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.