With the influx into the West Village–Chelsea area of celebrities and heterosexual parents, there simply aren’t as many gays in the old gayborhood as there used to be. And soon there won’t be as many AIDS centers in the area either. Earlier this month, St. Vincent’s Hospital, which in the eighties and nineties valiantly went from vilifying AIDS patients to providing one of the country’s best care centers for them, announced that it was closing down amid millions in debt, even though it seems its HIV clinic will stay afloat with some help from Mt. Sinai Hospital and the nearby LGBT-serving Callen-Lorde Center.
And now Gay Men’s Health Crisis, in the neighborhood since 1981 and in the multistory Tisch Building on West 24th Street since 1997, will be leaving as well, pending final agreement on a new lease. It’s not going very far: only about ten blocks to the north and a few west. With its current lease up at the end of the year, the agency, which serves about 15,000 people with HIV/AIDS from all over the city, simply couldn’t afford the rent hike from $6.4 million to $9 million, according to author-activist Larry Kramer (the current head of GMHC, Dr. Marjorie Hill, would not confirm these numbers). The impetuous GMHC co-founder blasted an e-mail to dozens of activists and journalists last week, protesting the move.
In his e-mail, Kramer called the reported move “ridiculous, sad, tragic and a great loss,” listing complaints from an anonymous GMHC insider, including claims that the new location would not allow GMHC clients in the front door, would discontinue the current clean-needle–supply and dirty-needle–disposal programs, and put HIV-testing and hot-lunch programs in danger. Then Kramer (who was kicked out of GMHC years ago by his co-founders) had lunch with the agency’s current head, Dr. Marjorie Hill. Apparently converted, he fired off another mass e-mail — in which he described Hill as “a regal, six-foot gorgeous black lesbian” — reversing positions and crowing that the move was all for the best. According to Kramer, Hill said that the new space was clean, large, and bright, that clients would have their own special entrance in the front, that the hot-lunch program would be replaced by a ground-floor cafe, and that the HIV-testing center would remain intact but that the David Geffen education center would move to a new high-prevalence neighborhood (possibly in Brooklyn or the Bronx). “It is time to move on to a new home,” Kramer concluded. “Stop complaining, you naysayers!”
Hill would not confirm which services will go to the new site and which will be left behind. “As we are currently in sensitive lease discussions, the GMHC Board … and I prefer not to provide a statement at this time,” she e-mailed. Dr. Larry Mass, another GMHC cofounder, disagreed with Kramer’s newly rosy view of the move: “It’s a big step down from a wonderful space that was very well-located and very prestigious,” he said. (The new site is a ten-minute walk from Penn Station for clients in normal health; clients coming to the current site from anything other than the F or 1 trains face a walk that’s as least as long.) A longtime AIDS activist, who asked to stay anonymous because he still works in the field, said it would be especially sad if the new site lacked the hot-lunch program, which currently takes place in a big dining-hall and is a daily social highlight for many clients. Added this person wistfully: “The agency’s always been in Chelsea.”
But again, the West Village and Chelsea are no longer the epicenters of HIV/AIDS in New York City, and if, according to GMHC — which holds its 25th annual AIDS Walk next month — half its clients are coming from outside Manhattan anyway, does it really matter if the site is moving nearby? If anything, GMHC’s decision to relocate revives an older debate about whether it should stay centrally located in Manhattan or disperse throughout the city into hard-hit hoods in the boroughs — a model employed by Housing Works, its sometime partner, sometime rival. Assuming that GMHC’s most needed, beloved programs go to the new site, the move may truly be, as Kramer now asserts, not that worrisome. At the least, as the longtime AIDS activist points out, the loss of St. Vincent’s — which served not just the area’s HIV population but, indeed, the entire population — “is a lot bigger deal.” Yet Enrique Menendez, 44, an actor and GMHC client since 1994, said he eyed the move warily: “The current space is very comfortable and safe,” he said. “If anything is lost, I won’t be okay with it.”