A First for Recognizing LGBT History in the South Village
Over the past several weeks, we’ve been highlighting the recent designation of the South Village Historic District, which GVSHP fought ten years to achieve, as well as the treasure trove of information found in the newly-available designation report for the district, which in several cases cites research and materials provided by GVSHP.
The South Village’s history is so special in so many ways, and the designation report does a great job of highlighting and dissecting some of the neighborhood’s many great layers of history — from its African-American history (the South Village was once home to “Little Africa,” New York’s largest African-American community), to its Italian-American immigrant history, to its artistic and bohemian history.
But this designation report also broke new ground by, for the first time ever for a New York City historic district designation report, including a chapter focused specifically on a neighborhood’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) history. And to the surprise of many, the South Village was once the center of the world for LGBT New Yorkers. In fact, a century ago, the South Village one of the few places on earth with an open and visible concentration of establishments catering to the LGBT community, attracting visitors and tourists from around the world.
The designation report describes a number of “notorious” establishments on Bleecker Street in the South Village in the 1890’s which catered to gay men, including “The Slide” and “The Black Rabbit,” and notes that “Mills House No. 1 (1896), 156 Bleecker Street, was one desirable…living place along the notorious strip of Bleecker Street: its attractiveness as a residence for working-class gay men is suggested by the frequency with which its residents appeared in the magistrate’s courts on homosexual charges.”
By the 1910’s and 20’s the center of gay life shifted somewhat to MacDougal, West 3rd and West 4th Streets, with a swath of lesbian and gay-oriented establishments including “Eve’s Tearoom” at 129 MacDougal Street, The Black Rabbit at 111 MacDougal Street (now the Minetta Tavern, and unrelated to the earlier Black Rabbit), and the Heterodoxy Club.
In the 1930’s and the post-war period, lesbian and gay hangouts in the South Village became interwoven with the increasingly bohemian character of the neighborhood, with “Louis’ Luncheon at 116 MacDougal Street…a hangout popular with gay men and lesbians, writers, and chorus girls (1930s-40s), that later became the beat hangout Gaslight Cafe (aka Gaslight Poetry Cafe), and then the lesbian bar El Café (c. 1975),” while “Tony Pastor’s Downtown, 130 West 3rd Street (1939-67), had a mixed clientele of lesbians and tourists, some gay men, and female impersonators. Raided on morals charges in 1944 for permitting lesbians to ‘loiter’ on the premises, Pastor’s survived apparently with mob backing.”
Meanwhile, according to the designation report, “The Music Box, 121 West 3rd Street (c. 1950-72), was one of the places listed in a 1955-56 F.B.I. investigative report of ‘notorious types and places of amusement’ in the Village that stated
A majority of the bars and restaurants in this area cater to lesbians and homosexuals, quite a few of whom reside in the area and are not inhibited in the pursuit of their amorous conquests. In the bars and restaurants there will also be found a segment of the tourist trade who go to the Village to observe the lesbians and queers at play and to enjoy the atmosphere of the “gay life.”
As the report accounts, though no one knew it at the time, LGBT history was made in the South Village more than fifty years ago at “Portofino, 206 Thompson Street (c. 1959-75)…an Italian restaurant that was a discreet meeting place frequented on Friday evenings by lesbians. The recent path-breaking Supreme Court decision in 2013 that overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act had its roots in the meeting here in 1963 of Edith S. Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer. The couple eventually married in Canada in 2007 and Windsor challenged the act after receiving a large tax bill from inheriting Speyer’s estate.”
If all of this has a vaguely familiar ring to it, it might be because GVSHP’s original report nominating the South Village for landmark designation in 2006 also included a section on the neighborhood’s LGBT history here, and GVSHP has long touted the neighborhood’s LGBT history, along with its African-American history, Italian-American and immigrant history, artistic and bohemian history, and incredible architecture, as a reason for it meriting landmark designation.
As GVSHP members and readers of Off the Grid know, we have not been sparing in our criticisms of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission for its failure to recognize and preserve our city’s rich array of sites connected to LGBT history — including two of the most important sites, located in the proposed South Village Historic District, which the LPC allowed to be demolished: 186 Spring Street and the Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments.
Perhaps they have listened to some of those criticisms, or perhaps people have been working from the inside of the Commission for some time to expand its recognition of LGBT history. Either way, the South Village Historic District designation report is real progress. We hope — and intend to work to see — that more will take place soon.