Folsom Street Blues
Since 1997, New York’s BDSM society has turned out in an outlandish display of flesh, leather, bondage apparel and more than a few jock straps to celebrate the annual Folsom Street East Festival. Inspired by the Folstom Street Fair in San Francisco (the third largest outdoor spectator event of any kind in California), New York’s smaller version of the sex-positive event has occupied the block of West 28th street between 10th and 11th avenues, suitably in the "gay-friendly" neighborhood of Chelsea. There is an initial intimidation to the senses despite it’s warm welcome to the curious and the public. You are given ample warning that you will see almost nude revelers, kinky costumes, displays of submission, sadomasochism accessories, role play, bondage demonstrations and abundance of leather – all of which could border on offensive to the more conservative community.
For this photographer, I found an inviting atmosphere of acceptance to document the culture, but something didn’t sit right. The street itself was, literally, being beaten down visually by the city of New York’s ongoing decimation of the underground subcultures that made it so interesting in the first place. The proof was in the pudding as I glared at the shells of condo towers being erected basically everywhere I looked. As the Bloomberg administration continually and aggressively destroy the New York of old, turning quaint areas of Manhattan into a frightfully bland glass and steel condo-plex all the way to Williamsburg developing into New-Soho and the almost obscene disregard to Coney Island’s rustic and colorful past.
Folsom Street is on the list of potentials to shape up and ship out in Bloomberg’s New-New York. With the second phase of the Highline now open, it now cuts right above the festival, where out of towners gawk and point at ‘those weirdo’s’. Ironically the tourists are the ones who look out of place – all of them more generously proportioned, consulting fold out maps and wondering how the hell they happened on a Village People video shoot. Peppered into the chaos is a couple of vocal fans of the Bible – being good Christians and all – sending a flurry of damnation reigning down on the crowd below.
In an interview in Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, a resident of the +ART condo-plex noted;
"The primary issue is the zero access to the building without walking through the fair itself where lewd conduct and nudity isn’t uncommon. Those with children find it particularly difficult."
Where most would contest that if you move to Chelsea you better live with the gay and sex positive population, it’s now a one sided argument. The celebration of these lifestyles, whether the gay friendly bars or the Folsom Festival itself, are making way for things more in tune with what upper class suburbanites enjoy – complete with baby strollers. The LGBT community has always had a tough time to positively proclaim their sexuality or lifestyle in public without getting the finger pointed at them, now withstanding a brand new struggle based on excessive over development.
Folsom Street East is yet another tradition of The Big Apple prone to be shunted around and ultimately sent packing. As Chelsea becomes a strip mall of high rises with a Duane Reade, 7-11 and Pinkberry on every corner, it reflects a growing concern of many of the people who came to the city to find a greatness, an edge, a respite from shopping mall style stores and a bit of the grit has made way for a very pedestrian experience. Sure it’s not the NY of The Warriors or Taxi Driver – most no doubt prefer to get home sans a mugging – but when things like Folsom Street East become signaled out as objectionable, in a city where the mayor participates in the Gay Pride march yet oversees the squeezing out of communities and cultures, it reeks of something a little more than disappointment.