Chelsea’s Human Bondage

Hundreds of bare asses were visible walking down West 28th Street this past Sunday. Mesh shirts, studded harnesses, riding boots and backs covered in elaborate tattoos were de rigueur. Despite the heat and humidity, one man wore a gas mask. Another walked around on stilts.

It was the 15th Annual Folsom Street East festival, a day of raucous revelry for New York’s leather, fetish and kink community, and, typically, it was a somewhat clandestine affair. Although an estimated 10,000 sexual “deviants” gather on West 28th Street between 10th and 11th avenues to celebrate sexual diversity with nipples out and heads held high as the kickoff to the city’s annual Gay Pride celebrations, this year there was a new addition to the festival: the hundreds of people who stood on the newly opened second phase of the elevated High Line park, gawking down.

“Who wants to freak people out on the High Line?” the stage announcer, wearing leather chaps (with nothing underneath) and an officer’s cap, said. It was just one of the many moments during Folsom’s three-hour show of stunts, drag queens and music performances that attempted to taunt the onlookers. “Say hi to the High Line, everybody!”

For the most part, the Folsom Street East (FSE) attendees didn’t mind the tourists who were gaping, pointing and taking pictures from up above. This reporter spoke to many out for a stroll along the newly opened second section, which stretches toWest 30th Street, and most found it humorous. But some of the participants and organizers of the annual event recognized that their new audience wasn’t simply a laughing matter: It was a dire warning, a sign of changes to come.

Ever since the first section of the High Line Park opened in 2009 in the Meatpacking District, snaking its way into Chelsea, the area has become a developers’ playground. Once an industrial neighborhood full of warehouses and garages, the area is now attracting a number of new residential high-rise buildings and posh restaurants.

“New York seems to be pulling back and becoming a bit more gentrified and mainstream,” Devin MacLachlan, the president of FSE’s board of directors, said. “You take a Saturday morning walk through the West Village, and you’re bombarded with strollers. The environment of the whole city is changing.”

Gentrification has become increasingly evident in Chelsea—and threatens to endanger the leather community’s biggest outdoor celebration. While The Friends of The High Line, the non-profit organization that operates and maintains the public park, was accommodating of the festivities—making its West 28th Street staircase exit-only and placing staff around to guide visitors—MacLachlan said that the rest of the neighborhood was a bit more difficult, especially the aRt luxury condominiums located at 540 W. 28th St.

“The manager has been less than cooperative,” MacLachlan said. “We obviously want to partner with people that live there, but I can only do so much, considering the demographic.”

According to MacLachlan, the building manager didn’t want anything in front of the aRt building, even though FSE’s permit meant that it controlled the entire street and sidewalks. When asked about the situation, the aRt building management declined to comment.

“They don’t want to endorse us; they don’t want to condemn us,” explained Susan Wright, the media coordinator for FSE.

The city showed a similar attitude. MacLachlan said that Folsom had a more difficult time than usual obtaining a permit this year, and had to deal with a number of bureaucratic roadblocks. Although FSE organizers feel safe for 2012, MacLachlan, Wright andothers involved with the festival worry that they’ll have to move their location for the following year.

It wouldn’t be the first time. The festival, which is named after the original Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, used to be held in the Meatpacking District but was forced to move when that area became more and more developed and the area’s famed leather bars closed down. The festival then went to West 28th Street where the Eagle, a popular leather bar, is located. That made the move easier, Wright said, because so many Folsom attendees also frequent the Eagle. But now the festival might be forced to find a new home once again.

“Personally, instead of moving all the time, I think they should just say, ‘We were here. We have a great following and if you can’t deal with it, tough,’” said Derek Danton, owner of the Eagle. “Because this will happen again. Every inch of New York City is going to be gentrified.”

But latex and leather dog masks don’t quite fit the image that city planners have envisioned for West Chelsea. It’s not just the High Line and the new residential high rises; Mayor Bloomberg’s massive redevelopment plan for Hudson Yards a few blocks north would convert the entire area into an upscale business district. And with the rich moving in, the “personable pervs,” as the organizers of FSE lovingly call their cohort, will probably have to move out.

The situation is strikingly similar to the shutdown of Chelsea nightclubs in the West 20s—particularly along West 27th Street—that were closed after a series of raids in 2007 and the support of Community Board 4. The riotous nightlife that once thrived on Club Row has been replaced with new condos and a growing number of families.

The history of the Folsom Street East Festival isn’t as sinister—MacLachlan said that it’s never had any problems with the police or the city—but FSE is still anticipating pushback from its new neighbors.

Wright was more sanguine. “If the process happens slowly and more naturally, then you have time to work with everyone,” Wright said. “It could be that we just work with neighbors in the area. I’m hoping that’s what happens.”

To outsiders of the leather community, however, the sight of men flogging one another isn’t easy to become accustomed to. As the audience on the High Line demonstrated, leather, fetish and S&M makes most people uncomfortable—and sometimes visibly disgusted.

“Weirdos,” one passerby commented. “So gross,” said another.

“Even as a New Yorker, it’s still weird,” said one woman, who wished to remain anonymous.

The leather community is used to these kinds of judgments, and it has created movements to raise awareness and fight against prejudice. The festival is one such way of trying to gain acceptance. In fact, the $10 suggested entrance fee also raises money for charity and over the years has contributed to the Anti-Violence Projectthe National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and The Center, New York’s LGBT Community Center.

“There’s still so much persecution and discrimination,” said Wright, who is also a spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. “We have to be visible so that people realize we are just part of the community. We are New Yorkers.”

Wright and MacLachlan both swore that FSE, even if it was forced to move locations, would not be shutdown. The event is too important for their community.

“We are a large subculture in New York City,” Wright said. “We need to be able to gather. Just like Puerto Ricans get their day. This is our day.”

Article originally appeared in the NY Press and the Chelsea Clinton News. Link here.

 

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