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The house on Staten Island where the pioneering photographer Alice Austen lived until 1945 still stands. In 1993, the National Parks Services designated the latticed, whitewashed property a National Historic Landmark, officially titled the Alice Austen House.
Austen was a lesbian, and she photographed women embracing or lighting up cigarettes in defiance of Victorian culture. Though sometimes canonically overlooked, her work is iconic among the LGBT community. But the documentation honoring her residence overlooked the fact that for 30 years, Austen shared her home with another woman: her partner, Gertrude Tate.
Long unknown or deliberately elided, clues to a particular site’s LGBT significance in public records are often scarce. But a trio of New York-based preservationists are compiling a map of the city that reinterprets the built environment through the lens of the LGBT community, and traces its history back to long before the movement itself was even speakable.
Still in the early stages, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project will evolve into an online archive and interactive map of around 1,000 places throughout New York, from the residences of notable figures like Walt Whitman and Audre Lorde to cultural nexuses like the Apollo Theater and the West Side Tennis Club to business hubs—and protest sites—like the New York Stock Exchange. Contemporary and archival photos will supplement a searchable bibliography of each site.
The project first came together in 2014 through a grant from the National Park Service, which had made available funding for projects aimed at telling the story of underrepresented community groups. At the time, over 90,000 sites throughout the United States were included in the National Register of Historic Places, or designated a National Historic Landmark. Just two among them—the Stonewall Inn in New York, and the Dr. Franklin E. Kameny Residence in Washington, D.C.—conveyed any LGBT significance.
In offering the grant, the Park Service commissioned the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project to identify and nominate at least five more sites for recognition. But the project’s work now extends well beyond that.
“We want to identify, document, and evaluate sites across all five boroughs that show the locations of LGBT history, and convey the cultural influence that the LGBT community has had on New York and American culture,” says Ken Lustbader, a preservationist and one of the project’s directors.
A long, invisible history
Reinscribing LGBT history into the landscape of New York will require pushing its date of origin well back before the Stonewall riots in June 1969.
“Stonewall was a turning point, a watershed moment,” Lustbader says. The explosive riots that broke out in response to a police raid galvanized the gay rights movement: a year after the patrons of the small Greenwich Village bar fought back against the police with empty bottles and closed fists, the first pride parade gathered in the neighborhood. In 1999, Stonewall was listed as the first LGBT-specific site in the National Register of Historic Places; the events surrounding it are often cited as the start of the fight for LGBT equal rights.
Stonewall’s significance is undeniable, but same-sex attraction, says Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University and another project director, “did not begin in 1969.”
Organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis provided support networks and ignited protests in New York and across the U.S. in the 1950s; the NYC Historic Sites Project documents where those meetings and agitations took place in New York.
But even before then, turn-of-the-century clubs, since repurposed, along Bowery and Bleecker Street served as meeting points for gay men. There, when homosexuality was still emerging as definition, people dressed in drag and carved out a space for themselves amid a rapidly changing city.
“We’re trying to document this invisible history and make it visible,” Lustbader says.
Places of significance
Some of places on the LGBT Historic Sites Project are well-known; books like George Chauncey’s Gay New York, Lustbader says, have documented commercialized locations—theaters, performance venues, bars—that served as cultural touchstones for the LGBT movement.
“But the challenge for us,” Lusbader says, “is figuring out where to locate the other narratives that aren’t so immediately present, but still contribute to this story.”
Often, Dolkart says, these narratives unfolded behind doors that you’d pass every day without a second glance. “They’re buildings that don’t look like much,” he says. Many organizations were born and operated out of tiny clapboard houses. PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People—was founded in 1972 at the home of a Flushing, Queens mother who wanted to support her gay son. “Even if these places are not beautiful works of architecture,” Dolkart says, “they resonate culturally.”
While much of the work of the LGBT Historic Sites Project hinges around mapping the significance of these unassuming places scattered throughout the city, Dolkart says that he and his fellow organizers also aim to reinterpret sites like the Alice Austen House, which were granted a historical importance that fails to account for their place in LGBT landscape.
This model of retroactive recognition, Lustbader adds, could be applied to the tens of thousands of registered historic places nationwide. While the project organizers have not yet looked into the history of all of these sites across the country, “there is just a wealth of information, and history to rediscover,” Lustbader says.
A cultural shift
New York is not alone in reimagining its streets and buildings from an LGBT-historical perspective. At the same time as the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project received its grant from the National Parks Service, the Kentucky Heritage Council received a sum of money to excavate the role of places like Louisville’s Whiskey Row to the state’s own LGBT history.
Los Angeles, similarly, is in the process of reinterpreting a collection of already-established landmarks as LGBT sites, and last year, San Francisco issued a context statement tracing the history of its LGBT population from the 19th century to the 1980s through its buildings and public spaces.
Yet it’s impossible to discuss LGBT spaces without acknowledging the continued threat they face, as the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando so tragically proved in June.
Nor can one ignore the more quiet devastation of the loss of LGBT bars and clubs across the country due to rising rents and cultural shifts away from reliance on these spaces. “Use is a very hard thing to preserve,” Dolkart says.
But even if the purpose of place has eroded, its existence, Lustaber says, is still a powerful thing. “The tangible component of the work that we’re doing—documenting site-specific locations—will show kids growing up now that there are places they can point to that predate even their parents’ existence,” Lustbader says. “This is a narrative: people like them existed for decades, hundreds of years, before they did, and knowing and seeing that can help foster some continuity in their own intangible pride.”
H/t: Untapped Cities
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