Preserving West Village Gay History

Christopher Street’s west end at Weehawken has won protection from the city

The past is always with us. Sure there are times when it is conveniently put away, or purposefully forgotten, but what happened before always stays around patiently waiting to be remembered or acknowledged. The history of gay New York is slowly becoming part of the official record the city keeps when it honors the past.

Last month city officials announced a new historic area in Greenwich Village. Called the Weehawken Street Historic District, the report the city wrote describing the designation is, as described by Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, “chock full of references to the area’s gay history.”

The district ranges from the corner of Christopher and Weehawken Streets and ends slightly beyond West 10th Street. According to Berman, this stretch of the Village was critical to gay life after the Stonewall Rebellion.

“Weehawken Street is an important part of gay history because in the 1970s through the 1990s, there was a very significant concentration of gay establishments, and it was a clear nexus of gay life in New York,” said Berman.

Although Stonewall ushered in an era of political activism, gay life as recently as 25 or 30 years ago remained essentially underground, minus the bright lights of public visibility. The very layout of Weehawken permitted a gay cultural life to flourish outside the view of prying eyes.

“The fact that it was this tiny street tucked away, that one would likely never know about unless one was looking for it, allowed for the creation of a kind of private world which allowed something still somewhat furtive like gay life to flourish,” said Berman. “It was also this separateness and hidden quality which probably also contributed to the anachronistic architecture being preserved as well. While this ‘hidden world’ quality also led to some unsavory activity, by its very nature it also allowed a subculture to flourish here that had few other places to flourish.”

Six of the 14 buildings in the district were the homes of various gay bars. Some are still open for business—such as the Dugout—while others like Peter Rabbit, Sneakers, West Beach Bar & Grill, and Badlands have closed their doors. The Ramrod was shut down at the end of 1980, right after an infamous November shooting in which a homophobic attacker killed two men with a semi-automatic.

Making sure the city remembers the diversity of its past is one of missions of the GVSHP. Berman notes the organization, which was involved in the Stonewall National Register designation in 1999 preserving the famed bar on Christopher near Gay Street, is currently preparing to submit another application for the South Village.

“The South Village is the area south of Washington Square Park and West 4th Street between 7th Avenue and LaGuardia Place,” said Berman. “In this case, the gay history goes back to the 1920s and earlier, and thus it will be part of the ‘historic’ information we submit and the argument we will make for the area’s significance and worthiness of landmark protections.”

Historic designations serve an significant purpose, not only for specific neighborhoods, but also for the city on a whole.

“Historic district and landmark designations are so important because in our ever-changing city, they are amongst the only ways to ensure that significant parts of our city’s history are preserved, and that things about our city that we think are significant are recognized and documented,” said Berman. “Many aspects of our city’s history have never been really given the due it deserves.”

According to Berman, one segment of New York history that has been overlooked has been the impact of immigrant neighborhoods, a rather shocking fact considering the importance of newcomers from other nations in the building of this the city. GVSHP’s hope is this oversight will change with the South Village proposal.

“Believe it or not, no neighborhood in New York City has ever been designated a historic district based upon its immigrant history, and we hope the South Village will be the first,” Berman said.

The city currently has 85 historic districts—including the African Burial Ground near City Hall and the Gansevoort Market in Manhattan; Park Slope and the Heights in Brooklyn; Riverdale and Mott Haven in the Bronx; Jackson Heights and Fort Totten in Queens; and St. George in Staten Island.

Once a neighborhood is given the designation, buildings are protected from demolition and the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission must approve any exterior alterations.

For more information on the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, visit gvshp.org.

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