Upper West Side Story

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AMONG THE MANY THINGS of which gay men have been accused is one, at least, that is true: that we often move into and invade somewhat impoverished neighborhoods of major cities, and lend our “queer eye” sensibility to improving them, while increasing the property values and drawing in a new population of upscale residents, who in turn displace us, the early pioneers. A case in point is one of the most prominent neighborhoods in the world today: the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York City, today a bastion of affluence and Democratic liberalism. The influx of gay men into the area in the mid-1960’s created one of the largest such communities in the world at this time. I inadvertently became part of this transformation by moving into my West Seventies apartment in 1966.

Fresh out of art school with an interior design diploma under my arm, I migrated west from my East Side men’s residence when it was sold after my first year in the City. We all had to find housing wherever we could afford it. For me, that was the “wild wild West,” as it was then jokingly called. “You’re taking your life into your own hands by going over there,” my friends admonished. But I paid them no mind: I was young and fearless, naïve, somewhat neurotic, and by no means secure with my sexual identity. I found the mandatory heterosexual roommate to support my still-closeted existence, moved into a large studio, and continued my self-imposed denial about who I was until my roommate left after seven months and I was completely on my own.

Soon after that, I began to wonder why so many young, handsome men were walking nightly against the stone wall on the park side of Central Park West between West 72nd and West 77th Streets, just a half-block from my apartment. The under-cover-of-darkness ritual baffled me, especially insofar there was nary a woman to be seen among the hundreds of men walking to and fro along—and into—the park from about eight or nine in the evening until way past midnight. It wasn’t long, of course, before I figured out what was going on, and I wanted to become part of it. I was 23; my sexual experiences to that point had been somewhat limited, and I wanted to learn more.

At first I ventured out onto the strip slowly, but before long I was following men into the Park at the West 72nd and 77th Street entrances—and even further into the section called the Ramble, a 36-acre, thickly-wooded area just north of the Lake, that had become as legendary for gay cruising as it had for bird-watching. Some came from afar, but most came from the Upper West Side—hundreds of gay men who could be found there on a hot and sultry summer’s night, silently and seductively moving in the shadows of bushes and trees, having their way with others in pairs and in groups. I was thrilled by my discovery; nonetheless, it was quite a while before I even thought of bringing someone home with me.

Clad in what would become the “gay uniform” of the 70’s, the men I encountered would be wearing a pair of Levi 501 button-fly jeans, plus a workmen’s handkerchief whose color and positioning in the left or right back pocket was meant to communicate a sexual specialty.

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