Cruising on the Collapsing Queer Horizon: Alvin Baltrop’s Pier Photographs, by Hassan Saab and Lan Wang

September 10, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

Pushed to the edge of the city, into the dilapidated Hudson River piers, outside of “civilized” Manhattan, queer men of the 70s and 80s cruised in the rubble. The ruins of the post-industrial city became an uncontrolled, non-commercial space and the site of non-reproductive gay sex. In addition to their spatial isolation from the city, the piers were also isolated culturally and temporally. Alvin Baltrop documented the cruising culture of the piers in the 1970s and 1980s through a series of grainy black and white photographs showing men lounging, reading, fucking, sucking, making art, dancing, sunbathing between rotten wood, broken glass, and rusted metal. Born in the Bronx, Baltrop was a working-class queer black man who, despite great adversity, was dedicated to documenting and preserving the ephemera of an emergent gay subculture on the piers at the historical moment that followed the Stonewall riots and preceded the devastating AIDS epidemic. For most of his lifetime, until his death in 2004,  the racist, white-dominated art establishment grossly ignored his work, and he faced many obstacles such as “inadequate exposure, representation, and funding, that many African-American artists face in the art industry.”1 Despite the rejection and the hurdles, Baltrop, successfully made a place for himself and the marginalized bodies in his photography, especially bodies of colour, in the archive and within the art historical canon. He photographed white men, Latin Americans, African Americans, migrants, poor, and homeless people. These people were rejected by their homophobic and racist society. While many cruisers came from nearby gay bars or bathhouses, a lot of Baltrop’s diverse subjects were excluded from such gay spaces and took refuge in the openness, anonymity, and accessibility that the ruined piers provided for them.2 His obsession with the piers and their frequenters led to an intimate familiarity with the subjects of his photographs: “These two kids here [having sex in a photograph], their fathers found out they were gay and threw them out of the house. At one point the piers were full of kids who had been thrown out. […] This guy was a part-time minister.  This guy was a security man. I knew these people.”3

The piers just south of Christopher Street between Greenwich Village and the meatpacking district were a cruising site long before Baltrop photographed them. By the early twentieth century, the site’s shipping terminals were the busiest section of New York’s port and were flooded by unmarried seamen and temporary workers which made this site a popular gay cruising area by the First World War.4 In the 1930s, the newly built Miller Highway further isolated the site making it a privileged cruising spot well after the Second World War. By the 1960s, the shipping terminals and industries abandoned the piers due to changes in transportation, the labour force, and migration that contributed to the economic decline and eventual obsolescence of the piers.5 This activated the nocturnal cruising territory between the trucks parked on site. By the 1970s and 1980s, the period documented by Baltrop, the policing of gay cruising in public subway stations, bathrooms, and parks, and the repeated raids of gay venues by authorities pushed the cruising territory almost entirely to the ruined waterfront.6 Baltrop’s images offer the viewer glimpses of decaying utopias at the edge of the city where time, very much like the collapsed structures, seemed to be in ruins. It is where spatial isolation, deteriorated time, disintegrated matter, flesh, and its pleasures collide into sexual possibility. We argue that by tending toward this horizon of sexual possibility, the enmeshment between bodies and ruins presented in Baltrop’s pier photographs, expresses world-making potentials through a “queer utopian memory” of cruising, community, and history.

Following the Stonewall riots of 1969, a sexually liberated queer community starts taking over Christopher Street, the main corridor to the waterfront. In 1973, after the collapse of a section of the West Side Highway, the piers at the waterfront were completely shut off from the rest of the city. The area appeared deserted, and no one wanted to go there except, of course, the queers. By appropriation, the ruined liminal landscape of the piers became “a place where gay men, trans people, and sex workers all gathered to participate in social, sexual, and political life. They provided a refuge away from NYPD surveillance, which specifically targeted low-income queer and trans people and trans people of colour.”7 The ruined space was highly libidinal after the riots. Right before the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Baltrop captured a culture of sexual possibility where, as art historian Douglas Crimp, quoted by José Esteban Muñoz, suggests, “sex was everywhere for us, and everything we wanted to venture.”8 Some of Alvin Baltrop’s pier photographs collapse the material ruination of the site onto the libidinous bodies which eroticizes the architectural ruin into a tool, décor, and temporal frame that sustain cruising practices.

