JULIUS'S SHEER POWER is just unsettling. It starts with the 22-year-old's evident beauty--the bright smile, the cherub-like innocence of his round face, his smooth, dark skin and baby dreads--all of which work alongside a sharp, speedy mind and a disarming charm to concoct a potent, volatile brew. His physicality is unquestionably male--he's nearly six feet tall, with square shoulders and rounded if unsculpted musculature that he shows off in tight shirts and tank tops. But he wields his manhood in an overtly feminine way; where other guys strut, Julius swishes. And this recasting of male form in female style creates a gender play that's more take-no-shit diva than nelly boy. Julius is cut out for big things and knows as much. But there's no telling exactly what the nature of his large-scale acts will be on any given day--he's equally capable of stunning achievement and devastating self-destruction.
When I met Julius, he was one of a group of transient queer youth crashing in a little white house at the northern end of Crystal Street in Brooklyn's rough-and-tumble East New York neighborhood. He was confused about many things in his emotional life at the time, but on one thing he was clear: he didn't fit in. "I'm always dressed up like, you can tell that child's a faggot from a mile away," he sighs. "From the way I walk, you can just tell."
The old, two-story fixer-upper on Crystal Street has a warm hominess that mitigates the swirling chaos it often hosts. The living room and kitchen are splashed with bright, bold, defiant colors--oranges, yellows, reds--and a giant mural depicting an underwater wonderland covers a long stretch of wall connecting the two big open spaces. Beadwork designs of moons and seascapes cover the cabinets. The bedrooms upstairs are cramped, sure, but also cozy. The basement's been converted into a comfortable but cluttered office, its walls lined with books and posters bearing the slogans of social change movements.
Crystal Street is a typical East New York block. Small one- and two-story homes sit cheek-by-jowl along either side of the street, some with their few feet of front yard fenced off in a vague nod at suburbia, others with short, blunted stoops that dump straight out onto the sidewalk. Squat, brown apartment complexes are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, their facades spotted by window-unit air conditioners, fire escapes zigzagging up and down the front and back. Corner stores, universally known as bodegas by New Yorkers, mark most major intersections, though here their shelves are crammed only with dried goods and potato chips and snack cakes rather than fresh fruits, and the fridge is stocked with tallboys of beer rather than with protein shakes. Both the homes and the apartment buildings are uneven. A line of dilapidated apartment complexes will be interrupted by a new, prefabricated-looking structure of oddly pink-tinted bricks, framed by freshly laid concrete sidewalks and steps. The houses that are occupied are tended to fastidiously, with freshly painted siding and homey flower arrangements. But a neighboring structure's windows will be boarded up with wood planks that are warping and fading in a sign of just how long they've sat in place, the remnants of a sun-bleached eviction notice still stapled to the door.
East New York has long been the sort of place people conjure when imagining post-apocalyptic urban worlds. The sprawling neighborhood sits on the far eastern edge of Brooklyn's landlocked central corridor, a vast urban interior that connects the borough's Atlantic Ocean beaches to the ring of cosmopolitan enclaves that creep inward from the East River. As Manhattanites spill farther into Brooklyn in search of deals on old brownstones, increasing swaths of central Brooklyn are agonizing over the push and pull of development and gentrification. Historically Black and Caribbean neighborhoods like Prospect Park and Bedford-Stuyvesant are today in the throes of volatile economic and racial change. But East New York doesn't yet have such lofty problems. Few come to East New York other than those who already live here; it's been that way for decades. While New York City enjoyed a record low murder rate in 2007, East New York's rate went up and was the highest in the city.
"When I was a kid, this neighborhood, for me, was scary," says Carlos, a stout, soft-spoken 25-year-old Puerto Rican. He was one of a number of young, gay East New Yorkers who started hanging around the Crystal Street house after Julius and the other queer kids moved in there. Carlos is describing a peculiar fear, one rooted in familiarity rather than the unknown. Unaffiliated bystanders in the era's open-air drug markets were never targets of the often-deadly violence, but they could nonetheless get caught in the crossfire--becoming accidental prisoners inside the battles of well known, and often loved, combatants. "We knew a lot of the people that worked on the drugs. We knew a lot of people who were doing bad things, who were in the community. And they might have been family members as well, you know, but they contributed to that." Carlos shrugs. "You couldn't really enjoy yourself. As a child, you had to be cautious."
Geographic proximity notwithstanding, this whole scene couldn't be more distant from the iconic gay neighborhoods of New York, with their cute boutiques selling rainbow tchotchkes and designer clothes. There are at least five gay community publications in New York City; none circulate in East New York. Hundreds of businesses target gay New Yorkers--from bars to coffee shops to bookstores--and nowadays they can afford to specialize even further, with a number catering to Black and Latino queers in search of their own aesthetic. None do business in East New York.
All of which is why the owners of the little house on Crystal Street would have never expected their home would turn into a makeshift youth shelter for queer kids like Julius. But in a city where conservative estimates say anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids are sleeping on the streets every night, safe spaces fill up fast. So when the owners opened their doors to some of the queer youth they worked with as community organizers, they were soon deluged. At its peak occupancy, nearly a dozen young people crammed into the four bedrooms of the commune-style home. There was the 14-year-old who'd been kicked out of his house and his school; the young lesbian who'd been squatting with a dozen kids in an empty building uptown...