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NYC's Hidden LGBT Historic Sites Get Illuminated on Interactive Map

By Amy Zimmer | April 24, 2017 7:26am | Updated on April 24, 2017 12:26pm
 A screenshot from the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.
A screenshot from the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.
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NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

BROOKLYN — Just after the 1969 Stonewall riots — largely considered a seminal moment in the quest for LGBT rights — many gay rights groups were still organizing in the shadows, quietly meeting in neighborhoods such as Brooklyn Heights to lay the groundwork for the movement.

The historic preservationists working on the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project are now trying to determine through interviews and archival materials where groups met in Brooklyn Heights are still around (which they may be since much of the neighborhood is landmarked) as they continue working to identify, document and preserve hundreds of significant LGBT historic sites across the city.

Of the 92,000 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, about a dozen are listed for their association with LGBT history.

The historic sites project hopes to change that.

The project, which was established in 2014, recently launched an interactive map featuring 100 sites organized by type of space, including bars, residences, medical facilities, performance venues, community spaces and more.

► CLICK HERE TO SEE THE MAP

The project has roughly 350 more sites in its database that its historians are researching, and they are working on gathering more locations, stretching as far back to the 1800s. The project’s team will be sharing its work at an event Tuesday at WeWork’s City Hall location, and is asking attendees to come with suggestions.

There are many challenges when it comes to sifting through records related to LGBT history, explained Ken Lustbader, who directs the project with Columbia professors of architectural history Andrew Dolkart and retired historian from the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission Jay Shockley.

“We’re talking about LGBT history, which is often covert, hidden, transitory, dismissed,” said Lustbader, who started mapping out significant LGBT sites for a project for his Columbia thesis nearly 25 years ago.

The team has been digging into archives at the main branch of the New York Public Library, Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Park Slope’s Lesbian Herstory Archives and Greenwich Village’s LGBT Center, but because of the stigma attached to being lesbian or gay, individuals or their families might have destroyed correspondence, the team explained.

Sites range from bars such as Stonewall to the Starlight Lounge in Crown Heights, which opened in 1962 and was known as the “oldest black-owned non-discriminating bar in New York” before being forced to close because of a building sale in 2010. 

It spotlights the 1860s’ “Angel of the Waters” statue at Central Park sculpted by Emma Stebbins, who lived in Rome with her lover, Charlotte Cushman, and was part of a group of lesbian artists known as “female jolly bachelors.”

There are homes including the Alice Austen House in Staten Island, where the photographer of early images of women dressed in male drag grew up and later lived with her female partner of 53 years, and the Belmont, Bronx house where Christine Jorgensen grew up and returned to a frenzy of media when she returned home in 1953 after getting a gender reassignment surgery overseas.

Her story helped put transsexual in the American vocabulary, Lustbader said.

The map explores the story behind Julio Rivera corner in Jackson Heights, named after the gay man murdered in 1990. Police had been investigating the incident as drug-related, but the community rallied to get the police to look into the real motivation of the killing. It became the first murder successfully tried as a hate crime and eventually led to the founding of the Queens Pride Parade.

The historians also delved into the famous disco club Studio 54, finding that many of the sound and interior designers were gay men who later died of AIDS, giving the club’s history a “layer of pathos” in a story that might otherwise remain untold, Lustbader said.

“We’re talking about very diverse sites,” he said. “It’s not just self-referential. It’s showing that LGBT history is American history.”

The project recently got a boost from a $100,000 grant from the New York Community Trust to expand its work and to help create guidance at the state level on how to evaluate LGBT sites to make it easier for other places to get recognition.

“[The project] shows so much of the contributions of LGBT members have made to the society at large,” said Kerry McCarthy of the trust, adding, “If history is written by the victors and no one writes your history you remain invisible.”