The crumbling of heteronormativity at the edge of Manhattan as it deindustrialized allowed Baltrop to create images of an alternate history of the city, a conflated sedimented history of gay eroticism. This sedimentation of the erotic history of the piers throughout the 20th century gives the site a performative potential. Queer phenomenologist Sara Ahmed considers histories to be sedimented and happening through the repetition of performative gestures.9 She also argues for the performativity of objects where an object is not just a spatial entity, but it exists through what the body does with it or what it allows the body to do with it.10 Based on that, we argue for the material performativity of ruins and their erotic potential. First, architecturally, the structural deficiencies of the ruins render the spaces more appealing to cruising. Art historian Fiona Anderson suggests that, in the warehouses, “long corridors facilitated wandering; empty door frames provided peepholes; and cracked windows and broken floorboards created accidental glory holes.”11 We would like to add to that list the simultaneous openness and shielding that are afforded by the lighting and shadows, the incoherent mix of broken floorboards and falling trusses on the ground, the ragged curtains over the broken windows, and the various sizes of holes.

 

Figure 1: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (blowjob), 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

At first glance, the photograph on the previous page seems to depict a chaotic collision of metal and wood. Upon further inspection and after reading the indicative title The Piers (blowjob), amid the wreckage, two silhouettes are barely discernable where a man, on his knees, appears to be giving head to another. The intertwinement of their bodies with the decaying materials and the fragmented light blurs the distinction between body and structure, between flesh and materiality. At the same time, Baltrop’s chosen vantage point exposes the bodies all while concealing them. The ruins act as a translucent barrier that envelops the bodies as well as the camera lens in a playfully voyeuristic intimacy.

 

Figure 2: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (hole in the wall), 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

Despite the somewhat clear discernment of the body through the hole, a certain level of enmeshment still ties the body to the hole or to its potentiality. The exposed wooden beam passing across the hole seems to complete the cruiser’s leather straps outfit, as if he were wearing the wall. In addition, the naked leather-strapped body framed within the hole eroticizes the potential of the hole and its relation to the body. The photograph uses the hole as a framing device. However, within the context, the hole could be a voyeuristic peeping window or even maybe a glory hole. In that last case, the hole could be understood as an orifice that connects bodies through the wall; the hole and the wall become facilitators and integral parts of the sexual act. The layered erotic potentials of the hole would not have existed in a “straight” space outside of the ruined piers, it would have been regarded as a problem and simply patched. This photograph gives the viewer a glimpse into a queer utopia part of a larger scheme of queer world-making.

Second, materially, and temporally, ruins carry memory and potential of the ephemerality of cruising. Author Mark Turner characterizes cruising as “a practice that exploits the fluidity and multiplicity of the modern city to its advantage […] the stuff of fleeting, ephemeral moments not intended to be captured.”12 In the case of Manhattan’s dilapidated waterfront, the practice of cruising exploits anonymity and freedom of movement as well as the “vestiges of [the waterfront’s] erotic uses”13 and the dangerous lack of law enforcement. We think that the sedimentation of erotic histories upon the material ruins and the ruined space, in general, made cruising in the 1970s and 1980s in direct communication with the queer past while looking toward an imminent future of pleasure. This relation to time can be understood in terms of queer utopia as queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz theorizes it. He conceives queer utopia as – in Ernst Bloch’s terms – a concrete utopia that glances back with a forward vision and that opens up to the “not there yet”.14 We believe that cruising is an ephemeral activity that looks forward to a moment of presentness. In the context of the piers in the 70s and 80s, cruising becomes “kinkier” when the present action and its ruined site (the here and now) look back to the lustful history of the site, including the seamen and longshoremen who inhabited these spaces long before Baltrop took his photographs, which materially activates the erotic potential of the ruins themselves. At the same time, the run-down state of the space in Baltrop’s photographs directly relates to the ephemeral temporality of the cruising they depict. Outside of the piers, in the city, time is linear and centred around an expanded capitalist heteronormative reproduction. This is what Muñoz calls “straight time”. In contrast, “queer time” is a collision of temporalities that is non-reproductive, broken up, and spread out. It relates to the past through a vision of the future and refuses the presentness of straight time. That is why cruising, being ephemeral, non-linear, promiscuous, transient, often transactional, or passionate, manifests spatially in the “economically functionless and willfully nonproductive”15 ruins of the waterfront instead of a crowded street or a neighbourhood park.    The impermanent and discontinuous nature of cruising as well as the open, diverse, kinky, and unreproductive nature of gay sex exist outside of straight time’s conception of domesticity. However, a sense of domesticity can still be glimpsed in Baltrop’s photography of cruising on the piers. The ruined waterfront was home for many young homeless, mostly racialized, queer individuals who were rejected by their families and their communities. Queer time within a space of ruin allowed these youth to build their own utopia, a utopia rooted in a historical queer memory of the site and a hope for the future.

