The first out gay man elected to the New York State assembly in 2002, Danny O'Donnell (brother of Rosie) was born in Queens, grew up on Long Island, and has resided in his district of Manhattan's Upper West Side and Morningside Heights for nearly 20 years. He divulges the ins and out of this seldom-touristed area from 85th Street to 125th Street.
As Manhattan becomes more and more gentrified, how has your district changed?
Since I've been here, I've seen better restaurants, and it's become more neighborhood-y, with more places to go. You can go out at 2 o'clock in the morning and there are people around, college kids and neighbors. The life here is more 24 hours than in other parts of Manhattan. That, in my opinion, breeds safety. It's a wonderful place to live, with wide boulevards, street lights on Broadway 24 hours a day, and I have three wonderful parks in my neighborhood: Riverside Park, Morningside Park, and of course Central Park. You get to see light and feel air. This is the way people really live in Manhattan.
What led you to live with your partner here?
When I was a public defender in Brooklyn I told a realtor I wanted to live on the west side of Manhattan north of 96th Street, and she said, "You're crazy. Why do you want do that?" But to me this area was a perfect mix of rich and poor, black and brown and white, and everyone seemed welcome here and there wasn't any pretension. I eventually bought on 111th Street, and I've lived in the same building since 1990. I would never move. I love where I live. Barring having some place on the ocean on Maui or in the Marais in Paris, this is where I want to be.
How gay is the area compared to other parts of the island?
Gay tourists don't go north of 23rd Street. I think they must get nosebleeds any further north! My grandmother was born in Chelsea, and I love Chelsea, but you don't have to live entirely around gay people to be respected or to feel comfortable. Up here there's no specific place where gays live. They sort of live everywhere. On my street there is a gay couple with "gaybies." It's not the gay ghetto, but it's incredibly gay-friendly and very pleasant. We have a large number of writers and artists and singers and musicians who live up here. You should try to get on the number 1 subway at 7 P.M. It's filled with musicians going to Lincoln Center. And without a doubt this is one of the most liberal districts in the country. In the last presidential elections people here voted Democrat 9 or 10 to 1.
Does your sister Rosie O'Donnell ever come and stay here?
We keep our lives fairly separate; it probably works out better that way. It's difficult when you're a politician to have someone in your life who has a higher profile than you do. I was at a school once speaking and I was being heckled. I asked the principal what was going on, and she asked if I had seen the Today show that morning. Turns out Rosie was being outspoken about something again. [Laughs]