Six sites recognized for their important role in gay rights history and activism, including the home of writer James Baldwin and a restaurant that became a groundbreaking theater venue, won official city landmarks status today following a well-timed vote by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The commission's designation coincided with WorldPride in New York City, a monthlong celebration of LGBTQ culture and history, as well as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, which is credited with galvanizing the gay rights movement. It also reflected the Landmark Preservation Commission's push in recent years to landmark places based on their cultural and historic significance rather than purely architectural merit.
The decision was especially gratifying for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (a.k.a "Village Preservation"), which began lobbying the commission five years ago to landmark LGBTQ sites in Lower Manhattan, beginning with the city's most famous gay cultural site, the Stonewall Inn. The Greenwich Village bar received the designation in 2015.
"Until today there was only one LGBT landmark in New York City," said Andrew Berman, the group's executive director immediately following the decision. "Hopefully there will be more in the future."
The landmark designation will mean that building owners of the six properties must ask permission from the city should they make any changes to the exteriors. (Although five of the sites already benefited from preservation protection as a result of being located in historic districts.)
In addition to Village Preservation, NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project also recommended sites to the commission for designation.
"Collectively they tell a narrative of pre-imposed Stonewall life, and the impact that the community has had on culture, activism, politics and life in New York City," Ken Lustbader, a historic preservation consultant who is one of the group's project directors, told Gothamist.
On Wednesday, the organization is planning to release a walking tour app, where people can visit the sites and read about their histories.
Here is the list of the six sites along with brief descriptions of their significance to the gay rights movement:
137 West 71st Street (Courtesy of NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project)
137 West 71st Street: James Baldwin residence
James Baldwin purchased an apartment in this nondescript building on the Upper West Side in 1965. Baldwin, who was one of the most renown black public intellectuals of the 1960s, famously resisted labels but his work, notably “Giovanni’s Room” and “Another Country,” were provocative explorations of same sex and biracial relationships. A native New Yorker, he moved between the city and France, where he also kept a home. In 2013, Baldwin’s niece Aisha Karefa-Smart said that whenever Baldwin returned to the building, “the energy, and vitality at 137 elevated to a fever pitch as soon as he hit the door. Even before he arrived, the house was ablaze with excitement and anticipation just by the mention of his name.”
Famous writers and musicians that visited him at the building included Amiri Baraka, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach. Toni Morrison also lived in the building for a short time.
99 Wooster Street (Courtesy of NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project)
99 Wooster Street: Gay Activists Alliance headquarters
From 1971 to 1974, this former firehouse between Spring and Prince served as the headquarters for the Gay Activists Alliance, considered the most influential gay liberation political activist organization in the U.S. The building was home to New York City’s “first gay community center” and the meeting spaces for emerging organizations and groups like the Gay Men’s Health Project, Lesbian Feminist Liberation, and the Catholic group Dignity.
243 West 20th Street (Courtesy of NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project)
243 West 20th Street: Women's Liberation Center headquarters
Another former firehouse, this building served as the headquarters of the Women’s Liberation Center from 1972 to 1987. The Center hosted meetings by feminist social service groups, women’s political committees, and lesbian activist organizations, including the Lesbian Feminist Liberation, which broke off from the Gay Activists Alliance in 1972. Other groups that met at the building included Lesbian Switchboard, a volunteer phone counseling service, the Lesbian Lifespace Project, the Radicalesbians Health Collective, the Radical Feminists, and Older Women’s Liberation. The ground floor was home to a wholesale food-buying cooperative called the Lesbian Food Conspiracy.
208 West 13th Street (Courtesy of NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project)
208 West 13th Street: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center
A former school, the building is currently the home of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, which provides education, programs, services and advocacy for LGBT rights. The original center consisted of six organization in 1984 and included the Community Health Project, the first community-based HIV clinic in the country. During the 1980s, the building was the headquarters for the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which fought for the passage of the 1986 ban on discrimination against sexual orientation. A wide swath of other groups met at the center, including Gay and Lesbian Youth, the Lesbian Switchboard, Dignity/New York, Asian Lesbians of the East Coast, Harvey Milk High School, Salsa Soul Sisters, Survivors of Transsexuality Anonymous, and the Gender Identity Project.
31 Cornelia Street (Courtesy of NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project)
31 Cornelia Street: Caffe Cino
Originally a coffee shop and art exhibition space, Caffe Cino during the 1960s became a venue for poetry readings and experimental theater that included the work of gay men. Because it was illegal at the time to portray homosexuality in theater productions, the café became the de facto venue for "Off-Off Broadway theater." Performances were extremely affordable, generally at a cost of a one-dollar purchase at the café. Playwrights John Guare, who wrote “Six Degrees of Separation,” and Lanford Wilson, who wrote “Fifth of July" both got their start at Caffe Cino.
207 St. Paul’s Avenue (Courtesy of NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project)
207 St. Paul’s Avenue: Audre Lorde residence
This house in the St. Paul’s Avenue-Stapleton Heights Historic District of Staten Island was home to the black poet and activist Audre Lorde from 1972 to 1987. She wrote many of her most influential works while she lived at 207 St. Paul's Avenue, including "Coal," "The Black Unicorn," "The Cancer Journals," and "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name."
A native New Yorker, who like Baldwin grew up in Harlem, Lorde became the most well known black feminist lesbian. In 1979, she delivered the keynote address at the First National March for Gay and Lesbian Liberation in Washington, D.C. Among her list of accomplishments, she was the co-founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a publisher dedicated to work by and for women of color, and in 1991 became the official Poet Laureate for New York State.
Reporting contributed by Adwait Patil