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COLUMN ONE

Voyeurs have a new perch in New York

For naked-people watching, a newly opened park on abandoned elevated train tracks on the West Side of Manhattan can't be beat. Uninhibited guests at the Standard Hotel are happy to oblige.

September 17, 2009|Geraldine Baum

NEW YORK — Two couples, both from out of town, linger on the same park bench, gazing up at gauzy curtains in the windows of a 19-story hotel. They don't know each other, but there they are, on a sunny Labor Day afternoon, hoping to steal a glimpse of, well, for lack of a more delicate way to put it, naked people.

Voyeurism became New York's hot attraction this summer after guests were photographed in the buff prancing about, even having sex, in front of floor-to-ceiling windows at the Standard Hotel in the hip Meatpacking District.

These shenanigans unfolded as a result of a series of unintended circumstances. Start with the opening of the High Line Park, built on abandoned railroad tracks three stories above the street. Add a swank hotel, hoisted by massive pylons that straddle the High Line. Then bring on the combustible element: New Yorkers and tourists, who flocked to see the city's newest additions. As they walked the High Line, they quickly realized there was more to see than they could have dared to hope. With that, the High Line became a stage set as well as a destination.

All summer, images of the Standard's bawdy guests spread like cyber wildfire, and the management seemed to relish the attention, even encouraging new arrivals in the lobby to go ahead and "just have fun!" The hotel's blog, ever briefly, linked to photos of two unclothed women in provocative positions. Now, the curious assemble regularly.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Voyeurism in New York: An article in Thursday's Section A about voyeurism from an elevated park in New York City said that poet Charles Baudelaire lived in the 18th century. He lived from 1821 to 1867.

This 21st century urban voyeurism is the next logical step in a society that has been peeping and poking into private lives, with all of us participating, on reality TV, through social networking, and in confessional interviews and memoirs. It's what brought Bob and Beverly Taylor of Virginia, and Mike Louvascio and his girlfriend, Marilyn, of Long Island to share that bench on the High Line.

"We're nudists," says Bob, 55, introducing himself. The Taylors often vacation in the big city, but this time the much-publicized peep show at the Standard is at the top of their to-do list. "This was our next cool thing to see," says Beverly, 49.

Louvascio, 64, and Marilyn, who won't reveal her age or last name, are here for the shopping. Well, that's what drew Marilyn. Mike admits he has little interest in the area's designer boutiques that once were warehouses stacked with bloody animal carcasses.

"I'd rather be hunting," he says of his favorite sport, shooting deer with bow and arrow. But "seeing naked people," he hurries up and explains, "is something to do."

Hal Niedzviecki, a cultural expert and author, laughs. He's not surprised by this turn toward group peeping.

"A city like New York always has people who want to be watched and enjoy watching," he says. "But the way society is moving, rather than feel, 'Oh, my God, there are times we have to close the drapes,' it's 'Let's keep them open, all the time, and let whoever wants to take pictures go ahead.' Under the influence of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogging, that very New York attitude is spreading around the world."

In "The Peep Diaries," published in May, Niedzviecki reflects on the ambitions and confusion of a growing number of people who are willing to trade details of their private lives for catharsis, attention and notoriety.

"It's one thing to have sex for the enjoyment of four or five tourists watching from the High Line, it's another for the hotel to make a profit off it, to have people recording it, putting it up on websites. . . . You lose control over what you're doing. Where are we heading with that?"

Not that visual contact, as a pro sport, is anything new to New Yorkers who live up close, in see-through glass towers, balconied tenements and apartment complexes built around gardens.

Putting aside sexual gratification for a minute (or not), voyeurism is a part of everyday life here. Who hasn't made up a story about a neighbor on the next balcony who suns herself on summer weekends or the mother in the apartment across an air shaft who meticulously lays out breakfast for her two children?

While the tabloids chronicled the mischief at the Standard this summer, a former New Yorker identified only as "Hof," wrote eloquently in an online forum about how most New Yorkers imagine life behind "window and curtains."

"Who among us, while wandering the streets of New York, has not let loose our personal voyeur and looked up at the lighted, curtained windows of a stylish brownstone or at one of the glowing dots on a massive high-rise on a foggy night, and watched the people move around in their space and wondered what kind of lives were being played out just behind the glass?? You KNOW what I mean because you've done it, too."

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