Place and Community: An Interview with the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project
By: Gotham Center
What is the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project? How did it come to be?
The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project is a cultural heritage initiative that is documenting historic places associated with the LGBT community throughout the city’s five boroughs. We’re focusing on sites directly connected to LGBT history, but also sites that show the impact the LGBT community has made on New York and American culture. Our goal is to broaden people’s understanding of this history beyond Stonewall by documenting all kinds of sites (such as community spaces, former residences of notable figures, activist demonstration locations, and performance venues) from the founding of New Amsterdam in the 17th century to the year 2000. We’re putting an LGBT lens on the city’s history and currently have over 130 sites mapped, with an internal master list of over 300 more sites, and counting. We’re also nominating LGBT-related sites to the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government’s honorary list of sites deemed significant to American history, in order to increase LGBT representation.
The project began in 2015, but its roots really formed in the early 1990s. At that time, our three project directors/founders — Andrew Dolkart, Ken Lustbader, and Jay Shockley — were part of the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects + Designers (OLGAD), which produced a map of LGBT historic sites in Greenwich Village, Midtown, and Harlem. They each continued researching and writing about LGBT history over the years — which included nominating Stonewall as the first-ever LGBT listing on the National Register in 1999 and first-ever LGBT National Historic Landmark in 2000 — and in 2014 they applied for an Underrepresented Communities grant from the National Park Service, administered by the New York State Historic Preservation Office. With additional matching grants from the New York Community Trust, the Arcus Foundation, and others, they hired me as project manager a year later.
What new aspects of the project have developed over the past year?
The project began as a survey of historic sites intended to be placed on a publicly-accessible map (now available on our website) and submitted more formally to the New York State Historic Preservation Office. Since then, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of people, including a new generation of LGBT activists, who have approached us with ways to take this project in directions we hadn’t necessarily anticipated. From the beginning we have been giving educational presentations to high school and college students as well as adults, but over a year ago we were contacted by both an educational consultant and the founders of History UnErased who felt that the content on our website could be used as an effective curriculum tool. We recently presented our work to public school teachers at an NYC Department of Education conference, and were thrilled with the enthusiastic response. We are working with all these stakeholders to implement LGBT history into the city’s public school curriculum.
How do you feel a place-based approach provides a unique perspective on New York’s LGBT history?
It’s one thing to talk about history and see it in photos; it’s quite another, I think, to be able to stand in front of the building and connect with the people and events that came before you. We heard from a schoolteacher recently who wanted to take her daughter to see the buildings where gay and lesbian civil rights activists James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Bayard Rustin lived. There is something about that tangible link to history — a hidden history — that is so powerful.
Place also holds particular meaning for marginalized groups. More so (but not exclusively) in the past, the LGBT community would have been acutely aware of which spaces they could exist openly and which they could not. It is interesting from a preservation perspective to take that into account when recording these histories. When I wrote the National Register nomination for the Caffe Cino, I focused on its importance as the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway, but also for its pioneering role in developing gay theater and supporting gay artists in the pre-Stonewall era (when it was illegal to depict homosexuality on stage). I found quotes from gay playwrights who spoke about walking through the Cino’s doors and feeling like they could write about anything. One of the most moving remembrances came from the late playwright William Hoffman, who said, “I never would have been a playwright without the Caffe Cino. I never certainly would have written about gay subjects that freely. That was the kind of empowerment that the place gave us. We were no longer victims.”
Do you think of yourself as a preservationist organization? Is part of your goal to landmark or advocate for the preservation of the sites you feature that are still standing?
Yes, we definitely see ourselves as a preservationist organization. We all have worked as historic preservationists in various capacities and graduated from Columbia’s Historic Preservation program. Our project is very much place-based and focuses on sites that are still standing, though we do have an internal list of demolished sites. The narrative of each site focuses more on the LGBT-related cultural significance, but a few of the buildings and works of public art that we have mapped were designed by gay and lesbian architects and artists. In addition, we’re seeing that our research has direct social justice connections by providing a physical link to prior protests, community centers, and activists.
