City Hall Park is the earliest known documented gay male cruising area in Manhattan, according to newspaper accounts beginning in the early 1840s.

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Credit: Beyond My Ken/Wikipedia (cropped), 2012.

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In the early 1840s, an emerging homosexual subculture was already being noticed in rapidly expanding New York City, in public places like saloons, music halls, and parks. Broadway next to, and north of, City Hall Park was then well known as the principal thoroughfare for strolling female prostitutes. But City Hall Park, one of the city’s most accessible (and rare) public spaces, and adjacent Broadway were also then identified as the principal location where unemployed lower-class young men could be found working as prostitutes.

Historian Jonathan Ned Katz found “the earliest known American crusade against sodomites” by New York’s macho “sporting male” weekly newspapers in 1842. “Sporting male” culture was an early 19th-century urban phenomenon in which bachelors expressed male camaraderie through such pastimes such as sporting events, saloon-hall drinking, gambling, fighting, patronizing prostitutes, and acting aggressively in all-male spheres. The sporting male weeklies were, in part, guides to commercial leisure and “erotic entertainments” available in the city at that time.

While promoting promiscuous heterosexuality, this press railed against homosexuals – acting as indignant moral guardians and at the same time advertising the condemned behavior. The Whip and The Weekly Rake, especially, attacked “sodomites” (the earliest use of “homosexual” in English was in 1892) as upper-class older men, usually foreign, sexually preying on younger men. City Hall Park was called out as the city’s leading meeting spot for homosexual encounters. There was also discussion in the newspapers in the 1840s about the existence of male brothels.

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