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Greenwich Village, Storied Home of Bohemia and Gay History

The fountainhead of American bohemia, Greenwich Village has always departed from the straight and narrow. Its entanglements of winding streets, defying the city grid, include remnants of cow paths and property lines from when the area was a sprawl of Dutch, then English, farms.

The Village as a historically gay neighborhood has long been a source of local pride, but it seemed mostly unremarkable to me and to my childhood friends who were native Villagers because it was simply another fact of daily life. Long before our time, MacDougal Street had been an early hub for L.G.B.T.Q. clubs and tearooms like the Black Rabbit. By the 1970s, the neighborhood’s gay epicenter had shifted toward Christopher Street, the oldest street in the Village, its irregular route tracing the border of what had been the British admiral Peter Warren’s Colonial-era estate.

Not long ago I asked Andrew Dolkart, an architectural historian at Columbia University, to construct an L.G.B.T.Q. tour of the Village. Dolkart is a co-founder of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project and a co-author of the nomination for Stonewall to the National Register of Historic Places. What follows is an edited excerpt of our conversation, which appears in my new book, “The Intimate City: Walking New York.” The book grew out of walks I organized across the city with various architects, historians and others during the early months of Covid-19, a number of which were published by The Times. This Village walk was one of several written for the book.

MICHAEL KIMMELMAN Andrew,during the summer of 1969, police raided a bar at 51-53 Christopher Street called the Stonewall Inn.

ANDREW DOLKART In the 1960s, the Stonewall Inn was a Mafia-controlled bar, as were almost all gay and lesbian bars, because the State Liquor Authority decreed that the mere presence of a homosexual in a bar constituted disorderly conduct. The Mafia ran these bars and paid off the police. But there were still raids every now and then. In June of 1969, there was one on Stonewall. Usually with these raids the police arrested a few people, everybody left and things went back to normal. But in this case, the patrons of the bar fought back and a crowd developed outside. People started throwing things. Some police eventually had to barricade themselves in the bar. Demonstrations continued for several nights. The authorities didn’t really know how to handle the situation.

In July 1969, a group of people gathered in the area around the Stonewall Inn during the days of the uprising.Credit…Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

Why there and then?

There had been earlier incidents in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where L.G.B.T.Q. people fought back. They were clearly fed up and saw all of these other liberation movements in the country gaining traction — women’s liberation, civil rights, the antiwar protests. David Carter, who wrote a book about Stonewall and helped us get Stonewall on the National Register, pointed out that the police tactical group that raided the bar that night was not familiar with the layout of Greenwich Village, and so when officers tried to clear the crowd, the crowd simply ran down all these irregular streets and circled right back, which kept the action going. That’s why the National Register listing includes the Stonewall building, Christopher Park, and all of the streets around it, as far east as Sixth Avenue.

The register in a sense nods to the Village at large as a gay haven.

Its gay history goes back at least to the early 20th century, when Greenwich Village was becoming a bohemian capital. Back then, there were lots of unmarried people living together in the Village, which made it attractive to same-sex couples because they could live more openly.

Christopher Park, which features a sculpture by George Segal, is still a neighborhood gathering spot.Credit…Zack DeZon

Was there something distinct about the architecture or the physical layout of the Village that attracted outliers?

The Village’s housing stock was a big factor. We now think of multimillion-dollar sales of old rowhouses in the Village, so it’s hard for some people to imagine that the Village used to be cheap and rundown. Those old rowhouses were not always beloved, and a lot of them were subdivided into cold-water flats or had become rooming houses. The associated low rents, of course, are why the bohemians initially gravitated to Greenwich Village.

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For the same reasons, the Village also became a magnet for immigrants and working people escaping disease and overcrowding in Lower Manhattan.

You can still see some of these early houses on streets like Grove and Bedford, where affluent people moved during the early 19th century after outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever farther downtown. Then came waves of development in the 1830s and ’40s, and with it, increasing class stratification. Fifth Avenue and the northern side of Washington Square become prestigious. Then houses become increasingly more modest as you approach the Hudson River waterfront.

The waterfront had Newgate Prison. There were taverns and lumberyards and meat processing warehouses. I’ve always been struck by how the Village remained fairly isolated from the rest of the city partly because for a long time it was not connected to uptown districts by the big north-south avenues.

Seventh and Sixth Avenues sliced through the neighborhood only with the construction of the subways, which is why there are now all these crazy little triangle sites where you see the backs of old houses facing onto the avenues. We’ll get to them later. You mentioned immigrants. The Village morphed into a neighborhood for Italians in the South Village, Germans and others to the west, with clusters of African Americans in the so-called Minettas and around Cornelia Street. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were several very different Villages.

