Mapping history in Greenwich Village
A new project pinpoints key sites in the LGBTQ, women's and civil rights movements
Billie Holiday, pictured performing in New York in 1947, first sang the haunting “Strange Fruit” at Café Society in Greenwich Village, one of dozens of sites pinpointed on a map where significant events of the LGBTQ, women's and minority rights movements took place. Photo: William P. Gottlieb
Another mapped site is 18 West 10th Street, which was home to writer and immigrant rights activist Emma Lazarus during the mid-1800s. Photo: T. Johnson - The New York Historical Society.
By Madeleine Thompson
What do the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, Café Society and 18 West 10th Street have in common? These sites are all significant to civil rights and social justice movements that have taken place in Greenwich Village. They are some of the nearly 100 important places listed on a new map created by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) to raise awareness of key moments in history relating to LGBTQ, women's and minority rights.
The inspiration for the map came out of the current political climate. “Being conscious of what's going on in the country and the world around us right now, we just thought it was especially important to document and celebrate these accomplishments, these people, these institutions,” said Andrew Berman, president of the GVSHP. “I think that you never appreciate something so much as when you know it's under threat and that it's in danger of being lost.”
One key site on the map is 18 West 10th Street, home to writer and immigrant rights activist Emma Lazarus during the mid-1800s. Her best known poem is the sonnet that graces the monument of another famous New York City woman: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Barely five blocks from Lazarus’s former home is the original location of the Oscar Wilde Bookshop. According to a New York Times article from 2009, it was believed to be the oldest LGBTQ bookstore in the country until it closed in March of that year. “In 1967 Craig Rodwell started this landmark store that not only sold Gay and Lesbian literature but also became a meeting place for the LGBT community,” Kim Brinster, the store’s then-owner, said at the time.
Across Washington Square Park from the former bookstore is Café Society, where singer Billie Holiday first performed the song “Strange Fruit” to protest lynching and racism. Barney Josephson opened the nightclub in 1938, and it became the first in the city to integrate.
“Very few people know that this part of town was the center of African-American life in New York City in the middle of the 19th century,” said Berman. “There were a variety of churches and institutions that were connected to that community there, almost all of which have been demolished or gone.” Donna Schaper, senior minister at Judson Memorial Church, is planning to use the map in some of her classes.
Berman said that thousands more sites could easily be added to the map. “We consider it a work in progress,” he said. ”In fact, we’re inviting the public to submit nominations to us, of which we’ve already received some great ones.” Berman’s team researched each location thoroughly in the six months between the inception and execution of the idea. “It’s not just about the past,” Berman said. “These are the underpinnings of our present. They tell us a lot about how we got where we are and where we’re going.”
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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