Mapping LGBT history

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Historic sites project highlights key NYC landmarks for activism and culture


  • AIDS activists at a 1988 Pride March in New York City. Photo: Eugene Gordon/New-York Historical Society Library

“We want people to understand that LGBT history is American history ... We want to show people that the community had such a big influence on American and New York City culture.”

Ken Lustbader, co-director of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

As New York City prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising this June, one group is seeking to bring attention to the often underappreciated past of the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community through a focus on historic landmarks.

The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, launched in 2015 by a group of historians and preservationists, has set out to document the breadth and diversity of New York City’s LGBT culture in an interactive online map featuring research on an ever-growing list of significant sites that currently features over 150 entries.

The Stonewall Inn — site of the 1969 clashes between gay New Yorkers and police that helped spark the LGBT rights movement in New York City and across the country — is, of course, included on the map, as are a number of other prominent Greenwich Village sites that have made the neighborhood a hub of LGBT culture and activism for decades. But part of the project’s goal is to broaden the public’s understanding of LGBT history to encompass sometimes overlooked sites that also played key roles in shaping activism and culture.

“The LGBT rights movement didn’t just start at Stonewall,” said Ken Lustbader, co-director of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. “Stonewall was a key turning point, but in New York City there was definitely already a very active and effective movement” organized through such early LGBT rights groups such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.

“We really want people to understand New York City, in all the boroughs, had a rich LGBT past,” Lustbader continued. “People lived their lives while under oppressive conditions, but there were moments of joy and celebration, where people connected with community in public spaces or in controlled commercial spaces.”

A Bar and a Bathhouse

One such commercial space highlighted in the group’s research is the Fifth Avenue Bar, which emerged as a popular gathering place for gay men in the 1940s and 1950s. The bar — which was located not on Fifth Avenue but on the Upper West Side, within a cafeteria in the Dorilton building on Broadway — was shut down by the New York State Liquor Authority in 1953 after a plainclothes officer reported “indecent” activity and men behaving in a “female way.”

The bar’s owners sued, leading to a court decision that limited the SLA’s power to revoke the licenses of bars that catered to LGBT clientele, which the authority had considered de facto disorderly.

“In the future, the SLA was required to prove that the gay men or lesbians present in a bar had engaged in conduct that was actually disorderly (not simply their presence), and that the establishment had acquiesced in that behavior,” the project’s entry on the Fifth Avenue Bar states. “This court decision was cited in many subsequent cases, but in reality, the SLA and the police mostly ignored it, and harassment of establishments attracting a gay clientele continued for another two decades.”

Twenty years later and a block north, another of Broadway’s grand old Beaux-Arts buildings housed another establishment with an important place in LGBT history. The Continental Baths, opened in 1968 in the former Turkish baths in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel, became a center for the gay community that would achieve legendary status during the post-Stonewall era.

The bathhouse was an all-encompassing facility that included not just a pool and saunas but also food, hundreds of private rooms, a dance floor, an STD clinic and, famously, a cabaret that hosted the likes or Bette Midler and Barry Manilow. (The lounge acts became a mainstream attraction and, to the displeasure of some clients, eventually came to overshadow the bathhouse experience.)

“It was an opportunity to meet and have your own liberation after so many people had been oppressed,” Lustbader said. “The timing was perfect because it became a place to explore one’s sexuality outside of the shame and isolation that was the norm for so many people.”

Though the police raids continued and the Continental Baths closed by the mid-1970s, the bathhouse had an enduring effect on New York City culture.

“It had such an impact, because everybody went to the baths — it was known far and wide,” Lustbader said. “The baths played not just a sexual role but also an important political and social role, and it’s something that should be recognized.”

Artists and Activists

The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project’s mission to “make invisible history visible” also extends to individual residences where LGBT artists and activists lived and worked — like the West 92nd Street apartment of writer Joan Nestle that was also the original home of the influential Lesbian Herstory Archives, and the East Side residences of Jerome Robbins and Andy Warhol — and public spaces where important events in LGBT history took place, such as Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, which hosted the first AIDS Walk fundraiser in 1986.

In connection with this year’s Pride festivities, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project will host a guided walking tour of historic Upper West Side sites June 4 in partnership with the New-York Historical Society, which recently opened a Stonewall 50 exhibition.

“We want people to understand that LGBT history is American history,” Lustbader said. “We are really trying to make the case that it’s not just self-referential. We want to show people that the community had such a big influence on American and New York City culture.”

Several historic sites included in the project appeared poised to soon gain official recognition from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The LPC voted in May to hold public hearings regarding the possible designation of six sites as individual landmarks, including the LGBT Community Center in Greenwich Village and the West 71st Street home of James Baldwin.

The activists behind the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, who have advocated for the LPC designations, believe that increasing public awareness of these buildings’ past is much more than a symbolic exercise. “The recognition of this tangible heritage also has intangible benefits relating to identity, community and continuity,” Lustbader said. “It helps current and future generations reduce shame and isolation.”

“Someone who is young, coming out, can go look at this information and not feel so different,” he continued. “By knowing that there are other people in the past who have walked in your shoes, so to speak, you can really have a better understanding of who you are and not feel so alone.”

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