LGBTQ History: Bleecker Street
An early twentieth-century song entitled ‘The Greenwich Village Epic’ declares: ‘Fairyland’s not far from Washington Square.’ By this time, park police had arrested men for having sex with male partners multiple times in Washington Square Park, as they had in Central Park, Battery Park, Tomkins Square Park, and seemingly just about every other park in the city in the early twentieth century. Meanwhile, the Bowery was dotted with bars, beer gardens, and resorts that catered to men interested in men by the late nineteenth century, and Bleecker Street and was already a hotspot for ‘homosexual’ activities.
Mills House No. 1 was built at 156 Bleecker Street in 1896, by the philanthropist Darius O. Mills. It was the first of two massive houses meant to provide a ‘moral’ alternative to rooming houses, hotels, etc., where freedom from supervision allowed unmarried men to take both women, and other men, back to their rooms, among other things. The same idea was taken up by the YMCA in building their dormitories, beginning in the same year. The idea, however, did not necessarily work in practice. By the First World War, New York’s YMCAs had established a reputation as centers of gay social and sexual life. The Mills Houses acquired a similar reputation: in March of 1920, at least three men quartered there were arrested on homosexual charges.
Either in an ironic coincidence, or in an attempt to reestablish morality in the area, Mills House No. 1 had been built directly across from ‘one of the most vile, vulgar resorts in the city’: the Slide.
The Slide at No. 157, owned by Frank Stevenson, was popularly known as the center of New York’s gay nightlife in the 1890s. A New York Herald reporter wrote:
‘It is a fact that the Slide and the unspeakable nature of the orgies practised there are a matter of common talk among men who are bent on taking in the town, making a night of it…’ (Gay New York, 37)
In 1915, one retrospective account described the Slide as:
‘one of the most vile, vulgar resorts in the city, where no man of decent inclinations would remain for five minutes without being nauseated. Here men of degenerate type were the waiters, some of them going to the extent of rouging their necks. In falsetto voices they sang filthy ditties, and when not otherwise busy would drop into a chair at the table of any visitor who would brook their awful presence.’ (Gay New York, 39)
The Slide was a ‘fairy resort,’ or a place where men could pay for sex with male prostitutes. However, it was more than simply a brothel that catered to men who desired sex with ‘fairies’. It was a place where they could socialize with friends, and entertain regulars, tourists, and each other. Here, one Charles Nesbitt, a medical student, met a man known as ‘Princess Toto.’ ‘Princess Toto’ told Nesbitt that ‘nature had made him this way,’ and that there were ‘many men such as he.’ He invited Nesbitt to a Walhalla Hall ball, where he saw ‘some five hundred same-sex male and female couples in attendance, “waltzing sedately to the music of a good band.”’ Apart from being a spectacle for moralizing tourists, then, the Slide also served as a way for gay men to find emotional support, and an entry point into a much larger ‘gay’ world. (Gay New York, 40-41)
The Slide was closed by the police in 1892. From 1976 to 2012, No. 157 housed a rock club called Kenny’s Castaways. The large mahogany bar in front, and the high gallery in the back of the club, both dated back to the nineteenth century, and the building’s days as ‘the worst dive in New York.’
This was not the end of Bleecker Street’s LGBTQ institutions, however. Numerous beer gardens that catered to the working class and its ‘gay’ community survived the 1890s, serving, just as the Slide did, as centers of support in addition to providing social (and sometimes sexual) services. The Slide was also survived by the Black Rabbit, at 183 Bleecker Street.
In the 1890s, the Black Rabbit offered live sex shows as part of its draw. It was closed by the police in 1899, reopened, and was raided again in 1900 by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Those arrested during this raid included a French floorman known as the ‘Jarbean Fairy,’ a woman who anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock called a ‘sodomite for pay,’ and a person who Comstock called a ‘hermaphrodite,’ who apparently displayed their genitalia as part of the show. (Gay New York, 37)
The Black Rabbit and the Slide, together, represent the earliest known sites of LGBTQ activity in New York in the nineteenth century. Of course, there had been sodomy trials in the 17th and 18th centuries. These two institutions, however, represent some of the earliest evidence of a ‘gay’ community in New York.
Learn more about LGBTQ history in the Village by clicking here.