My new essay in the Boston Phoenix looks at the "thrillingly strange combinations" of vibrant city life and the role of the gay community in keeping that energy alive. An excerpt:
Last year, I visited a porn shop in Greenwich Village, and I've been thinking about it ever since. I found it near the end of Christopher Street, past the club-kid clothing stores and within sight of the Hudson River. This particular shop included a downstairs area where gay men met for sexual encounters in closet-size video-screening rooms. I'd seen this feature in other shops, but I was struck by the simplicity of the layout here: two symmetrical rows of cubicles, all opening onto a wide, dimly lit corridor. Other "boothstores" have a more haphazard layout, favoring lots of dark corners and no vantage point from which to take in the entire store. Here, one could stand near the foot of the stairs and see it all. Some doors were closed (occupied?), some were ajar, and some were almost wide open, spilling out that syntho-music found only in porn videos and employee-training films. There was a steady traffic of men entering and leaving booths, and the sense that every movement in the public area was being watched by dozens of eyes.
It was a city street.
In fact, it was a textbook illustration of the best kind of city street. And the textbook is Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, written in 1961 and probably the most influential work on urban planning from the past century. Consider this passage: "A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people's determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around." Her book never mentions sex clubs, but Jacobs perfectly described the dynamics I saw at that boothstore — at least the boothstore that I remember now, which I admit may be a sanitized version of the real thing.