Greenwich Village, the fountain of American bohemianism, has always been separated from the straight and narrow. Its winding, winding streets that defy the city’s grid contain remnants of cow trails and property lines from a period when the area was sprawling with Dutch, then English farms.
As a historically gay neighborhood, the Village has long been a source of local pride, but mostly seemed trivial to me and my childhood friends who were native Villagers, as it was another fact of everyday life. Long before our time, MacDougal Street had been an early hub for LGBTQ clubs and tearooms like Black Rabbit. By the 1970s, the neighborhood’s gay epicenter had shifted to Christopher Street, the Village’s oldest street, with its irregular route following the border of British admiral Peter Warren’s Colonial mansion.
I recently asked Andrew Dolkart, an architectural historian at Columbia University, to organize an LGBTQ tour of the village. Dolkart is the co-founder of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project and co-author of the National Register of Historic Places nomination for Stonewall. Below is an edited excerpt of our conversation from my new book, “The Intimate City: Walking New York.” The book grew out of the walks I held across the city with various architects, historians and others in the early months of Covid-19, some of which were published by The Times. This Village walk was one of the few walks written for the book.
MICHAEL KIMMELMANAndrew, in the summer of 1969, police raided a bar called the Stonewall Inn at 51-53 Christopher Street.
ANDREW DOLKART In the 1960s, the Stonewall Inn, like nearly all gay and lesbian bars, was a Mafia-controlled bar because the State Liquor Authority ruled that the presence of a gay man in a bar constituted disorderly conduct. The mafia ran these bars and paid the police. But there were still occasional raids. There was one at Stonewall in June 1969. Usually in these raids the police arrest a few people, everyone leaves and everything goes back to normal. In this case, however, the bar’s regulars responded, and a crowd formed outside. People started throwing things. Some cops eventually had to barricade the bar. The performances continued for several nights. The authorities really didn’t know how to handle the situation.
Why there and then?
There have been cases of LGBTQ opposition in San Francisco and Los Angeles before. They were clearly fed up and saw all these other freedom movements in the country – women’s liberation, civil rights, anti-war protests – gain traction. David Carter, who wrote a book about Stonewall and helped us get Stonewall on the National Register, pointed out that the police tactical group that raided the bar that night was unfamiliar with the layout of Greenwich Village, and so the officers said, it’s back, which keeps the action going. The National Register therefore includes the Stonewall building, Christopher Park, and all streets east to Sixth Avenue.
In a sense, the recording salutes the village as a gay shelter.
Its gay history goes back at least to the early 20th century, when Greenwich Village became a bohemian capital. At that time, there were many single people living together in the Village, which made it attractive to same-sex couples because they could live more openly.
Was there something different in the architecture or physical setting of the village that attracted outliers?
The housing stock of the village was a big factor. We’re now considering multimillion-dollar sales of the old townhouses in the Village, so it’s hard for some people to imagine that the Village used to be cheap and dilapidated. These old townhouses were not always well liked, and many were broken up into cold-water apartments or turned into hostels. The low rents associated with it, of course, are why bohemians initially gravitated towards Greenwich Village.
Fine Arts and Exhibitions Special Section
- bigger and better :While the Covid-19 pandemic has forced museums to close for months, cutting staff and expenses, many have still made progress on ambitious renovations or new buildings.
- A Tribute to Black Artists:Four museums across the country are holding exhibitions this fall promoting the work of African and African American artists, marking a shift in attitudes and priorities.
- new and old : In California, museums celebrate and embrace Latino and Chicano art and artists. And the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum works to engage visitors about the realities of climate change.
- Cultural Correction:The Denver Museum of Art has adopted a new exhibit on Latin American art, after removing all references to Columbus from its collections.
- More from the Special Episode:Museums, galleries and auction houses are opening their doors more broadly than ever before to new artists, new concepts and new traditions.
For the same reasons, the Village has become a magnet for immigrants and workers fleeing disease and overcrowding in Lower Manhattan.
You can still see some of these early homes on streets like the Grove and Bedford, where wealthy people moved further into the city center after the malaria and yellow fever epidemics in the early 19th century. Then came the waves of development in the 1830s and 40s, and with it increased class stratification. Fifth Avenue and the north side of Washington Square become prestigious. Then the houses become more and more modest as they approach the banks of the Hudson River.
