On the Waterfront

The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art takes a look at the photography born from A generation of gay men cruising at the piers.
April 06, 2012

In Depression-era New York, Public Works began a construction project known as the West Side Elevated Highway to alleviate the congested traffic on Manhattan’s West Side waterfront. Completed in 1951, the freeway ran from lower Manhattan along the Hudson River to 72nd Street. By 1973, though, the highway was considered obsolete, and when a gravel hauler carrying 30 tons of asphalt meant for repairing the highway crashed through the dilapidated structure at 14th Street, the road was officially shut down. The decaying highway that remained, as well as the nearby piers, also in a state of disrepair, soon became one of New York’s most well-known places for cruising.

Open now at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art is The Piers: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront, an exhibition of more than 70 works illustrating the often-shadowy personal world of public cruising and how it manifested at the piers. The exhibition includes works from Vito Acconci (Untitled Project for Pier 17), Gordon Matta-Clark (Day’s End) and David Wojnarowicz (Arthur Rimbaud in New York), which are alongside works by lesser-known artists of the day such as Leonard Fink, Frank Hallam, Lee Snider and Rich Wandel.

Andreas Sterzing, Pier 34-1215 Luis Frangella Mural, 1983

Uzi Parnes, an artist long involved in the downtown queer art scene and who photographed Jack Smith as his alter ego, Sinbad Glick, with the piers as backdrop, says that for him the draw was the beauty of the piers’ degeneration. “[The] aspect of the ruins intrigued me,” the 57-year-old East Village resident notes. Parnes says he would jog along the Elevated Highway before it was torn down in 1989, and came up with a series of names for the piers he saw guys entering and exiting. “‘The Cathedral,’ ‘The Beach Club,’ et cetera, and in 1978 [I] used ‘The Cathedral’ as well as the West Side Highway as background in the Super 8 film DM/EB,” the artist explains.

Frank Hallam, Sunners, Pier 51 (Exterior from Interior), 1978

Jonathan Weinberg, the Harvard-educated art historian who curated the Leslie-Lohman exhibit, notes that the collapse of the shipping industry in New York in the 1960s also played a role in the piers’ iconic status in gay culture. “[It] left the piers in a state of decay and abandonment,” the curator, who grew up in the West Village, notes. “Gay men found the waterfront to be a wonderful place to sunbathe and have sex that was close at hand,” Weinberg expounds. “They did not have to go to Fire Island or Jones Beach—it was right in their own backyard.” There was an aspect of beauty to the atrophy of the piers, he says, and the danger associated with the urban blight only added to the thrill of cruising there. He’s quick to point out, though, that cruising at the waterfront wasn’t an invention of that time period. “Men had been cruising the waterfront since at least the 19th century,” he says, and points to a passage from Moby Dick to prove his point.

Andreas Sterzing, Pier 34-1211 Mike Bidlo and David Wojnarowicz (Luis Frangella Murial in Background), 1983

Of course, the piers weren’t just cruising spots for the avant-garde. ’Mos from all walks of life warmly recall the days before the piers were transformed into the family-friendly greenway they are today. “I have some [fond memories] from before most of your readers were born,” laughs Splash general manager Greg Jones. “Before they were nice parks, they were just broken-down cruising areas.”

“I’d heard many legendary stories about the cruising and sex that used to go on [at the piers],” recalls an anonymous cruiser, who asserts that despite the piers’ new look, cruising still happens there. But another cruiser, who says his first experience getting busy at the piers was last fall, questions whether in-person cruising happens all that frequently anymore, anywhere. “Why bother when you have Manhunt and Grindr on your phone? You can be at Starbucks and cruising for your next trick at the same time.”

Weinberg has a less cynical view of contemporary hookup methods. He suggests that the flourish of art and culture that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s was never really meant to be long-term. “Many of the photographers in the exhibit were aware that the pier scene was unusual and knew that it would not last. They were driven to record what they saw.”

The Piers: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront, at The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 26 Wooster St (btwn Grand/Canal Sts) is open now through July 7, Tues–Sats, noon–6pm; free. Visit www.leslielohman.org for more info.