecker is considered one of the oldest in the Village, built sometime between 1803 and 1808. Heading down the block Ty’s and The Hangar cater to the gay crowd blasting music directly across the street from each other. The Playwrights Sidewalk of Fame is next, in front of the Lucille Lortel Theater, previously known as The DeLys and famous for a production of “Threepenny Opera” starring Lotte Lenya.
West of Hudson, heading toward the waterfront, I remember how forgotten this section of Christopher Street and the Village once was. Joints like the Silver Dollar frequented by drag queens, back in the good old days, were a lot of tawdry fun as was the Hotel Keller Bar on the West Side highway where Norwegian and Russian sailors from the ships used to co-mingle with gay men, who also frequented the trucks and the dilapidated piers in search of whatever. Often bodies were thrown into the river, including Black Marsha, aka Marsha P. Johnson, who fought off the cops during the Stonewall Riots. Now, of course, the linear Hudson River Park is a splendid place to walk, run, bicycle, sit in the sun, or picnic on one of the new piers and enjoy the river breezes and great views of New Jersey and the Statue of Liberty.
Robert Heide is co-author with John Gilman of
“Greenwich Village – A Primo Guide to Shopping,
Eating and Making Merry in True Bohemia”
published by St. Martin’s Press.