It was still an Italian, working-class neighborhood where I grew up. We were talking about the Stonewall Inn and I led us off track. What was that building before it was a bar?

It was a pair of two-story horse stables. Then in 1930, the facade was redone, with brick on the bottom, stucco and flower-box balconies on top, which you see in old photographs. In 1934, it became Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn, a restaurant and bar, which closed in 1964. Shortly after, the gay bar that took over adopted the old name and kept the exterior signage.

A bar for both men and women?

Occasionally women, mostly younger men, some of whom were gender nonconforming. Lesbians patronized various Mafia-run lesbian bars elsewhere in the Village, like the Sea Colony and Kooky’s.

The Stonewall Inn, on Christopher Street, in 1966.Credit…Larry C. Morris/The New York Times
The Stonewall Inn is now a city landmark.Credit…Zack DeZon

Stonewall is now a landmark but clearly not for its architecture.

Another way to say this is that buildings have lives. When we advocated for the city to designate Stonewall a landmark, I remember a guy speaking up at a public hearing, saying he was in favor of designation, but that we should not forget that Stonewall was in fact a dreary dump.

But as Lillian Faderman, a historian of lesbian history, has put it, Stonewall “sounded the rally for the movement,” leading to the founding of organizations like the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance, and the Radicalesbians. The Christopher Street Liberation Day march, on the one-year anniversary of Stonewall, became the annual Pride Parade, which now happens in dozens of countries.

Just west of Stonewall, I also want to point out 59 Christopher Street, a building that housed the last headquarters of the New York City chapter of the Mattachine Society, an early national gay rights organization — at the time the phrase was “homophile organization” — founded in Los Angeles in 1950. After Stonewall, the Mattachine Society was supplanted by more radical groups, but it was important pre-Stonewall for doing many significant things, as we will see when we get to Julius’ bar, just up the street. I want to stop first at 15 Christopher, where the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop relocated in 1973.

The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, at 15 Christopher Street, around the 1970s.Credit…Edmund Vincent Gillon/Museum of the City of New York, via Getty Images
The facade of 15 Christopher Street now.Credit…Zack DeZon

A Federal rowhouse. I would pass it on my way to and from P.S. 41, my elementary school.

The casement windows on the second floor were probably added in the 1920s — casement windows became popular then — and those very large ground-floor picture windows came later. They made the bookstore welcoming, but vulnerable. Someone threw a brick through them at one point. The shop had been founded in 1967 by Craig Rodwell, originally in a tiny storefront on Mercer Street, near Waverly Place. Then Rodwell moved it to Christopher to make it more conspicuous and central to the gay community. The goal was to be a relaxed, friendly place where young people would feel comfortable, where everybody was welcome. Among his papers at the New York Public Library are touching letters from people who describe standing outside the bookshop for an hour trying to get up the courage to go in. It became a second home for many gay people. Alison Bechdel said that she came to the shop as a young lesbian, not sure what she wanted to do with her life, and saw all these gay and lesbian comic books, and that inspired her to become a graphic novelist.

Rodwell also hired a multiracial staff, which was a statement in itself at the time.

It lasted until 2009, when the internet was beginning to kill independent bookstores, and general-interest bookshops were selling L.G.B.T.Q. literature.

Julius’, just a few steps away, is at the corner of Waverly and 10th Street.

Julius’, at the corner of Waverly and West 10th Street, is one of the oldest gay bars in the city.Credit…Zack DeZon

One of the oldest gay bars in New York.

In the mid-60s the Mattachine Society decided to challenge the New York State Liquor Authority policy that a bar could be closed down if it knowingly served a homosexual. Dick Leitsch, the Mattachine Society president; Rodwell, the bookstore owner, who was its vice president; and John Timmons, another society member, decided to go to bars along with newspaper reporters, announce they were gay, ask for a drink, and wait to be denied. They went to a Ukrainian American place on St. Marks Place that had a sign: “If you are gay, please go away.” One of the reporters apparently tipped off the bar beforehand, so it closed before the group arrived. Then they went to a Howard Johnson’s on Sixth Avenue.

I remember that Howard Johnson’s.

They sat down, asked to see the manager, said “We’re homosexuals,” and then ordered drinks. The manager just laughed and served them. So that didn’t work. They tried a Polynesian-themed bar called Waikiki and the same thing happened. Finally, they decided to go to Julius’ because Julius’ had recently been raided, and they figured the bar owners would probably be wary. They were right. There’s a photograph of the bartender refusing to serve them.

