Soliciting Scandal in Thornden Park
There are more than secrets between the trees of Thornden Park: a gay sex outlet has existed for over 30 years in SU’s backyard.
By Megan Hess
Sometimes it only takes a few minutes: one honks, the other turns his engine off and gets out. Other times they sit for hours with their headlights on, drivers’ seat windows down, curls of cigarette smoke drifting out, waiting for the other to make the first move.
Or, instead of parking, they sluggishly circle the “fruit loop” — the ring around the water tower in Thornden Park where many older gay men go to meet up and hook up.
For the 23 years that Bob Forbes has lived in Syracuse, N.Y., the water tower, just a block away from the Syracuse University campus, has been a prime site for secluded and anonymous sex-on-the-spot. Forbes, 47, learned about the park’s hookup culture when he began working as an HIV Prevention Specialist at AIDS Community Resources (ACR) on West Genessee Street.
Along with a van full of outreach workers and peer volunteers, Forbes visits several spots in Syracuse — including the water tower — that are high-risk areas for sexual activity and drug use. Men have met up at the tower for decades. It’s an enduring remnant of a time when some considered gay sex a hidden shame.
Now, however, modern technology has changed the nature of these covert hookups, and people arrange trysts anonymously online. The emergence of this strong yet subcultural flood of online activity has encouraged an intense fascination surrounding secret sex.
Forbes drives around the tower’s “fruit loop” and parks the ACR van, which is constantly stocked with items like dental dams, latex and polyurithane condoms, and vouchers for clean needles. He strolls up to parked cars and makes small talk: “Hi, I’m Bob, have you ever tried water-based lube?” he’ll begin, but he’s often cut short. “Oh, I’m not here for that,” people will say. “I didn’t know [sex] goes on here.”
But after circling the area once or twice, he sees the very same people “engaged” in their vehicles. While he regularly sees older gay men, Forbes’ encounters run the gamut: sex workers, frat guys, balding dads, women, and other community members.
Cars start to fill the “fruit loop” by 2 p.m. — sometimes earlier — on the dog days of summer. Adam Mohamed, now a senior at SU, is one of the few students to have actually witnessed the “sketchy hookup scene,” and he watches it with fascination. He spent the summer after his freshman year taking classes on campus and jogging in Thornden.
One afternoon, he followed the path up to the water tower, where he saw two older white-haired men emerging from the woods together, wearing tank tops and booty shorts. Since then, he has visited the tower countless times with friends, mostly to see who will get hit on first.
One evening, as Mohamed walked through the park, a middle-aged man asked him whether he needed a ride home. He nervously laughed and asked, “Is this the part where you kill me?”
Sometimes on weekends, headlights from the road by the tower shine into the top floors of Booth Hall until 3 a.m. Honking has become the customary “let’s hook up” call at the tower, Mohamed said. “If you honk, it’s a signal for the other guy to come into your car so you can do business.”
Water tower quickies have been commonplace since the 1970s when the city was void of any social outlets for gay men. Repressed members of the LGBT community “had to sneak around the bush so no one knew who they were,” Forbes said. It was an opportunity to network with other gay people, instead of shuttling from adult bookstores to sex shops. Thornden was — and still is — the second-largest park in the city, so it was easy to find privacy.
As human rights efforts progressed, gay and bisexual individuals gained more acceptance in the public sphere. There are now more public forums for members of the gay community to connect.
But it’s hard to measure progress when many still internalize a sense of shame. “People who identify as LGBT are carrying with them an identity that is stigmatized, which continues to be stigmatized,” said Adrea Jaehnig, director of the LGBT Resource Center at SU.
Learning about the gay history of Syracuse is part of the pledging process for Delta Lambda Phi, a fraternity for gay, bisexual, and progressive men, according to its Web site.
“Every year, one of our rituals is venturing up to the water tower at night,” said Ryan Freed, the president of Delta Lambda Phi’s Syracuse chapter. “[The water tower] is a historical site because gay men in Syracuse were so repressed. It used to be a social place for gays — a place only for married men, or for guys who would never openly identify themselves as gay. But now, it’s a designated hookup spot.”
Over the past decade, the Internet and online networking have accelerated promiscuous, anonymous sex. Hundreds of male dating Web sites — such as Adam4Adam.com and ManHunt.net — allow users to make profiles for seeking quick hookups.
Ordering sex online is similar to ordering fast food, one of Forbes’ friends told him. “If I want [a sexual encounter], I order it like Chinese food…if I don’t like it, I throw it out and order more.” This results in a lack of face-to-face conversation and of interaction in the community, Forbes said. People are simply looking for the here-and-now.
This instant gratification philosophy may prevent people from taking safety precautions. New York State has the most cases of HIV/AIDS in the nation — a nation that sees 60,000 new infections annually. Male-to-male contact (MSM) accounts for 24 percent of HIV/AIDS transmission, according to ACR’s annual report in 2009.
“I had friends who were getting buried every week because of HIV/AIDS,” Forbes said. “I knew it was time for me to take action.”
The peer volunteers at ACR know which areas of the city to target since some are former sex workers and drug addicts. They work with supervisors to identify high-risk areas in Syracuse — such as Armory Square, the Southwest neighborhood, and grocery stores and gas stations along I-81 — and then conduct outreach to test their success rates.
Together, the Syracuse and Utica vans those areas and AIDS Community Resources covers a nine-county radius. They travel a total of 63,276 miles to serve their clients.
During the spring and summer, the Syracuse ACR van winds up the hill to the water tower about once a week. On a good day, workers will distribute materials — free of charge —to about 20 sex cruisers. Other times, they won’t have a single customer. But the van trips are less frequent when the air turns frigid.
Regardless of season, the volunteers are always well-equipped with latex condoms that slide over the finger, known as “finger cots”; vouchers that are exchangeable for clean needles and syringes at local drugstores, like Harvey’s Pharmacy on East Genessee Street; and other contraptions to prevent clots when injecting substances into the vein. Gary Brothers, the supervising pharmacist and owner at Harvey’s, works with approximately 40-plus customers per month through the ACR voucher program.
Most van trips are during mid-afternoon, since Thornden Park officially closes at dusk. The Syracuse Police Department can technically arrest anyone in the park after-hours and patrol the area on a nightly basis to make sure nothing is going on, said Patrick Driscoll, the Syracuse Parks Commissioner. Several years ago, after an article in The Post-Standard discussed promiscuous activity in the park, the Syracuse Police Department issued a crackdown.
“The crackdown made our jobs as educators harder,” Forbes said. Building a rapport with the sex cruisers at the water tower is the first step. “Working with them gets us much further than resisting or overpowering them. If we kick them out, they’ll just go somewhere else to have unsafe sex or shoot up — so instead, we try to help them out,” Forbes said.
According to Mohamed, however, nighttime at the water tour is the witching hour. He often sees the same older guys in sweatshirts and trucker hats when he uses the park as a shortcut to a friend’s house on Ackerman Avenue. Sometimes he sees three or four cars parked in the loop — and sometimes more, if you count those loitering at the fork leading up the hill.
But Thornden Park isn’t the only game in town. The personals on Craigslist.org lure locals to Archbold Gym, Marshall Street, and Armory Square for secluded, anonymous sex. Society’s fascination with these hookup spots comes with a stigmatized view of gay culture.
“People are going to meet people,” said Jaehnig, the director of the LGBT Resource Center. “It goes unnoticed when heterosexual people do it — it’s not even seen. But when gays meet gays in secret, it’s scrutinized at a different level. It’s seen as a spectacle.”
Illustrations by Elizabeth Latella