 

Figure 3: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (two men), 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

In the photograph above, two men lay naked on the rotting floorboards. This photograph showcases an intimate moment shared by two men in a supposedly public space. However, we argue that, given the transient nature of queer time in relation to cruising and the sexual culture of the piers, these men’s connection to the floorboards and the ruined landscape is much more permanent than their own one-to-one connection. There are no barriers between their skin and the rotten wood of the floorboards initiating an intimate bodily connection to the ruin. In the photo, their bodies almost merge with the floor and they look like another collapsed structural element of the architecture like the fallen trusses behind them. Their bodies belong to the ruin, it is their domesticity. Within straight time, there would have been a barrier between skin and ruin, a clear separation. However, the inter-permeability of flesh and matter captured in Baltrop’s photographs clearly indicates a performance within queer time which, with a direct connection of the photographed body to the bodies that cruised in the same space before them, opens up the image’s world-making potentials.

 

Figure 4: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (man in bondage) and The Piers (man hung in bondage), 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

Finally, ruins served as an erotic décor for the sexual activity taking place at the waterfront. For example, the photographs above depict men in bondage tied to the frail structures of the warehouse or the pier. In the photographs, their suspended bodies present as another collapsing structural element that is out of place. The connection between the bodies and the ruin is made even more explicit as the decaying structures of the space carry the men’s weights. Another way the ruin interacts with the body is by offering a stage and a backdrop for the staged bondage performance, possibly enacted for the camera. In the picture on the left, the railed elevated platform acts as a stage and structural support for this man’s bondage exhibitionism. In the other picture, the decaying corrugated metal sheets and scattered pieces of wood offer a backdrop of destruction only suitable for the staging of an extreme bondage act.

 

Figure 5: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (collapsed architecture) and The Piers (collapsed architecture, couple buttfucking), 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

These photographs above depict massive material degradation on the banks of the Hudson River. Unlike the other cruising photographs referenced in this paper, these two images are much more architecturally expressive and focus on the destruction and decay of the piers, architecture in ruination. While the two images seem to be very similar, a more attentive look at their composition and their titles reveal that even though they both showcase a collapsed architecture, the photo on the right has two men having penetrative sex in front of the ruined structure. Their bodies seem to be muffled between the wood and metal and camouflaged by the textural intensity and overwhelming composition of that decaying formation along the water. The enmeshment of body and ruin is once again present in Baltrop’s imagery eroticizing the ruin by itself, beyond its function as a cruising site. In this particular case of the emphasized architecture, Baltrop invites the viewers to cruise the photograph, to look for the sexual act muffled somewhere in the decay. The performative potential of the photograph lays in the participation of the viewer in this act of cruising from their future position looking into the past. This complicates the photo’s temporality allowing for the ephemeral queer time of the depicted act of public sex to be transferred into a multilayered queer time in the photograph.

The subjects of Baltrop’s photography all seem to dissolve into the ruined context making skin colour and race less prominent in the photograph. He also avoids self-representation most of the time. However, his work is still imbricated with his own marginalized identity as a poor working-class queer black man. His subjects were also diverse and included many racialized and homeless individuals. The importance of his blackness lies in the archival potential of his photography. The work of marginalized groups, especially people of colour, has always been disregarded for archival sourcing. In addition, there has always been a disinterest in documenting and preserving the experiences of people on the fringes. If these were archived, they would usually be considered from a white heteronormative perspective and would most probably end up being fetishizing, ethnographic or anthropological studies of these marginal experiences.

 

Figure 6: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (River Rats III), 1972-1975. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

The photograph above depicts two black men sitting naked on the edge of the water with a mass of ruins framing their bodies. Alvin brings the viewer closer to the bodies he muffled in the ruins. He gives them agency and puts them in a non-sexual yet intimate context. Their presence in this photograph would have never been documented if not for Baltrop’s photography. He offered them a futurity that was not on the horizon for them. The entire cruising culture of the piers would have been disregarded if not for Baltrop’s interest in documentation stemming from his own marginal racialized queerness. If it weren’t for Alvin Baltrop, pictures like the one below by Mapplethorpe would have been the only ones that represented black masculinity through a fetishizing white gaze. In contrast, Baltrop’s photo of a black man from behind is a sign of agency over the representation of his own first-hand experience of his racial identity.

 

Figure 7: Robert Mapplethorpe, from The Black Book, 1988. (Source: The New York Times) and Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (man leaning), n.d. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

In conclusion, Alvin Baltrop’s photographs reveal a malleable boundary between body and ruin as they spill into each other to the point of becoming indistinguishable at times. This relationship eroticizes the ruin and relates it to the cruising practices at the piers through an unreproductive and broken-down temporality. The permeability of bodies and ruined architecture allows for glimpses of utopia to emerge through the overarching photographic project of world-making.