As far as landmarking and advocating for the preservation of these sites, one of the most important aspects of the project is to first raise public awareness of LGBT history and the cultural contributions of the community to American history; it’s virtually impossible to rally the public and elected officials around a campaign to protect sites from demolition/extensive alterations if most people are unaware that this history even exists. Having said that, we have written three nominations to the State and National Registers of Historic Places (Julius’, Caffe Cino, and Earl Hall at Columbia University) and amended the National Register nomination for the Alice Austen House on Staten Island to include its LGBT history. Those were written as part of the National Park Service (NPS) grant and we are writing two more as part of a second grant. We’ve also just submitted a context statement for LGBT history in New York City to the New York State Historic Preservation Office (which administers the NPS grants) in order to provide guidance to the state office, preservationists, and others in recognizing and evaluating LGBT historic sites. At the city level, we’re working with the Walt Whitman Coalition to advocate that the Landmarks Preservation Commission designate Whitman’s house, at 99 Ryerson Street in Brooklyn, a New York City Landmark.
How do you hope people will use your content?
We see the website as a starting off point to inspire further research, whether this be done by students, scholars, or anyone with an interest in this history. The effort to landmark Walt Whitman’s home actually began with a young preservationist who was shocked to learn through our website and presentations that the building wasn’t a protected landmark. We are also hoping people will walk by some of these buildings and take pride in the fact that LGBT history happened there or they will look again at a site or person they may have already known about with a new perspective. For those who don’t live in the New York City area, and perhaps do not feel they can be open about their sexuality or gender identity, our website can be a valuable and affirming resource. LGBT history, people, and events are rarely taught or even discussed in the classroom — and even then they are limited to urban centers like New York City or San Francisco — so we hope that our website can be a learning tool for all youth.
What’s next for the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project?
We’ve been busy during Pride Month giving presentations and attending various events. On June 26th, we’ll be giving our first-ever public walking tour of sites around Stonewall National Monument. As I mentioned earlier, we have two more National Register nominations to complete. We have a few ideas for which sites we would like to focus on, but we first have to obtain owner consent and evaluate the interior integrity of the space, both challenging. We’re also part of the Stonewall50 Consortium, which is an organization that has brought together cultural institutions and groups in order to facilitate discussion about programming and events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in 2019. Through this, we are part of a team of advisors for the New-York Historical Society’s May-September 2019 exhibition on LGBTQ bars and nightlife in the pre- and post-Stonewall eras. The exhibition will focus on these spaces as sites of liberation, activism, and oppression, and will help contextualize the Stonewall uprising.
We are also looking at various ways in which we can take the information on our website and make it even more useful for people, particularly for those who will be visiting the city for World Pride (New York City is the host city in 2019). We’ve exploring the idea of an app with curated walking tours.
Finally, we’re always working on adding more sites to the website as they are researched and written. A historic preservation graduate student is currently researching pre-Stonewall lesbian bar spaces that we will begin publishing to our website in late June. Through continued research and public outreach, we are also focusing our efforts on documenting more sites associated with women, people of color, and the transgender community as well as those sites located in upper Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island.
Amanda Davis is an architectural historian and has been the project manager of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project since its founding in 2015. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in architectural history from the University of Virginia and a Master’s in historic preservation from Columbia University.
In Memoriam: Dick Leitsch, pioneering LGBT activist
On Friday, June 22, 2018, Richard “Dick” Leitsch, the pioneering and innovative LGBT activist, passed away. He was 83 years old.
Dick will forever be remembered as the mastermind behind the game-changing “Sip In” at Julius’ Bar, one of the earliest acts of civil disobedience in the LGBT movement. As then-president of the Mattachine Society, Dick created a media moment that changed the course of history, captured in the famous photo by Fred W. McDarrah.
Dick remained committed to the LGBT equal rights movement throughout his life, and we are all indebted to his early leadership and trailblazing actions. His spirit will live on in each of us.
Raise a glass tonight in honor of Dick Leitsch. And next time you’re in Greenwich Village, sip a cocktail in his honor at Julius’ Bar.
