Elegance Bratton, a junior in the School of General Studies, was first kicked out of his New Jersey home at age 16. Ostracized because of his homosexuality, he discovered a new sense of belonging in the LGBTQ community on the West Village's Christopher Street.
After a decade of homelessness, a stint in the Marine Corps as a videographer, and two years of classes at Columbia, Bratton decided to make "Pier Kids: The Life," a movie documenting the unique subculture of Christopher Street and its piers. He will be launching a Kickstarter campaign next week to raise funds for the project.
For three years after he was first kicked out, Bratton split his time between home and Christopher Street. "I did have access to my mother's home from 16 to 19, but during those three years, it would be like, 'OK, a few months I'm not home, a few weeks I am home,' and it was always centered around this open secret."
Bratton was kicked out of his home for good after finishing high school. "It was clear to me that whatever I was afraid of on the street was not as formidable as the negativity that was brewing inside. I was more likely to live if I just left than if I stayed, so I just left."
Bratton's life on Christopher Street was an ephemeral one. "It was a very varying thing," he said. "A lot of the time on the street, I would meet older guys, who, you know, they want your body. All of a sudden, you've got a new boyfriend and a place to stay. Sometimes I'd sleep outside. Sometimes I'd sleep at school. Often I would go to clubs. I'd go out and dance all night."
The site of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, Christopher Street is "the most important gay street in the history of gay liberation in the Western world," according to Bratton.
But Christopher Street is often characterized as having a grittier underside. "The street has been taken over by drug peddlers, prostitutes and marauding youths," according to the New York Daily News in an article from July 2011. Bratton's film challenges this view, but doesn't hide the crime affecting those involved in this subculture: the film features an interview with the mother of a hit-and-run victim and a regular to the Pier. He was killed on Eastern Parkway by two hit and run drivers.
Bratton decided to make his film while studying in Puerto Rico with Columbia's SEE-U fellowship. An Eastern European student came out to him, sparking an urge to revisit and reexamine the subculture that allowed him to define his identity on his own terms.
"It's the story of queer and transgender youth of color who utilize Christopher Street as a primary identity location," Bratton said. "By day, it's one of the most prestigious addresses—zip codes—that you can have in the world, and predominantly, it's white and upper-middle-class. At night, it becomes home to a transient black street community who hail from the various boroughs, the various ghettos, that surround Manhattan. The point of the film is that they come to Christopher Street looking for a safe place to be."
According to Bratton, Christopher Street's community offers such parallel structures to poor homosexual blacks and Latinos who have been marginalized by subcultures that are themselves marginalized.
"In Christopher Street, you have a parallel institution. Christopher Street now becomes Fulton Street in Bed-Stuy. It becomes Main Street in Newark or Jersey City, or any main street in the ghetto ... Christopher Street becomes that."
"Those who have been cast out of the ghetto end up here," Bratton said.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the hit-and-run victim mentioned in "Pier Kids: The Life" was killed on Christopher Street. The paragraph has been changed to represent the correct circumstances of his death. Spectator regrets the error.