8 Gay History Landmarks near Christopher Street, New York
The history of New York City’s gay rights movement will always center on the Stonewall Inn. But not far from that national monument, you’ll find a number of fascinating LGBT landmarks on and near Christopher Street.
This year, I slipped away from the IGLTA Convention in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and down to Greenwich Village for a history walk with Christopher Street Tours (use code “THEGAYTRIPPER” for 15% off a tour) and a first-hand look at the area’s gay past and present.
159 W 10th St
Google’s description of Julius‘ as a “long-running gay bar” is apt – and understated. Because Julius’ is in fact, the oldest continually operating gay bar in New York City. And the location of one of America’s first gay rights protests.
The black-and-white image above is from 1966, during a “sip-in” by the New York Mattachine Society. It’s widely accepted as among the country’s first gay rights protests – and a precursor to the Stonewall Riots. Here’s a brief breakdown:
- At that time, in the eyes of the government, LGBT people were sinners, mentally ill, and criminals.
- As such, openly-LGBT people were considered “disorderly” and were regularly refused service at bars.
- The Mattachine Society was one of America’s first gay rights organizations. And they protested this discrimination by walking into a bar, declaring their sexuality, and ordering a drink.
The men announced their sexuality and the bartender put his hand over the glass, refusing to serve the group. But there’s a lot more to the story, which you can read in-depth via The New York Times.
TL;DR: Oldest gay bar in NYC, site of one of America’s first gay rights protests, a once-favorite haunt of Truman Capote and other celebrities.
2. Women’s House of Detention [Demolished]
425 6th Ave
From 1931 to 1974, the twelve-story tall Women’s House of Detention was a sinister reminder of a woman’s place – if they forgot their place.
Now it’s a garden with no memorial, no plague, no sign of its past. But in its day, the “House of D” was packed with women, often two in a tiny cell of abysmal condition, all of whom hadn’t been convicted of a crime.
The prison was a focal point in Greenwich Village. Inmates would yell out to those on the street and vice versa – often communicating with their same-sex partners. You can read more about the Woman’s House of Detention at OutHistory.
TL;DR: The grounds of a demolished women’s prison, which housed many lesbians, sex-workers, and feminists. Inmates included Dorothy Day, Angela Davis, Polly Adler, and Andrea Dworkin.
3. Oscar Wilde Bookshop [Closed]
15 Christopher Street
Founded by Mattachine Society member Craig Rodwell a year after the sip-in at Julius’, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop was an organizing space and home for LGBT-related works. It was an early meeting place for planners of NYC’s first pride parade and is widely accepted as the world’s first gay bookshop
Breaking with expectations, Rodwell refused to stock pornography and instead filled the shelves with works by LGBT authors. This philosophy came from a Christian Science upbringing, which stressed the importance of making things come true by believing them to be true.
After 42 years, the bookshop went defunct in 2009 – like many others in the Great Recession. But a spiritual successor, Bluestockings, is a couple of miles away in East Village.
Extra fun fact: look at nearby street signs for “Gay Street.” But it’s named after a family – not the sexuality.
TL;DR: The former location of the world’s first LGBT bookstore.
4. Stonewall Inn
53 Christopher St
- Originally called “Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn,” the establishment was a “tearoom” during the Prohibition years – but functioned as a speakeasy. And after police raids, it relocated to 53 Christopher Street in 1934.
- Local legend says the original Stonewall had a lesbian owner, and that the name came from a lesbian memoir, “The Stone Wall,” published in 1930. But unfortunately, this isn’t factual.
- In 1966, the Mafia bought the Stonewall Inn and turned it into a gay bar.
- With the mob’s help, Stonewall becomes the largest gay establishment in the U.S. And the only bar where gay men could dance – as well as a safe space for trans, queer, non-white, and non-gender conforming people.
- The mob’s interest in running a gay bar came from their ability to extort government officials – or anyone – seen at Stonewall, since being LGBT was a “sickness”
- In the early hours of June 28, 1969, a police raid struck the bar. And angry patrons began to swell outside of the Inn.
- As a black, butch, lesbian named Stormé DeLarverie was throw into a police van, she yelled to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?”
- Ever since then, we’ve argued over who threw the first brick (or if it was even a brick). But the riots that followed were a significant point in LGBTQ rights.
TL;DR: The epicenter of America’s gay liberation movement.
EXCLUSIVE: Use code “THEGAYTRIPPER” at checkout and get 15% off a gay history walking tour via Christopher Street Tours.
5. Gay Liberation Monument
204 W 4th Street
The Gay Liberation Monument in Christopher Park is part of the larger Stonewall National Monument – and just across the street from the bar.
Commissioned on the 10th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and created in 1980, the statues show two men and two women displaying affection. But the image stoked anger and controversy – in that it showed LGBT love as normal.
After six years with no installation, the statue was moved to Madison, Wisconsin for public display (shout out to Madison’s gay bars!) before finally relocating to New York in 1992. At which point Stonewall veteran Marsha P. Johnson said, “How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognize gay people? How many years does it take for people to realize we’re all brothers and sisters in the human race? We’re all in this rat race together.”
But the monument’s modern controversy comes from its literal white-washing of the LGBT rights movement. In August 2015, activists painted two of the figure’s faces brown [picture] – protesting the revisionist history that discounts the role of black, brown, and trans people in leading the Stonewall uprising.
Extra fun fact: the nearby flag pole flies the country’s only federally protected pride flag.
TL;DR: The first U.S. National Monument dedicated to LGBT rights.
6. Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center [Demolished]
203 W 12th St
St. Vincent’s 161-year history has enough highlights to fill a Wikipedia page (can you tell I love Wikipedia?). And among them: treating victims of the “Miracle on the Hudson“, the Titanic, and the AIDS epidemic.
I wrote about the impact of AIDS in my overview of the Castro District. And New York was second only to San Francisco in terms of the destruction leveled by the virus – peaking near 9,000 deaths a year in 1995.
The innocuous city block, now filled by a luxury apartment building (sigh), is home to a human history of fear, sadness, and hope. It’s featured prominently in literature and art focused on the plague years in New York.
TL;DR: Ground zero for the AIDS epidemic in New York City, and site of America’s second AIDS ward.
7. AIDS Memorial Park
200 W 12th St
Opened in 2016, the AIDS Memorial Park was a compromise for demolishing St. Vincent’s across the street. The steel monument is composed of triangles, one of the LGBT’s communities most pervasive symbols.
Granite panels surrounding the reflecting fountain are engraved with Walt Whitman’s 1892 poem, “Song of Myself”. And as it spirals outward, you can’t tell where the poem begins or ends – much like the epidemic itself.
TL;DR: A memorial to more than 100,000 New York City residents who have died of AIDS.
8. LGBT Community Center
208 W 13th St
Stop by for a cup of coffee or to see the risqué mural. During my visit, there was an LGBT-inspired comic book sale going on with creations by local artists.
And a final, extra fun fact: in Germany and Switzerland, gay pride is still known as “Christopher Street Day” – a reference to the Stonewall Inn’s location on Christopher Street, New York City.