Photos: (1) Dick Leitsch, president of Mattachine Society of New York, at its offices, December 30, 1965. Photo by Louis Liotta/New York Post. Source: NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images; (2) After pouring their drinks, a bartender in Julius’s Bar refuses to serve John Timmins, Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell (1940 – 1993), and Randy Wicker, members of the Mattachine Society, an early American gay rights group, who were protesting New York liquor laws that prevented serving gay customers, New York, New York, April 21, 1966. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images); (3) Dick Leitsch at the 52nd anniversary of the “Sip-In” at Julius’ Bar, Apirl 2018.
Q&A: Alumna Amanda Davis is On a Mission to Save NYC’s LGBTQ Landmarks
By: Caroline Newman
You likely know about The Stonewall Inn, home of the 1969 riots that marked a key turning point in the modern fight for gay rights in the United States.
However, you might not know about the hundreds of other places in New York City that have played an important role in LGBTQ history, from one of America’s oldest gay bars, Julius,’ to grim sites like the street corner where Julio Rivera was murdered in a 1990 hate crime that sparked the first Queens Pride Parade.
Uncovering and recognizing those sites is the biggest and most rewarding part of Amanda Davis’s job.
Davis, who graduated in 2004 from the University of Virginia School of Architecture, recently was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “40 Under 40: People Saving Places” list. She is the project manager for the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, founded in 2015 by architectural historians Andrew Dolkart, Ken Lustbader and Jay Shockley to educate residents and tourists about LGBTQ history in New York City.
Davis graduated from UVA in 2004 with a degree in architectural history. (Contributed photo)
Together with the founders, Davis – the project’s only full-time employee – finds and researches sites, adds them to the project’s interactive map and prepares nominations for the National Register of Historic Places, which is the federal government’s honorary list of historic places around the country deemed significant to American history.
We caught up with her earlier in June – recently designated as “Pride Month” in New York City – to learn more about her work.
Q. When did you first become interested in architectural history?
A. In some ways, it was a happy accident. I had not decided what I wanted to major in and I needed another class to take during the second semester of my first year. Scrolling through the course catalogue, I happened upon [former architectural history lecturer] Camille Wells’ class, “Thomas Jefferson, Architect.”
It was fascinating. I loved learning about history through the built environment, and I transferred into the School of Architecture the next year to study architectural history.
Q. How did you get involved in the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project?
A. I was working as an architectural historian for a nonprofit in Greenwich Village when I heard about the project manager opening. One of the founders was my professor in graduate school at Columbia [University], and another was a former coworker. I thought it was a great opportunity to work on history that had not really been explored.
Within the field of historic preservation, I knew of only a few LGBTQ projects in California at that time. The LGBTQ community is such a big part of New York, but so much of its history has not been discovered. I wanted to be part of bringing that history to light.
Q. What kind of day-to-day work does that mission require?
A. There is a lot of archival research and sleuthing. I lead survey efforts to identify and research sites, relying on historical documentation, reports from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, public library archives and other sources.
We also hold a lot of public events, reaching out to various groups around the city to tell them about what we are learning and also get ideas from them about sites we should research.
Once I have the research, I work on updating our website and interactive map and also nominate sites for honorary recognition by the state or federal government or for official protection at the local level by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. A grant we received from the National Park Service requires us to write seven nominations for the National Register of Historic Places; we have completed five so far.
Q. How many sites have you explored so far?
A. We launched our new website last year with information on about 100 sites. Now, we have prioritized about 350 additional sites for further research and recognition. It’s a pretty diverse list, representing different boroughs, ethnic groups and time periods from the 17th century to the year 2000.
Q. If you were to pick a few sites for someone visiting New York to discover, what would they be?
A. A lot of people know about The Stonewall Inn, but there are so many other sites that can tell us a lot about LGBTQ history and about members of the gay community who have positively impacted New York City and American culture.
