Illustration by Jansen Cumbie.
This weekend, THUMP honors Pride with a celebration of all aspects of LBGTQ nightlife in NYC and beyond. Follow our Pride Weekend coverage here.
Even in a geographical sense, Christopher Street has always been a place of disruption. The thoroughfare cuts diagonally through the historic Greenwich Village, which is itself one of the few neighborhoods in Manhattan that doesn't pay mind to the city's rigid grid system. Over the course of the early 20th century, it was a safe haven for New York's LGBTQ community and home to events—including the Stonewall Inn protests—that would become flash points for the mainstreaming of the gay rights movement all across the country.
It remains to this day an important symbol of LGBTQ life in New York (photographs of the sign at its intersection with Gay Street are tourist souvenir shop staples), even though it's now more populated with luxury shops and extravagant gyms than the nightlife hotspots that it was once famous for. THUMP's News Editor, Anna Codrea-Rado, has compiled a timeline of the key events that happened in and around Christopher Street to take a closer look at its role in shaping the history of New York nightlife and LGBTQ culture worldwide.
In the 1740s, Sir Peter Warren, a wealthy Irish admiral builds an expansive estate in the Village of Greenwich, two miles north of New York City. Along the southern boundary of the Warren Estate is its main thoroughfare—a long street that cuts a slight diagonal as it runs west from the Hudson River right into the heart of the village. Originally called Skinner Road after the British Colonel William Skinner, the oldest street in Greenwich Village is renamed Christopher Street in 1799 after one of Warren's heirs, Charles Christopher Amos.
Henry James' novel Washington Square is published in book form, in which he writes of Greenwich Village: "This portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city: it has a riper, richer, more honorable look of the upper ramifications of the great longitude thoroughfare—the look of having had something of a social history."
The Village's first "goofy club" opens at the corner of Charles St and West 4th, two blocks north of Christopher Street. The Toby Club has cobwebs hanging off its ceiling like stalactites, and skull and crossbones made from real skeletons mounted on the walls. These themed-to-the-extreme bars—pirate ships, prisons, farms, wigwams—will pop up throughout the Village in the 20s, earning the neighborhood a reputation for its quirky take on nightlife.
The Wartime Prohibition Act comes into effect, but the boozy Village is having none of it. On January 16, the very day the act comes into effect, the first person to be arrested for violation of the law is one Barney Gallant, co-owner of a local watering hole called the Greenwich Village Inn, for buying and drinking a glass of sherry in front of an undercover cop. When he returns from his court hearing, Village residents throw him a booze-filled bash in the Inn.
Throughout the Prohibition Era, New York will flagrantly disobey the drinking ban, but nowhere as fervently as in the Village. Christopher Street and the rest of the Village will in fact thrive during prohibition; illegal speakeasies and bootlegging alcohol proves to be lucrative business.
Prohibition ends and the New York State Liquor Authority is formed to regulate the sale of booze in the city. At this time gay bars were still not openly operating, but the way the authority wrote its rules meant they would later become the unexpected collateral damage of the legislation. While the authority did not directly cite gay bars in any of its extensive regulations, police will go on to interpret a rule against running a "disorderly" establishment to mean venues frequented by gay people. And so gay bars (and also serving gay people in any bar) became, in practice, illegal.
The Mafia sees a business opportunity here. Bosses, including the heads of the notorious Genovese family, will start buying up bars in the Village over the next few decades—including the Stonewall Inn in 1966—paying off the police and blackmailing staffers and patrons. Pretty soon, the Family will have control over majority of the gay nightlife in the Village, a monopoly that will continue deep into the 1960s.
In December, local entrepreneur Barney Josephson turns the basement of One Sheridan Square—then, a dungeon-themed goofy club just off Christopher Street—into a jazz and supper club called Cafe Society. According to an interview with the New York Times, Josephson is on a mission to end the racial barriers put up by clubs across the city: ''I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front," he says. He books African-American artists and has them perform at what is thought to be the first club with a racially integrated audience, which paves the way for nightlife diversity to flourish well beyond the neighborhood. Jazz greats—Billie Holliday, Hazel Scott, Sarah Vaughan, Josh White, Mildred Bailey, Art Tatum, Mary Lou WIlliams, Teddy Wilson—will all play at Cafe Society until it closes its doors in the 1950s. Its slogan encapsulates the radical bar's ethos: "The wrong place for the right people".
For many gay and lesbians living in WWII America, their sexual identities were relatively tolerated. A need for as many drafts as possible after Pearl Harbor meant that when gay people enlisted in the army, they weren't turned away. And while LGBT people still weren't permitted to be open in the army, they were for the most part left be, and many actually found military life a time to flourish. But then the war ended and all this changed.
In post-WWII America, the US government wipes the social progress made during war and looks to restore the "traditional" gender roles it disrupted. During this time, the FBI maintains a list of gay Americans, who will subsequently be targeted by police for an array of illegal activities, including cohabitation and kissing in public.
