The Fight to Recognize LGBT Civil Rights History in Our Neighborhoods

The Fight to Recognize LGBT Civil Rights History in Our Neighborhoods

On January 16th, 2013, Village Preservation sent a letter to the  New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) requesting that it landmark key sites of significance to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history we had identified. At this time, no buildings in the city were explicitly recognized or protected by the LPC primarily for their connection to major LGBT figures or struggles for LGBT civil rights. Village Preservation argued that this was all the more troubling for Greenwich Village and its surrounding neighborhoods, which house, and have been transformed by, some of the most important LGBT landmarks in the world.

Sip-In at Julius’ Bar, 1966. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Fred McDarrah.

Soon after, we expanded the push to include other sites. We’re proud to say we’ve made remarkable progress since that letter, and that this was not the first time we secured groundbreaking recognition of LGBT civil rights history.  But we’ve also suffered some bitter losses along the way, and confronted some disturbing failures on the part of the LPC, and other city officials, to recognize the value of LGBT historic landmarks. Here’s the rundown:

When the LPC began to identify and protect significant buildings and districts in the city in 1965, its designation reports did not include connections to LGBT figures and movements (the Stonewall Riots were in fact still four years away). In many ways this had changed by 2013. After beginning to fold in references to LGBT history in designation reports for new districts and landmarks, the LPC created a section specifically dedicated to LGBT history in its designation report for the new South Village Historic District we proposed and advocated for on December 17, 2013.  This was the first time the city agency had ever done so, and this was no coincidence — we had included the LGBT history of the district in our proposal and argument for the area’s historic significance.

Still, while this was a major milestone, the LPC’s acknowledgment of LGBT sites remained partial and limited. Older historic district designation reports lacked formal recognition of vital LGBT history, and even though some highly important historic designations had been made on the State and Federal levels, no sites in New York City had been granted landmark status on the basis of their significance to the struggle for LGBT rights.

Why does this matter? The LPC’s designation reports are the documents which guide the regulation of landmarked properties, and reflect the Commission’s official findings of significance for designated sites. Without recognition of a building’s place in LGBT history in a designation report, the LPC would not be required to recognize this history in considering how to regulate, preserve and protect that building. Including this information in a designation report would prevent future changes that would compromise or erase that history.

Of course sometimes the issue is not that a building is landmarked but that the landmark designation does not recognize the relevant LGBT history.  In some cases the city just refused to consider even highly significant LGBT historic sites for landmark designation at all.  Two examples:  the post-Stonewall center of LGBT and AIDS activism 186 Spring Street and the Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments at 133-139 MacDougal Street (which were of course significant for LGBT history and so much more).  In these cases the city allowed these buildings to be demolished (or in the case of the Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments, almost entirely demolished) even after the State of NY recognized them as eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places.  And even LGBT elected officials like City Councilmember and Speaker Christine Quinn, who represented the area, refused to support landmark designation of either building.

Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments at 133-139 MacDougal Street c. 2009 (left) and 186 Spring Street c. 2012 (right)

In spite of these bitter defeats, in Village Preservation’s 2013 letter to the LPC we asked specifically that the Stonewall Inn at 51-53 Christopher Street and Julius’ Bar at 159 West 10th Streets be recognized for their connection to LGBT history. The Stonewall Inn, the site of the Stonewall riots which are internationally recognized as the catalyst for the modern LGBT rights movement, had already been listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1999 after being co-nominated by Village Preservation.  This was the first time any site in the country had been so recognized for LGBT history, and remained the only one for more than a decade following (one year later, the building was also designated a National Historic Landmark, an even higher level of recognition, and in 2016 it was named a National Historic Monument, the highest level of recognition it could achieve). Julius’ Bar, the oldest gay bar in New York and the place where the Mattachine Society held its 1966 “Sip-In,” was determined to be eligible for the State and National Register of Historic Places in 2012 following our request. Nevertheless, the LPC had not yet established its own protections for these sites.

Julius’ Bar at 159 West 10th Street (left) and Stonewall Inn at 51-53 Christopher Street (right), c. 2019

Village Preservation’s letter offered a few options for the LPC to correct these problematic exclusions:

  1. The designation report for the Greenwich Village Historic District could be amended to include information and details about the events which took place at and around the Stonewall Inn and Julius’ and their roles in relation to LGBT history
  2. Either or both of these sites could be considered for individual landmark designation, focusing on their LGBT history as a basis for designation
  3. The designation report for the Greenwich Village Historic District could be amended more broadly to include the larger social history connected to the Village, including its LGBT history. This could include not only the Stonewall Inn and Julius’, but other sites of significance to LGBT history which are also not currently called out in the designation report

In 2015, Village Preservation expanded its LGBT landmarking ask to include the LGBT Community Center at 208 West 13th Street, the former Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street, as well as the Stonewall Inn and Julius’ Bar. Soon after, the City finally landmarked Stonewall, its first landmark designation based on LGBT history. Meanwhile, Village Preservation continued to campaign for the former two sites, and at last, on June 18, 2019, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to landmark both, along with four others. One of those, the Caffe Cino at 31 Cornelia Street, also in Greenwich Village, was landmarked in 2010 as part of an extension of the Greenwich Village Historic District proposed by Village Preservation which included recognition of the site’s LGBT historic significance.

Unfortunately, despite these major achievements, Julius’ Bar at 159 West 10th Street is still not under consideration for landmark designation to this day.

LGBT Community Center at 208 West 13th Street (left) and the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street (right), 2019

Village Preservation has long fought for formal recognition of LGBT and civil rights histories, pushing the boundaries for what and who counts as meaningful in the legacy of our city and our neighborhoods. In 2017 we launched an online Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, documenting now over 200 sites of significance to the struggle for LGBT, Women’s, African-American, Latino/a, and Asian-American civil rights in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. We have also more recently developed an “LGBTQ Sites” tour as part of our interactive map database Greenwich Village Historic District, 1969-2019: Photos and Tours, which includes 39 places of LGBT significance in the Greenwich Village Historic District. Although all of these sites are within the historic district, designated in 1969, its designation report still fails to include the buildings’ importance to the neighborhood’s LGBT life. Our map also includes other tours showing spots of social change, homes of transformative women, locations highlighting African-American and Jewish history, and much more – all expanding upon the district’s original designation report and serving as a template for an expanded designation report.

Village Preservation’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, 2019

These maps, and our advocacy efforts, continue to grow as we fill in the largely-unknown and under-recognized stories, individuals, and communities that characterize our neighborhood as a pivotal center of orbit in LGBT and broader civil rights and social justice history.

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