Fun amidst ruin
After the decline of the shipping industry in New York City, the once thriving piers stood empty in ruin. Neglected and abandoned, the piers found new life as the scene of artistic and sexual inhibition for New York's gay men.
From the 70s to the early 80s the piers acted as safe havens where gay men could socialize and sunbathe, liberated of harassment, persecution and most of their clothes.
Although dirty, crime-ridden and completely structurally unsound, some photographs of the piers in their heyday look idyllic. These new found queer spaces were ripe for the sexual expression and self-fulfillment that bloomed in 1970s New York, after Stonewall but before the AIDS epidemic.
All of these photographs we owe to Leonard Fink, gay activist and chronicler of gay life along West Street. Although he did not share the vast majority of his photographs with anyone during his lifetime, Fink's collection, now held at The Center, serves as an unprecedented resource documenting the activities of gay men in and around the piers at the end of Christopher Street.
Leonard Fink joyously ignored the KEEP OUT signs painted across much of the piers. By taking his camera with him he captured a vital part of New York's gay history that would have otherwise faded into memory.
Leonard Fink Explores the Pier by Leonard FinkThe Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center
Although an amateur, Fink was capable of artistic composition in his photographs. His self-portraits, in his trademark gym socks, amid decaying wrought iron capture the beauty of industrial decline.
Cruising the chaos
Important to the gay scene at the piers, Fink also captured the cruising that went on inside the precarious warehouses that remained standing. Sometimes with humor, sometimes with tenderness, sometimes during eye-watering action, Fink portrays cruising at the piers with mischievous excitement.
Model Poses Against the Pier by Leonard FinkThe Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center
Leonard Fink Poses in Rubble by Leonard FinkThe Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center
Although a lot of his images are fun and outrageous, Fink retained a sense of activism in his photographs. Here Fink knowingly photographs himself with militant graffiti, suggesting that frequenting the piers was an act of defiance.
Despite community members protesting the rebuilding of the piers in the 1990s, this once bustling area along West Street ceased to be a site of gay life from then on. But thanks to Leonard Fink we can remember the glory, the outrageousness and even the tenderness only the piers at that time could offer.
Curated by G.D.M Benson
Bibliography: Leonard Fink: Making a Scene, Jonathan Weinberg