On the shore was Newgate Prison. There were taverns, lumber yards, and meat processing warehouses. It has always surprised me that the village remained so isolated from the rest of the city, in part because for a long time it was not connected to the areas above the city by large north-south streets.
Seventh and Sixth Avenues only bifurcated the neighborhood with the construction of subways, so now there are all these crazy little triangular spaces you see behind old houses facing the streets. We’ll come to them later. You mentioned immigrants. The village evolved into a neighborhood for Italians in the South Village, Germans to the west, and others, with clusters of African Americans in the so-called Minettas and around Cornelia Street. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were many different Villages.
Where I grew up was still an Italian working class neighborhood. We were talking about the Stonewall Inn and I led us astray. What was the building before there was a bar?
It was a pair of two-story horse stables. Then in 1930 the façade was rebuilt with brick at the bottom, plaster at the top and flower box balconies as you can see in the old photographs. It became Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn, a restaurant and bar, in 1934 and closed in 1964. The gay bar that took over soon after adopted the old name and retained the exterior signage.
A bar for both men and women?
Sometimes women, mostly younger men, some were not gender-appropriate. Lesbians patronized various Mafia-run lesbian bars elsewhere in the Village, such as Sea Colony and Kooky’s.
Stonewall is now a landmark but clearly not for its architecture.
Another way of saying this is that buildings have lives. When we advocated the city’s designation of Stonewall as a landmark, I remember a man speaking at a public hearing said he was in favor of the designation, but we should not forget that Stonewall was actually a dismal dump.
But as Lillian Faderman, a historian of lesbian history, notes, Stonewall “voiced the movement’s rally” and led to the founding of organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and Radicalesbians. The Christopher Street Liberation Day parade, held on Stonewall’s first anniversary, has now become the annual Pride Parade held in dozens of countries.
I’d also like to point to 59 Christopher Street, a building just west of Stonewall that housed the last headquarters of the New York City branch of the Mattachine Society, an early national gay rights organization – the phrase “homophile organization” at the time. — Founded in 1950 in Los Angeles. After Stonewall, the Mattachine Society was replaced by more radical groups, but as we’ll see when we go to Julius’ bar up the street, it was important to do a lot of pre-Stonewall things. . First I’d like to stop at 15 Christopher, where the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore moved in 1973.
A federal row house. I used to pass it on my way to and from PS 41, my primary school.
Casement windows on the second floor were probably added in the 1920s – casement windows were popular at the time – and those very large picture windows on the ground floor came later. They made the bookstore pleasant but vulnerable. Someone tossed a brick between them at one point. The store was founded by Craig Rodwell in 1967, originally in a small storefront on Mercer Street near Waverly Place. Then Rodwell moved it to Christopher to make it more noticeable and central to the gay community. The aim was to be a comfortable, friendly place where young people would feel comfortable and everyone would be welcome. Among his articles at the New York Public Library are poignant letters from people who describe standing outside the bookstore for an hour trying to muster up courage. This place has become a second home for many gays. Alison Bechdel said she came into the shop as a young lesbian, unsure of what she wanted to do with her life, and saw all these gay and lesbian comics, and that inspired her to become a graphic novelist.
Rodwell also hired a multi-ethnic staff, which was a statement in itself at the time.
It took until 2009 when the internet started killing independent bookstores and general interest bookstores were selling LGBTQ literature.
Julius’ is just steps away, on the corner of Waverly and 10th Street.
One of New York’s oldest gay bars.
In the mid-60s, the Mattachine Society decided to challenge the New York State Liquor Association’s policy that a bar could be closed if it knowingly served a gay man. Dick Leitsch, president of the Mattachine Society; Bookstore owner Rodwell, who is vice president; and another guild member, John Timmons, decided to go to bars with his newspaper reporters, announce they were gay, ask for a drink and wait for rejection. st. They went to a Ukrainian American place with a “If you’re gay please go” sign in Marks Place. Apparently one of the reporters warned the bar ahead of time, so the bar closed before the band arrived. Then they went to Howard Johnson’s on Sixth Avenue.
I remember it was Howard Johnson.