Since the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, many queer people of color had been leading a (relatively) open life in the north Manhattan neighborhood—as celebrated gay artist Bruce Nugent put it: "Nobody was in the closet. There wasn't any closet." But the 1950s police crackdown drove Harlem's gay community back into the closet. An exodus of gay people of color from Harlem to the Village begins.
Drag queens begin to flock to the Village from all over the city, escaping places where dressing in female clothing in public results either in arrest, or beating from homophobic vigilantes. The piers at Christopher Street waterfront—known as the Village piers, or the Christopher Street piers—become a place where drag queens congregate publicly. In the face of laws barring gay men from being seen in public together, gay men and drag queens begin to cruise the waterfront and steal away with anonymous lovers to the squalid flophouses dotted along the waterfront.
Marsha P. Johnson, known by her hordes of admirers and the dozens of adopted streetkids she took under her wing as Saint Marsha, is the queen of the Christopher piers. Tall and muscular, she dons wigs and outfits put together from thrift store and dumpster finds, often topping them off with an eccentric headpiece like a stuffed bunny or a box of chocolates. Christopher Street regulars will spot her roller skating around the piers, or running naked up the street. In and out of mental institutions and prison (she would famously tell a judge that the "P" in her name stood for "Pay it no mind") throughout the decade, she embodies everything that is liberated and welcoming, but deeply complex, of the drag queen enclave nestled along the West side waterfront.
Gay nightlife in Greenwich Village continues to be subject to intense police scrutiny. Proprietors of gay-friendly bars are routinely harassed; gay patrons are refused service.
In a bid to spotlight this discrimination, on April 21, 1966 the gay rights group the Mattachine Society decides to hold a Sip-in. Activists hatch a plan to go around bars in the Village, and test out whether they will still receive service after revealing to bartenders that they are gay—all in front of the half dozen reporters they have invited along for the ride. After successfully ordering drinks at a couple of spots, they head to Julius bar at the corner of West 10th and Waverly Place. The former 1920s speakeasy—which is still around today—is actually an incognito gay bar, but the manager is in cahoots with the activists and refuses them service in front of the reporters. They run with stories about the incident, marking a significant step on the road to ending gay discrimination in bars.
Throughout the late 1960s, raids on gay bars on the loose interpretations of the state liquor authority regulations, become increasingly frequent. According to some historical accounts, however, police were supposedly getting tired of the Mafia's stronghold on the city's bars—although it is disputed to what extent the police are actually just feeling the pressure of residents who live near the bars filing complaints about the disorder on their doorstep.
At around 1 am on the morning of June 28, one such raid happens at the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street. But rather that comply with orders to vacate the premises, those propping up the bar fought back against the police.
As the story goes, the police attempt to arrest a lesbian who is wearing men's clothing. The never-identified "Stonewall Lesbian," as she will henceforth be known, fights back against the police officers, who hit her over the head with a club. As tensions rise, something snaps, and a violent clash between the police and the swelling crowd around the bar ensues. The fighting continues until the early hours of the morning, spilling out into the streets and attracting more people from the neighborhood to join in the conflict. The largest percentage of protestors there that night are blacks and Latinos, because they heavily frequented the bar. In the days following the raid, the rioting continue, with more demonstrations by the residents of the Village against the police. Amid the chaos and uncertainty happening on Christopher Street, it's a moment that's come to be known as the trigger for the modern mainstreaming of the gay rights movement.
In the immediate aftermath of Stonewall, gay activists and residents of the neighborhood begin debating how to harness the thrust of the riots into an assertive fight for freedom. The progress the Mattachine Society (the same advocacy group responsible for the Julius' Sip-in) had been making now seems vanilla by comparison to the physical confrontation between the community and authorities on the streets of Greenwich Village, and a thirst for something more militant takes hold. The Gay Liberation Front is born, with a flyer announcing the occasion: "Do you think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are."
The Stonewall Inn closes. Its Mafia bosses supposedly thought it was too visible and volatile and cut their losses. The rusty sign comes down, and it won't be until the early 1990s that the bar reopens for business, heralded by a new, neon red "The Stonewall Inn" sign proudly displayed in the front window.
On June 28, a few hundred gay men and lesbians march from Christopher Street up Sixth Ave and to Central Park bearing handmade banners with slogans like "Gay Pride" and "Gay is Good." It's the first gay pride march in New York—known back then as the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day. Initially, eager to avoid fueling the stereotype of the flamboyant queer, the organizers try to bar drag queens from taking part—but the drag queens are having none of it, and go out ahead of the parade with their own banners. From then on, they will be officially included in the parade, which has taken place every year since.
Since Cafe Society's closure in the 1950s, One Sheridan Square has gone through a number of iterations. In 1970, for a brief period of time, it's a gay disco called Haven that circumvents the jurisdiction of the State Liquor Authority by operating as a "juice bar." After Stonewall, relations between the police and gay community are still tense, and in August, police raid the club on the grounds that they're searching for drugs. They smash the sound system, the bar, and lighting equipment, resulting in damage of over $75,000. Members of the staff are arrested on charges that are later dropped, but the club isn't able to get back on its feet, and closes.