There are other historic bars like Julius,’ near Stonewall, where four gay rights activists from the Mattachine Society conducted a “sip-in” in 1966, modeled after the sit-ins happening in the civil rights movement. They wanted to bring attention to the discrimination that gay men and lesbians faced in bars.
There is a great house museum, the Alice Austen House on Staten Island, where we recently worked with staff to add LGBTQ history to the narrative the museum portrays. Austen, a celebrated turn-of-the-20th-century photographer, had lived with her partner of 53 years, Gertrude Tate, but until recently Gertrude was erased from the narrative.
I also loved working on the National Register of Historic Places nomination for Caffe Cino, the birthplace of off-off-Broadway and a pioneer in the development of gay theater at a time when depicting homosexuality on stage was illegal.
Another interesting and poignant site is the corner where Julio Rivera, a gay Latino man, was murdered in Jackson Heights in 1990. That crime really galvanized both the Latino and the gay communities in Queens and eventually inspired the Queens Pride Parade, which began in 1993.
Q. What do you find most rewarding about the work you do?
A. It has been amazing to see how people respond to the project and how far it has come. We held a workshop for public schoolteachers last week who were very enthusiastic about using our site in their classrooms. We also give historic tours to young people; on a recent tour one teen told me that she thought she was alone until she learned about some of this history.
It’s amazing to see – time and again – how the information can impact people.
Q. Anything else to add?
A. We are always adding more places and have a suggestion form on our website where anyone can submit historic sites they feel should be included on our map. I would love to hear from people.
“NYC’s Proud History”
June 20, 2018
By: Jack Ford
Project co-directors Ken Lustbader and Andrew Dolkart joined Jack Ford yesterday for a great conversation on NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project’s journey to document LGBT culture in New York City.
They talk about our place-based, scholarly effort to document this unique history, our interactive map, and go over a couple very special sites.
Tour #AtTheMoxy – PRIDE Edition with Moxy Hotels
June 21, 2018 | 2:00-3:30pmView on Google Maps
In honor of NYC Pride, we are excited to collaborate Moxy Hotels on an LGBT-themed walking tour of Greenwich Village.
Honor the people and events that have shaped LGBT history here in NYC, and who have impacted American history and culture. Our expert team will join tour goers at Christopher Park to start an exclusive tour of pre- and post-Stonewall history in Greenwich Village.
Walk with us and learn about the long-standing oppressive practices that led to the 1969 Stonewall uprising and, before that, the 1966 “Sip-In” at Julius’ Bar. This 1 ½ hour-long walking tour of Greenwich Village will remind you why we march in celebration of Pride! The tour will take place rain or shine.
Want to join in? Visit Moxy Hotels to secure a place on the tour.
You Could Be in a Gay Bar Right Now and Not Even Know It
By: Brian Sloan
A lesbian bar from the 1920s. A “fairy den” from the 1890s. An Ecstasy-fueled disco from the 1990s. Celebrating the hidden places in Manhattan where gay night life once flourished.
“Amanda Davis, a historian for the NYC L.G.B.T. Historic Sites Project, offered a history lesson in front of the former Eve Addams’ Tea Room (129 MacDougal Street), a lesbian hot spot from the mid-1920s run by a Polish-Jewish émigré named Eva Kotchever. A sign on the door, she said, once warned: ‘Men are admitted, but not welcome.'”
11 LGBTQ Historic Landmarks In New York City
By: James Michael Nichols
LGBTQ history is, in many ways, New York City history.
It’s impossible to consider the history of the LGBTQ movement without thinking about New York City.
From the riots at Stonewall to sip-ins at Julius’, the history of the queer movement is intimately intertwined with New York’s.
A new project is helping document and connect some of the most significant locations for LGBTQ people across the city’s five boroughs.
The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project is working to create a large-scale documentation of sites around the city that convey the community’s influence on American culture.
The New York Community Trust, an organization with a history of funding projects that advance and protect LGBTQ history, was the first private funder of the project.
“The project has identified sites that date back hundreds of years to today that illustrate important moments in the struggle for LGBT civil rights,” said Kerry McCarthy of the New York Community Trust. “But also sites that shine a light on important aspects of our heritage and history as New Yorkers and Americans, given the incredible contributions that LGBT New Yorkers have made.”
