TRAVEL; Where anything goes

Washington Square Park, haunt of New York's buskers, junkies and eccentrics, has some new stars: skateboarding degenerates immortalised in the cult movie 'Kids'. Sasha Abramsky reports. Overleaf, the more acceptable face of NY youth culture
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The Independent Culture
THE film Kids, the latest topic of conversation among New York's cultural pulse-takers, may never hit Britain, so strong has been the reaction to it in the US. There, those who asked what Pulp Fiction really signified now earnestly debate what Kids tells them about urban youth. Whatever it is, it isn't very elevating.

Set in Manhattan, much of it around Washington Square Park, Larry Clark's film takes viewers into the very worst of the skateboard subculture and its unloveable adherents. Children, some not old enough to have hair under their armpits, take part in insanely destructive parties, orgies, a welter of sadistic, brutally explicit conversation and violent, nihilistic acts. They believe they are immune to Aids, and screw around with the most astonishing dedication. Fifteen-year-old boys take obsessional pleasure in dumping 13-year-old girls, who in their turn watch as others beat people to a pulp with their skateboards, and laugh.

As a New York resident might say: "Enuf already." There is nothing even remotely sympathetic about these kids; they demonstrate none of the fed- up-yet-ultimately-redeemable nature of most teenagers. The film leaves one feeling like a voyeur on a 112-hour rape of the soul. Part of the shock value is that most of the young actors and actresses, rather than being the usual Hollywood fare, were actually culled from Washington Square Park, on the northern tip of old Greenwich Village. They are real people who spend much of the time they are supposed to be spending in school hanging around in the open space instead.

Those who have never experienced this park will have one of two reactions after seeing the film: either an urgent longing to see this den of depravity, to better understand "where we have gone wrong", or a determination to avoid the place at all costs. Both reactions would be wrong, since the film itself only partially shows one of the many subcultures that exist within this astonishing park, perhaps the greatest venue for people-watching in New York.

As Henry James wrote of it in Washington Square a century ago: "It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more honorable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfare - the look of having something of a social history."

Indeed it does, even more so now than then, when the area was dominated by the recently built brick townhouses of the city's northward-moving social elite. Washington Square Park lies in the heart of the fantastical Greenwich Village: to the south (epitomised by MacDougal Street shooting down toward Bleaker) and west, the West Village beats out its jazzy rhythms and shows off its gay nightlife: cabaret and leather, all-night restaurants, smoky clubs and urine. It is the Big Apple's chic bohemia. To the south and east, the East Village serves up its grunge-punk: tattoos, body piercing - "With or Without Pain" - electric-coloured hair, plastic mini skirts, and above all a feeling of risk, a brooding, humid atmosphere that always threatens, but only sometimes delivers, a street brawl. South of the Park, the orange walls of New York University soar into the sky, and second- hand book stalls line the streets.

A grand old stone arc, emblazoned with George Washington's words, "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hands of God," provides a gateway to the northern splendour of Fifth Avenue; a heroic green statue of Garibaldi heralds the eastern limits, with a grove of concrete tables painted with chess boards and sat at by amateur chess aficionados, while a small free-range area for unchained dogs marks the western frontier.

The park is a crossroads within a crossroads, a place of undefinable romance, spectacular craziness, old intellectuals sitting like cloth-capped cliches on the park benches, seedy toilets, and an ubiquitous crowd of drug dealers none too subtly growling "Smoke, smoke" to any and all passers- by. It is also a square where the most beautiful, self-confidently stylish women and men slink along the pathways, the women dangling fashionable dog breeds off their arms, the men listening to hand-held tape decks, members of both sexes (and a fair number of androgynous-looking mysteries) cycling nonchalantly through the park. Students from the university sit reading textbooks. Skateboarders do their tricks. Groups of musicians congregate, drawn together by the ambience, by the weather, perhaps just by the fact that anything goes in this park. This season, folk looking for the "kids" come here to wait for chaos.

Out of necessity, self-consciousness has been banished here. There's no privacy, because the place is too small. People of every conceivable race collect like penguins in the dried water fountain, on the brick walls and the small patches of grass. The famously lethargic New York police stroll through the park at a leisurely pace, occasionally stopping to watch as one of the resident psychotics - such as the pot-bellied drunk Louis - begins working his or her way through the crowd. "Who took my beer? Who the f*** took my beer?" Louis screams, and throws his brown paper bag on to the ground. Most people ignore him, some glance his way.

Later, Louis approaches a group of long-haired, tatooed guitarists who are singing a seemingly endless medley of Beatles songs: "No one can shout louder than me!" Louis shouts. "I live in the park, on the streets, nobody can tell me to shut up. You'd just better relax!" He bellows to the park: "This is the f***ing Village. You can do whatever the f*** you want! You can relax! Winter is coming soon!" He screams into his twitching brown moustache: "Blackbird singing in the dead of ni-i-i-ght". The guitarists harmonise. A couple in fishnet shirts and leather shorts wanders past. A man sets up his barber stall on the concrete. Near the fountain, a platinum- blonde skinny girl and two boys with clubber haircuts and multiple piercings light up a joint rolled with crinkly brown paper.

The park transcends easy stereotypes and it outlasts modish films. It is in Washington Square that one sees generations of subcultures co-existing, ghosts of fads past, hipsters reposing in the present, imitations of the future.

Listen to the sounds of the different musicians, the street slangs, the dialects of the young; smell the slightly bitter smoke from the openly indulged-in "herb". Look at the urban detritus, sometimes almost sculpture- like: the red apple sitting alone on the dried-up fountain grating, the flaky paint on the statues revealing ancient acts of graffiti underneath.

See the sky silhouetting the vast, alien water towers perched on top of the surrounding buildings. Taste the pretzels sold off carts around the park. Touch, as you put in your donation, the rough felt hat of a 90-year-old black cowboy as he swings his lassoes. And then understand Henry James's words: "I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable." !



GETTING THERE: United Airlines (0181-990 9900) is currently offering midweek return flights from pounds 281. Air India (01753 684 828) has midweek flights from the end of September from pounds 269 return.

STAYING THERE: Generally hotel accommodation in New York is expensive. If you are on a budget, however, there are some reasonably priced b&b rooms (for around $100 a night) in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the outer boroughs. For more information contact Bed and Breakfast Networks of New York (001 212 645 8134), 134 W32nd St, Suite 602, 10001.