From 1972 until 1982, a racially and economically diverse crowd patronized the Duchess, a lesbian bar located on the ground floor of 70 Grove Street. Guidebooks at the time described the bar as, “A friendly and relaxed atmosphere, popular with ‘movement’ women.” and with a “relaxed Feminist atmosphere.” A small space, the Duchess did not offer as many attractions as other bars; a jukebox near the entrance provided music for the small dance floor. It also offered a Sunday buffet and table service, like some other lesbian bars of the time.
While staff at earlier Mafia-run lesbian bars monitored bathroom use to supposedly prevent sexual activity, this was not the case at the Duchess. Alison Bechdel, cartoonist and author of the graphic memoir Fun Home, said of the bar:
“There was a lot of routine anti-gay hostility on the street. Even in Sheridan Square [Christopher Park] on a weekend night you’d get hassled for holding hands. But then you’d step past the bouncer at the Duchess, and you were home free …. it afforded me the space to just be, with my guard down, and that was salvational.”
By 1980, however, the Duchess ran into legal trouble for not serving alcohol to men, an act of “discrimination” that led to the bar losing its liquor license. However, it continued to serve liquor and, on September 8, 1982, the bartender and bouncer were arrested for doing so by two undercover police officers from the “NYC Morals Division.” Ironically, the “anti-discrimination” law for which the Duchess’s license was revoked was one many movement women who patronized the bar had actively supported in an earlier era. Fran Greenfield of Womannews explained the justification for the Duchess’s discrimination as opposed to misogynistic discrimination, against which the law was meant to protect: “On one side there are privileged and powerful groups who use their clubs to keep ‘social undesirables’ clearly on the outside. On the other side there are the people denied privilege and power who rely on their own clubs as a haven in an otherwise hostile world.”
The Grove Café / Duchess II / Grove Club / Pandora’s Box
After an unsuccessful attempt to continue the space as a lesbian “juice bar” without liquor, and a brief hiatus (based on guidebooks), soon after 1983, the Grove Café opened with a similar atmosphere to the Duchess. By 1989, the name changed to Duchess II, and then again in 1990 to Grove Club, and finally in 1992 to Pandora’s Box. The Grove Club was described in a guidebook as, “One of the most famous women’s bars in the entire world, known as one hang-out where you can still have a good feminist conversation.”
By 1992, the bar was again running into legal trouble, but this time from neighborhood residents complaining about bar fights and noise. Cynthia Russo, then-manager of the club, claimed “residents dislike the club because many of the patrons are lesbians and because most are Black or Hispanic.” Pandora’s Box apparently closed shortly after, ending the over twenty-year long lesbian legacy of 70 Grove Street.
This entry was adapted from text in Gwendolyn Stegall’s master’s thesis (see sources below), which is used with permission from the author.