The Oscar Wilde Bookshop, founded by leading gay activist Craig Rodwell as the first store in New York to exclusively sell titles by gay and lesbian authors, moves to Christopher Street. First opened at 291 Mercer Street in 1967, it moves to the corner of Christopher and Gay Streets (the etymology of Gay Street's name, incidentally, is a total coincidence).
In November, Ronald K. Crumpley, a 38-year-old former transit police officer, goes on a shooting spree through the Village, killing two men and wounding six others. Crumpley opens fire outside a deli at the corner of Washington and 10th Streets, wounding two people before moving on to Ramrod, a gay club on West Street between 10th and Christopher. There, he continues shooting, killing Vernon Koenig, a 21-year-old church organist, and the Ramrod's 24-year-old doorman, Jorg Wenz, in addition to injuring four others. During the spree he is reported to have said, "I'll kill them all—the gays—they ruin everything." Crumpley will die in 2015 at the age of 73, while housed in a secure psychiatric hospital.
Reports begin to spread of gay men in the United States becoming sick with what is at first thought to be rare forms of cancer and immune diseases. By the end of the year, nearly 300 cases of severe immunodeficiency have been reported, mainly in New York and San Francisco. Half of the cases are fatal. By 1982 the term AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is formally introduced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the disease that is sweeping through the country, and decimating the Village's gay population.
As AIDS ravages the Village, clubs start to close. The health department shuts down the Minecraft, a gay S&M club that has been open since 1976, on the grounds that its activities could spread AIDS. Gay bathhouses are also shut down by the city, including the St Marks Baths. Two gay clubs in the Village, The Anvil and Hellfire, close voluntarily. During this time, gay and queer establishments revert once again to the old tactics of operating as pseudo private members clubs to avoid closure.
Bailey House, the country's first housing complex for HIV/AIDS sufferers, opens on the western end of Christopher Street, in a four-story building that had once housed a gay disco. The space is operated by the AIDS Resource Center, a private organization dedicated to providing housing for homeless people living with AIDS. Some of its residents have likely frequented the disco it used to house in the years preceding AIDS epidemic. As gay rights advocate William K. Dobbs told the New York Times in 1995, "What was once a giddy walk to the piers now symbolically and literally ends with AIDS."
Bailey House will expand into an HIV/AIDS charity that will run additional residences in other parts of the city, as well as a host of programs for sufferers. The building at 180 Christopher will continue to operate, and a federal program providing housing for people with HIV/AIDS will come into effect.
Marsha P. Johnson's body is found floating in the Hudson River off the Christopher Street piers at the beginning of July, a few days after the Gay Pride Parade. The police name the cause of death suicide, though her family (blood and adopted) will push for a murder inquiry that never happens. ANOHNI's former band, Antony and the Johnsons, will be named after her.
AIDS cases in the city reach their peak, then begin steadily declining; drugs and treatment drastically improves, and stigma subsides, so for sufferers the disease becomes manageable enough to live a full life. After more than a decade of being caught in the jaws of the AIDS crisis, Christopher Street is unrecognizable. The majority of the neighborhood's gay residents are gone; many have died, and others have moved away, unable cope with living among sickness and dying. The AIDS epidemic, but also the crack crisis in New York at this time causes the demographic of the Village to shift from predominantly white gay men to black and hispanic. During this time, the western stretch of Christopher Street from Hudson Street down to the river also goes through a seismic economic downturn. Shops shutter, crime rates rise, and the once throbbing heartbeat of gay New York is slowed down to a thready pulse.
Rudy Giuliani is sworn in as the Mayor of New York, and inherits a city riddled with the scars of the AIDS and crack crises. Throughout two terms in office, he will implement his infamous "broken windows" policing initiative of taking a zero tolerance to crime that drags the city out of the darkness it had descended into, scrubbing it down to a gleaming—in places sterile—shine. The Village flourishes in this time as well, but not the same way it once did. By the end of his mayorship in 2001, the former magnet for the wayward, beacon of bohemians, and haven for every flavor of queer in between will look very different. Expensive gyms, elegant brunch spots, and luxury boutiques will open and it transforms into one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Perhaps it's because of pure economics—as artists can no longer afford to live there, or maybe LGBTQ people feel safe living all over the city now, but Christopher Street and its Village is more gay in spirit now than in actual makeup.
On Sunday June 26, Christopher Street will be the final destination of the city's Pride Parade. Four decades after the Riots, the Stonewall Inn is being designated a national monument. History isn't just woven into the fabric of the street, it's still being made there.
Sources: Greenwich Village and how it got that way, Terry Miller; Gay Metropolis, Charles Kaiser; The Village: 400 years of beats and bohemians, radicals and rogues, John Strausbaugh; Love, Christopher Street: Reflections of New York City, Thomas Keith. With special thanks to Jason Baumann, Coordinator of Humanities and LGBT Collections at the New York Public Library, and Andy McCarthy, Librarian in the The Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History & Genealogy.