“Most people conceptualize Stonewall as the birthplace of LGBT activism, but we really want to show people that there was LGBT lives and LGBT history and LGBT narrative in New York City that led up to Stonewall and contributed to that starting in the 17th century,” Ken Lustbader of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project told HuffPost. “Real activism in New York was taking place in the 1950s and ’60s, predating Stonewall, and if it wasn’t for those people already organizing, there would not have been a Stonewall.”
Below, check out 11 of the places listed in the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, and head here to view the growing database of queer history in New York City.
Site descriptions have been republished with permission from the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.
LGBT Community Center
Since 1983, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center has served as a vital support system for hundreds of thousands of people.
The center has witnessed the founding of ACT UP, GLAAD, Las Buenas Amigas, Queer Nation and the Lesbian Avengers and for many years was the meeting location for the Metropolitan Community Church of New York and SAGE.
The Gender Identity Project, which was established here in 1989, is the longest-running service provider for the transgender and gender-nonconforming community in the state.
Christopher Street Piers
For over a century, the Greenwich Village Hudson River waterfront, including the Christopher Street Pier at West 10th Street, has been a destination for the LGBT community that has evolved from a place for cruising and sex for gay men to an important safe haven for a marginalized queer community — mostly queer homeless youths of color.
From 1971 to 1983, the interiors of the piers’ ruin-like terminals featured a diverse range of artistic work, including site-based installations, photography, murals and performances.
Lorraine Hansberry Residence
From 1953 to 1960, playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry resided in the third-floor apartment of this building.
While here, Hansberry lived parallel lives: one as the celebrated playwright of “A Raisin in the Sun,” the first play by a black woman to appear on Broadway, and the other as a woman who privately explored her homosexuality through her writing, relationships and social circle.
Lesbian Herstory Archives
Founded in 1974, the Lesbian Herstory Archives was first housed on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before opening its current location in Brooklyn’s Park Slope in 1993.
The volunteer-based archives, which also serves as a museum and community center, has one of the world’s largest collection of records “by and about lesbians and their communities,” according to its website.
New York Stock Exchange – ACT UP Demonstrations
The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power formed in 1987 to call attention to the AIDS crisis. In 1988 and ’89, it held two huge demonstrations at the New York Stock Exchange to protest the high price of the AIDS drug AZT, which was unaffordable to most people living with HIV.
From June 28 to July 3, 1969, LGBT patrons of the Stonewall Inn and members of the local community took the unusual action of fighting back during a routine police raid at the bar.
The events during that six-day period are seen as the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement, with large numbers of groups forming around the country in the following years.
The Stonewall Inn was the first LGBT site in the country to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1999) and named a National Historic Landmark (2000), with additional city, state and federal recognition in 2015 and 2016.
On April 21, 1966, a sip-in was organized by members of the Mattachine Society, one of the country’s earliest gay rights organizations, to challenge the State Liquor Authority’s discriminatory policy of revoking the licenses of bars that served known or suspected gay men and lesbians.
In 1995 this former public school reopened as a 219-bed nursing home for people with AIDS — the largest of its kind in New York City.
Rivington House was controversially sold by the city to a private developer in 2015.
Audre Lorde Residence
Acclaimed black lesbian feminist, writer and activist Audre Lorde lived here with her partner and two children from 1972 to 1987.
In that time, Lorde was a prolific and influential writer, co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press and spoke at the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
Bayard Rustin Residence
Bayard Rustin, one of the most important yet least-known figures of the civil rights movement, lived in an apartment in this Chelsea building complex from 1963 to his death in 1987.
While here, he served as the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and took part in numerous social justice campaigns around the world.
Transy House was a transgender collective operated by Rusty Mae Moore and Chelsea Goodwin from 1995 to 2008.
It provided shelter for trans and gender-nonconforming people in need, served as a center for trans activism and was the last residence of pioneering LGBT rights activist Sylvia Rivera.
#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.