In 1966, a bartender at Julius’ bar refusing to serve members of the Mattachine Society, a gay rights group.Credit…Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Fred McDarrah’s famous picture. In the photo you see the bartender with his hand over one of the glasses.

Heading west on Christopher toward Seventh Avenue South, there’s the wonderful 1930s “taxpayer” at the corner, which was once home to Stewart’s Cafeteria.

What’s a taxpayer?

A building built to cover the site’s property taxes until the owner could afford to construct something more extravagant. There had been a plan to put up an apartment house on this corner, designed by George & Edward Blum, but with the Depression it was never built and instead we still have this wonderful two-story Art Deco building, whose first tenant was Stewart’s Cafeteria. Stewart’s was a popular chain of the era and this branch became a famous haunt for a flamboyantly gay and lesbian crowd, performing for tourists who would sometimes stand three or four people deep, staring through the windows. Further west, down Christopher Street, I wanted to point out 337 Bleecker Street, where Lorraine Hansberry wrote “A Raisin in the Sun.”

The playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry in her apartment at 337 Bleecker Street in 1959.Credit…David Attie/Getty Images

A simple, three-story Italianate-style building from the 1860s.

The building is fine, but I mention it because of Hansberry. She was a writer and also a civil rights activist. She moved into the apartment on the third floor with her husband in 1953, and when they separated in 1957, she privately comes out among a circle of lesbians, writing under a pseudonym for a journal called “The Ladder,” which was the national monthly magazine of the Daughters of Bilitis, the lesbian equivalent of the Mattachine Society. Hansberry’s social circle at the time included lesbian writers like Patricia Highsmith, who lived with her parents from 1940 to 1942 at 48 Grove Street while she was a student at Barnard. A few blocks from there, the journalist Anna Rochester and Grace Hutchins, a fellow labor reformer, lived in an apartment at 85 Bedford Street from 1924 through Anna’s death in 1966, until Grace’s death in 1969. Rochester and Hutchins had what historians now would refer to as a Boston marriage, a term that derives from Henry James’s “The Bostonians” — they were women from affluent backgrounds who lived together in very close, loving relationships. A few doors down from their building, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay lived at 75½ Bedford, a tourist attraction today because it’s just about nine feet wide. Millay lived there during the 1920s with her husband when she was openly bisexual.

The narrowest house in the Village, 75 1/2 Bedford, center, is just about nine feet wide.Credit…Zack DeZon

And around the corner from 75½ Bedford is the Cherry Lane Theater, in a former brewery on Commerce Street, which over the years became closely associated with gay playwrights like Edward Albee.

The Cherry Lane Theater, which occupies a former brewery on Commerce Street, is associated with gay playwrights like Edward Albee.Credit…Zack DeZon

You said you wanted to talk about all those vestigial triangles and other remnants along Seventh Avenue South.

They were created when the avenue was cut through the neighborhood, exposing the rear facades of buildings like 70 Bedford Street, whose back became 54 Seventh Avenue South. That’s where the Women’s Coffeehouse, a lesbian-owned coffeehouse, opened in 1974. Judy O’Neil and Shari Thaler were its owners. They wanted to provide a feminist alternative to the Mafia-controlled lesbian bars. They were committed to issues around women and children, especially the rights of lesbian mothers in divorce cases involving custody. Across the street was another lesbian bar called Crazy Nanny’s, which occupied the ground floor of 21 Seventh Avenue South.

An unadorned brick building from the mid-1950s, on one of those triangular sites. The bar advertised itself as “100 percent women owned and 100 percent women managed,” and like the Oscar Wilde bookshop its staff and clientele were racially diverse.

That was significant because back then Black women didn’t feel welcome at a lot of lesbian bars (or Black men at men’s bars, for that matter). Crazy Nanny’s advertised itself as “a place for women, biological or otherwise,” meaning it welcomed trans women, at a time when that was controversial in lesbian circles. During the AIDS epidemic, lesbians also really stepped up — Crazy Nanny’s was a prime example — in ways that helped bring the gay and lesbian communities together.

Andrew, may I ask, do you have a Village story of your own?

I grew up in Midwood, Brooklyn, and I had no notion that gay communities existed in the world. I went to the Village to look at buildings and saw all these gay people on the street. I hadn’t come out yet. But this got me thinking. So I made up a story for my parents, and I went back to explore the neighborhood at night.

And that was transformative?

It was an awakening.

“Intimate City: Walking New York,” by Michael Kimmelman, will be published on Nov. 29 by Penguin Press.

A row of brownstones on St. Luke’s Place. Credit…Zack DeZon

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