They sat down, asked to see the manager, said, “We are gay,” and ordered drinks. The manager just laughed and served them. So that didn’t work. Tried a Polynesian themed bar called Waikiki and the same thing happened. They eventually decided to go to Julius because Julius had been recently minted and they thought the bar owners would probably be wary. They were right. There is a photo of the bartender refusing to serve them.
Famous photo of Fred McDarrah. In the photo you see the bartender with his hand on one of the glasses.
Heading west at Christopher’s down Seventh Avenue South is the wonderful 1930s “taxpayer” around the corner that was once home to Stewart’s Cafeteria.
What is a taxpayer?
A building built to cover the estate’s property taxes until the owner builds something more extravagant. There was a plan to build an apartment designed by George & Edward Blum on this corner, but with the Great Depression it was never built and instead we still have this wonderful two-story Art Deco building whose first tenant is Stewart’s Cafeteria. . Stewart’s was a popular chain of the era, and this branch became a famous haunt for a flamboyant gay and lesbian crowd, sometimes with three or four people performing for tourists standing in the deep and staring out of the windows. Further west, down Christopher Street, I wanted to show 337 Bleecker Street, where Lorraine Hansberry wrote “A Raisin in the Sun.”
A simple, three-story Italianate building from the 1860s.
The building is fine, but I’m talking about Hansberry. He was a writer and also a civil rights activist. She moved into a third-floor apartment with her husband in 1953, and when they separated in 1957, she appeared privately among a circle of lesbians and wrote under a pseudonym for a national monthly magazine called “The Ladder.” The journal of Daughters of Bilitis, the lesbian equivalent of the Mattachine Society. Hansberry’s social circle at the time included lesbian writers like Patricia Highsmith, who lived with her family at 48 Grove Street from 1940 to 1942 when she was a student at Barnard. A few blocks from there, journalist Anna Rochester and Grace Hutchins, a labor reformer, lived in an apartment at 85 Bedford Street from 1924 until Anna’s death in 1966 and Grace’s death in 1969. As a Boston marriage, a term derived from Henry James’ “The Bostonians” – they were women from wealthy backgrounds who lived together in very close, loving relationships. A few doors down from their building, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay lived at 75½ Bedford, which is today a tourist attraction as it is about 9 feet wide. Millay lived there with her husband in the 1920s, when she was openly bisexual.
And on the corner of 75½ Bedford is the Cherry Lane Theatre, housed in a former brewery on Commerce Street and over the years closely associated with gay playwrights like Edward Albee.
You said you wanted to talk about the vestigial triangles and other ruins on South Seventh Avenue.
They were created when Avenue cuts through the neighborhood, exposing the rear facades of buildings like 70 Bedford Street, the back of which is 54 Seventh Avenue South. Women’s Coffeehouse, a lesbian-owned coffeehouse, opened here in 1974. Its owners were Judy O’Neil and Shari Thaler. They wanted to offer a feminist alternative to mob-controlled lesbian bars. They were committed to the rights of lesbian mothers in matters of women and children, particularly in divorce cases involving custody. Across the street was another lesbian bar called Crazy Nanny’s that occupied the ground floor of 21 Seventh Avenue South.
In one of these triangular spaces is an unadorned brick building from the mid-1950s. The bar advertised as “100 percent female and 100 percent female managed,” and like the Oscar Wilde bookstore, its staff and customers were racially diverse.
This was important because at the time Black women were not welcome in many lesbian bars (or Black men’s men’s bars for that matter). Crazy Nanny’s advertised it as a “place for women, biological or otherwise,” meaning it accepted trans women, at a time when this was controversial in lesbian circles. During the AIDS epidemic, lesbians also really stepped up in ways that helped bring the gay and lesbian communities together – Crazy Nanny’s was a prime example.
Andrew, do you have a Village story of your own, may I ask?
I grew up in Midwood, Brooklyn and had no idea that gay communities existed in the world. I went to the Village to look at the buildings and saw all these gays on the street. I hadn’t been out yet. But this got me thinking. So I made up a story for my family and came back at night to explore the neighborhood.
And was that transformative?
It was an awakening.
“Intimate City: Walking New York,” by Michael Kimmelman, will be published by Penguin Press on November 29.