Chelsea’s Human Bondage

Written by Kimberly Lightbody on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.



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 28
th 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 to West 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 and others 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 Project
, the 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.”

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