The piers that Alvin Baltrop photographed were cumulatively cruised, decayed, permeable, porous, promiscuous, and perverse. In contrast, in the “straight” city, borders were strictly defined, no overspills allowed, routine, consumption, monogamy, and respectability all imposed upon the body. The city and its authorities largely disregarded the piers up until when the 1980s’ HIV/AIDS crisis hit the queer community and then they consequently became a site of contamination and disease. Thus, permeability was increasingly conflated with contagion, rendering the porosity of the piers unsanitary, disease-ridden, and dangerous. New York’s epidemic response demanded the repression of the queer community and their spaces in an effort to further isolate and marginalize them.  In addition, health authorities, the government, and the media all collaborated to stigmatize the community and insinuate AIDS appear to be some sort of a gay disease. The city also responded to the epidemic architecturally by destroying the ruined waterfront and restoring it into a capitalist heteronormative space like the rest of the city. The community of marginalized Latin Americans, black people, homeless individuals, migrants, sex workers and gender non-conforming folks were pushed toward the fringes again. However, this time there were no more margins, only water. The motives were not only homophobic, but they were xenophobic and racist as well. The piers were accustomed to murder, gay-bashing, and muggings. It is part of what Baltrop documented on the ruined site. The photograph below shows a murdered body picked up from the water. Despite the sexual liberation and fostered sense of community the piers hosted, it was still a dangerous site of homophobic attacks and crimes especially with practically no presence of law enforcement in that liminal space.

 

Figure 8: Alvin Baltrop, Untitled, 1975-1986. (Source: Exile Gallery)

 

Liberal gay people, mostly cisgender men, who already conformed to straight time through an exclusionary cishomonormativity circumvented such depredation and they were unwilling to help the communities on the piers. Using trans activist Sylvia Rivera’s terms, the pier community members and their dwellings were, “sweep[ed], like we’re trash.”16 This necessitated the community to self-organize and resist the destruction and gentrification of their acquired territory. Group resistance in the 1990s led by marginalized folks like Marsha P. Johnson (photographed by Baltrop on the next page) and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women of colour who opposed the gentrification of the waterfront and contributed to the creation of a community around AIDS awareness, practices of care, and cultural projects inspired by their environment. Unfortunately, in the 1990s, the plans to sanitize and gentrify the waterfront went through, breaking up and displacing a whole community.

 

Figure 9: Alvin Baltrop, Marsha P. Johnson, 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz)

 

For Baltrop, the construction and opening of the new waterfront with its park and shiny buildings would recall a sense of loss similar to when he captured one of the piers’ buildings ablaze (pictured on the next page). The destruction and dismantling of the ruins signified a loss of community full of pleasure, hope, and queer potentials. Despite the gentrification of this site, queerness persists through Baltrop’s charmingly haunting photographs and his documentation of the edge of the city offers glimpses into queer utopias that may guide our queerness today.

 

Figure 10: Alvin Baltrop, Untitled, 1975-1986. (Source: Artforum)

 

The post-Stonewall, pre-HIV/AIDS epidemic historical moment in which Alvin Baltrop took his pier photographs can be understood in the homophobic Pompeii-esque tale of unbound sexual liberation preceding the downfall and the inevitable decay. However, we think that Baltrop’s photographs activate the potentials and pleasures of looking toward the past with a hopeful outlook onto the future without any consideration of the pre-AIDS moment, just like when Alvin documented a striving sexual culture on the ruined edge of the city.

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Hassan Saab and Lan Wang are undergraduate students at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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1 Leslie Wooden, “Alvin Baltrop: Queer Photography as a ‘Counter Practice’ in the Archive,” SQS – Suomen Queer-Tutkimuksen Seuran Lehti 14 (2021): 103.

Wooden, 104.

3 David Hirsh, “Piers: Alvin Baltrop, The Bar, 2nd Ave at 4th St, April 17-May 8,” New York Native, May 11, 1992.

4 George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, (New York: BasicBooks, 1994), 136.

5 Fiona Anderson, Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 135.

6 Anderson, 137.

7 Grace Dunham, “Out of Obscurity: Trans Resistance 1969–2016,” in Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, eds. Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017), 91.

8 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 33.

9 Sara Ahmed, “Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12, no. 4 (2006): 553.

10 Ahmed, 550.

11 Anderson, 138.

12 Mark Turner, Backwards Glances: Cruising Queer Streets in London and New York, (London: Reaktion, 2003), 9–10.

13 Anderson, 13.

14 Muñoz, 39.

15 Anderson, 44.

16 Iván López Munuera, “Lands of Contagion,” e-flux Journal (November 2020), https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/sick-architecture/363717/lands-of-contagion/.

 

Additional References

Crimp, Douglas. “Alvin Baltrop: Pier Photographs, 1975-1986.” Artforum International 46, no. 6 (2008): 262.

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