As part of my ongoing research into the placemaking practices of men who have sex with men or “MSM”, I will be documenting through a series of installments my visits to a park in the Bronx where MSM have not only carved out a place to cruise, but have developed a strong sense of community around public sexual practice.
Bronx River Forest
Site Visit _ Sunday 3/24/19
3:00 – 3:30 PM
Sunday was a seasonably warm and lovely day to be outside. This being my first trip to the site for this study, I set out to observe the general atmosphere and behaviors of users there with the goal of identifying overarching patterns and hopefully engage in informal conversations with one or more stakeholders. Luckily, I was able to do just that and the insight I gathered during this visit will be crucial for informing my process moving forward. I took an admittedly unusual journey to get to the site. I set out on foot from my apartment in Long Island City, Queens and walked to Randall’s Island, which is sandwiched between Queens and the Bronx. This is the only way to get to the Bronx from Queens on foot without going through Manhattan. Once in the Bronx I took the 5 train to the Gun Hill Road station, which is about a 5-minute walk from the site. I entered the site from the north on Bronx Blvd. This was the first time I’ve entered the site from this direction. On previous visits I’ve taken the D train to the 205th street station and entered the park from the west.
The Bronx River Park is in a shallow valley carved out by the Bronx River. As you walk into the park from the north the city slips away and the sounds of traffic and people transform into the sound of rustling leaves and birds chirping. Almost immediately after entering the park, I encountered a ruin of a park amenity – some sort of seating area or stage – that was littered with trash. Several empty alcohol containers and other refuse made it clear that this ruin was an active place, presumably during the evening when there is less visibility from the street. Since I was there in the mid-afternoon on a Sunday, the area was empty and I was alone. As I walked closer to the river, I noticed a tree with a small blanket at its base. The blanket was facing the river and appeared to have been used by someone sleeping there. I made this assumption because someone using a blanket to sit under a tree, usually takes it with them when they leave, yet this blanket looked like it had been there for a while.
Moving further along the river embankment, I passed under the Bronx River Parkway, towards a man smoking cannabis. The man appeared to be in his 50’s and was African American. He acknowledged me but it wasn’t clear if he was cruising or just there to smoke. I think its important to mention that the floor of the underpass was covered in a thick layer of silt and mud from what I could only assume was a recent flood. This fresh mud deposit was covered in footprints and bike tire tracks, demonstrating that even though this area wasn’t full of people at the time, it is used regularly. After the underpass, the park really opens up. To my right was the Bronx River and to my left was an embankment, on top of which is the Bronx River Parkway. The Parkway is a six-lane highway, unlike what its name might imply. On the other side of the Bronx River are Metro North railroad tracks. These barriers, along with the lowness of the river valley isolate the park from its busy surroundings and provide the perfect place to cruise.
The site is shaped like a triangle. I entered from the tip, so the further down the path I travelled, the more space on both sides of me opened up. As I walked on, I began to notice other men slipping in and out of the wooded areas to the left of me. Due to a lack of foliage on the trees, which will eventually sprout and bloom in the coming months, I could see them relatively clearly. There were only maybe two men. At some point the riverbank across the river from me widened and I notice several men over there cruising and actually looking over at me inquisitively. I recognized that area from previous visits to the site as the place where men cruise. I made my way in that direction.
At around 3pm I reached a small pedestrian bridge that spans the Bronx River. Before I made it to the bridge, a group of three teenagers on bikes drove past me going in the opposite direction. On the bridge were several benches where men were sitting, facing inward towards the path. I could tell they were scouting the area for men, just based on the way they looked at me and each other. Many of them were talking and I assumed they knew each other. I crossed the bridge and made my way into an area marked “Bronx River Forest,” this was an area I had been before and was aware that cruising happened there. I made my way around the rambling paths that cut through the bushes and fallen trees. I counted about 12-15 men in the main area. This main area that I refer to here used to be a baseball field up until about the 1990’s when it was given back to nature and is now overgrown with low bushes interspersed with tall trees. This area is bordered by the Bronx river on the east side, a large, paved bike path on the south side, and Metro North railroad tracks on the west side. While walking through, I encountered 4 men including the two who saw me earlier from across the river. They were casually cruising and curious to see me, but nothing out of the ordinary. As I walked west towards the railroad tracks, I came upon a makeshift shelter towards the top of the railroad embankment. It consisted of several branches and twigs interwoven into a small weeping tree. Inside the shelter was informal seating and on the floor of the shelter was a good amount of litter, consisting of condoms wrappers, beer cans, and empty food packages. I attempted to photograph the shelter, but as I was taking out my phone, a man walked by and noticed me and started looking so I decided it wasn’t an appropriate time to take a photo.
After the shelter I walked toward the center of the main area. About twenty yards to the left of me under a tree, but in clear view of anyone walking by, I noticed three men engaged in mutual fellatio. All three of them had their pants around their ankles with their private areas exposed, one man was leaning on his bike. Curiously, there were four men to the right of me, sitting on a fallen tree, drinking beer and having a conversation while watching the other three men have sex. Their demeanor was so blasé and casual, like they were watching a baseball game. This kind of casualness around public sex is common in all of the cruising places I’ve studied. The only thing that was slightly surprising was that this was happening in broad daylight. Normally I notice this kind of open behavior after sundown. While this was all going on, about three to four yards away, on the other side of some thick bushes, casual joggers, teens on bikes, and people walking dogs were blissfully unaware and going about their day.
Next installment: My Conversation with Jesus (not the Christian one, just a guy from the Bronx)