“Pier Groups”: When the New York Waterfront Was All About Gay Sex and Art

In the 1940s, Manhattan was home to one of the largest ports in the world. By the 1960s, though, the advent of container shipping and improved air transport devastated the industry. A decade later, dilapidated Beaux Art warehouses littered the West Side Highway. Abandoned by their owners, these decaying structures were soon reclaimed by another group of New Yorkers: Celebrating their newfound freedom, gay men transformed the piers into a thriving sexual playground.

In his new book, Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront, art historian Jonathan Weinberg revisits this heady era, using photos, interviews, artwork, and literary texts to illustrate how these spots were not only a backdrop for fornicating and nude sunbathing, but also a fertile incubator for experimental art.

Leonard Fink, Self-Portrait, Cat Walk, Pier 46, 1979. Collection of the LGBT Community Center National History Archive.

Leonard Fink

Leonard Fink, Self-Portrait, Cat Walk, Pier 46, 1979. Collection of the LGBT Community Center National History Archive.

A professor at the Yale School of Art, Weinberg grew up in New York. His mother worked at the New School, and the West Village of the 1970s was his milieu. “When I was a teenager it never penetrated my brain that I was in the midst of this big gay world,” he tells NewNowNext. “But I came out [in 1976] when I was 19, so summers during college we’d hit the bars on Christopher Street and then go out to the piers.” On warm nights, the waterfront was the place to meet up with friends—and tricks.

Weinberg is also an avid painter, and during the day he’d cross the highway and paint the crumbling warehouses. “I never actually had sex on the piers,” he says with a sheepish laugh. “I don’t really like outdoors sex. It just wasn’t my thing. But it was sexy. And beautiful.”

It’s hard to imagine how dysfunctional New York was then: An elevated section of the West Side Highway collapsed in 1973, and sat there for years while the city figured out what to do with it. It was technically trespassing, but Weinberg—and many others—would go down into it.

Andreas Sterzing, David Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo, 1983. © Andreas Sterzing. Reproduced with permission of P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.

Andreas Sterzing

Andreas Sterzing, David Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo, 1983. © Andreas Sterzing. Reproduced with permission of P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.

“Ivan Galati, a protégé of Jack Smith, talked about the idea of ‘New York Pompeii.’” Weinberg says. “Yes, there are the famous erotic murals. But there’s also something incredibly beautiful about the ruins—this sense that things had broken down. I think what united the artists at the piers with the gay subcultures there is that this was a space where the normal controls had broken down.”

Weinberg first explored the piers’ subculture in 2012 with a gallery show at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, where he’s currently curating “Art After Stonewall: 1969-89.” Younger people, he says, can’t seem to fathom what his generation got up to. “We weren’t so fearful then. And we were street-savvy.”

Marion Scemama, David Wojnarowicz Mural, Pier 28, 1983. © Marion Scemama. Reproduced with permission of P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.

Marion Scemama

Marion Scemama, David Wojnarowicz Mural, Pier 28, 1983. © Marion Scemama. Reproduced with permission of P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.

But there was a dark side to the piers, too. “It was dangerous—the Gay Activist Alliance was worried about guys getting mugged or attacked,” Weinberg recalls. “But at the same time they didn’t want the police to come and arrest people.” Graffiti in the warehouses warned arrivals of possible peril. One habitué of the docks printed a warehouse “newsletter” with information about recent crimes.

“Someone recently was telling me how great it was that gay men had found a ‘safe space’ back then,” says Weinberg. “But this was not a safe space. It was dangerous. And there were many guys there who were deeply in the closet—some married, living in New Jersey. When you see someone naked sunbathing on the piers during the day, that’s not necessarily the same group who was coming back at night.”

The waterfront attracted all different types, for all different kinds of reasons: gay men of every stripe, young people of color, trans women, homeless people, junkies, prostitutes. It also tempted artists, drawn to the undisturbed workspace and virgin wallspace. Between 1971 and 1983, the interiors of the piers’ run-down terminals featured a diverse range of installations, photography, murals, and site-specific performances. Peter Hujar and Arthur Tress shot nudes in the warehouses. David Wojnarowicz and Tava used them as their canvases.

Frank Hallam, Tava, Pier 46, 1979. Private collection.

Frank Hallam

Frank Hallam, Tava, Pier 46, 1979. Private collection.

“Some of the most beautiful images of the piers were done by people trying to capture the eroticism of it, to retain some record of the era,” says Weinberg. “They weren’t attempting to be ‘art.’”

But not all the artists who frequented the docks were gay: Vito Acconci, who was straight, would stand on the end of Pier 17 at 1 a.m., inviting strangers to come close so he could whisper a secret they could blackmail him with later. And it was in a Pier 52 warehouse in 1975 that Gordon Matta-Clark made one of his best-known “building cuts,” slicing sections of the floor and ceiling to let the sun shine down on the water below. Calling it an “indoor water park,” Matta-Clark said he wanted the space to “create a joyous situation.” The film he took to document his process has left one of the only records we have of his work—or of the piers themselves.

Unknown photographer, Pier 17, North River, 1951. Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives.

NYC Municipal Archives.

Unknown photographer, Pier 17, North River, 1951.

Not everyone was happy the piers were being “discovered”: Regulars were incensed when Matta-Clark closed off Pier 52 while he worked on Day’s End. There was eventually an opening, but then the police shut the whole thing down. (The regulars returned almost immediately.) Pretty soon, fashion photographers were going down to the waterfront with models. In 1979, Arch Brown released Pier Groups, a gay porn film partly shot in a West Side warehouse. Weinberg named his book after it.

Even while the piers were a sexual no-man’s-land, many were aware they wouldn’t be for long; artists were trying to capture a moment they knew couldn’t last. With the rise of HIV came a crackdown on public sex. The carefree culture of the piers was eclipsed by a new, accusatory darkness, and Hujar and Wojnarowicz’s photographs were used as Exhibit A. “It was like, ‘Look, these are guys getting AIDS,’” Weinberg recalls. “I was very upset with the way these images were used. I wanted to write a book that changed that narrative.”

Andreas Sterzing, Group Portrait of Artists, Pier 34, 1983. © Andreas Sterzing.

Andreas Sterzing

Andreas Sterzing, Group Portrait of Artists, Pier 34, 1983. © Andreas Sterzing.

Piecing together the history and culture of an illicit scene from 50 years ago is no small feat, especially when many voices from that era were silenced by AIDS. But the toughest part of Weinberg’s research was getting information on the buildings themselves. “I wish I was a better detective,” he says. “It was hard to reconstruct what an actual building looked like or what room David Wojnarowicz was in. Or what pier it was on. People would tell me, ‘Oh, I just went to the sex pier.’”

It’s only through the lens of time that the significance of what was happening can be understood. Most of the guys cruising the warehouses didn’t know they were looking at a Wojnarowicz or a Matta-Clark. Or even who they were.

Efrain Gonzalez, Pier 45, ca. 1985. © Efrain Gonzalez.

Efrain Gonzalez

Efrain Gonzalez, Pier 45, ca. 1985. © Efrain Gonzalez.

“It’s funny, we all have different lenses,” says Weinberg. “I interviewed a straight guy who told me, “When I looked at those buildings I didn’t see a queer subculture. I saw all the lost jobs.”

Today, nearly half a century later, the West Side is home to some of New York’s toniest neighborhoods, including the Meatpacking District and Hudson Yards. Sometimes, Weinberg admits, it feels like it was all a fantasy. “Was there a time when people were totally naked in the middle of Manhattan? It seems so unimaginable now.”

Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront (Penn State Press, $34.95) is out now.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.

@ItsDanAvery


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