Missing History

For gay culture at the turn of the twentieth century, the use of space helped to define areas of acceptable “fairy” interactions in New York City. In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay World 1890-1940, George Chauncey approaches the discussion of gay culture in two segments. He dissects the existing paradigm for gay men at the beginning of the twentieth century by encouraging the reader to consider the binary forms of gender and sexuality that are prevalent in today’s society and consider them as socially constructed ideas that have morphed and developed overtime. While the writing is engaging and the theories fascinating, what intrigued me more than anything was is concentration on the importance of spatial relations to, what we now consider, gay culture in the early twentieth century.[1]

Werther, a middleclass man living what he called a double-life discusses meeting spaces in the Bowery. “Werther and the other middle-class men he met on the Bowery went there because they found working-class men to be more tolerant of their kind than their middle-class colleagues and acquaintances were.”[2] The working-class that Werther found was mostly made up of immigrants from varying backgrounds and cultural beliefs regarding the activities of gay men, some cultures more tolerant than others. And so places such as, Little Bucks, Manilla Hall, the Palm Club and Black Ribbits, were established in these neighborhoods to create relatively safe places for gay men to meet and act themselves. [3] These locations were instrumental in helping to develop gay culture. Men who could not reveal their effeminate selves to their friends and loved ones were able to be themselves at places such as these.

207 Canal Street in New York City was once a saloon owned by Vito Lorenzo in 1908 where “fairies” were reported to have gathered to meet. Now the location is home to a jewelry store. [4] [5] [6]

Columbia Hall, also known as Paresis Hall, located on the Bowery at Fifth Street was one of New York’s premier locations for “male degenerates to gather at the end of the 1890’s.” Now it stands as the Village Voice. [7] For a culture so defined and developed by community meeting spots, the fact that there is no standing historic site to commemorate that aspect of New York History, seems incredibly wrong.

Not four minutes from the old site of Lorenzo’s saloon is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, an institution dedicated to increasing tolerance of other cultures. The story of Gay New York as depicted by Chauncey seems incredibly interlocked in the immigrant story. Is there a place for the development of gay culture at the Tenement Museum? Even if the Gay history of New York is outside the Tenement Museum’s scope, where are the national historic sites for gay history?

[1] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 23
[2] Ibid 44
[3] Ibid 34
[4] Ibid 72
[5] http://www.nychinatown.org/storefronts/canal/207canal.html
[6]http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://i53.photobucket.com/albums/g48/meesalikeu/album%25206/5a1f4578.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.urbanohio.com/forum2/index.php%3Ftopic%3D17441.0&usg=__zntViWJyxMVRNfZ2ACt9bRs6pUg=&h=640&w=480&sz=218&hl=en&start=1&um=1&itbs=1&tbnid=1GE-qZ5TOZ9MBM:&tbnh=137&tbnw=103&prev=/images%3Fq%3D%2522columbia%2Bhall%2522,%2B%2522paresis%2Bhall%2522%2BNYC%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26tbs%3Disch:1
[7] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 33

7 thoughts on “Missing History

  1. I wonder if the history exists in places your not looking. In Novels and paintings. James Baldwin’s Another Country, while not embodying everything from Chauncey, I think brings to bear a past of complicated gender issues that reflect a specific era in time.
    Gay men spend an enormous amount of time celebrating their culture. I think a great deal of history can be learned from the existence of cultural and social constructs. Last summer my family spent a week in Provincetown on Cape Cod during a carnival celebration. I feel I learned a great deal from sitting on the beach as an enormous drag queen with 8-inch heels and 14-inch hair, auctioned off swimsuits worn by men in the crowd.
    There was such a rich celebration of life, and the lives these men and women were living. I wonder if they really want it bottled up in a museum by a curator?

  2. Good question. In my search for websites this week, the Stonewall Library and Museum ended up being in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, nowhere near where the actual riots took place. Why?

    Speaking of the Bowery and its apparent vices, I wanted mention something I heard during break this week when my dad insisted on watching “Stars and Stripes Forever” on AMC, which was made in 1952 about the life of John Philips Sousa. Anyway, in one scene, a musical number is performed by Debra Paget, where she sang a song called “The Bowery.” Originally written in 1892 by Percy Gaunt and Charles Hoyt for the musical “A Trip to Chinatown.”

    Lyrics:

    Oh! the night that I struck New York,
    I went out for a quiet walk;
    Folks who are “on to” the city say,
    Better by far that I took Broadway;
    But I was out to enjoy the sights,
    There was the Bow’ry ablaze with lights;
    I had one of the devil’s own nights!
    I’ll never go there anymore.

    The Bow’ry, the Bow’ry!
    They say such things,
    And they do strange things
    On the Bow’ry! The Bow’ry!
    I’ll never go there anymore!

    I had walk’d but a block or two,
    When up came a fellow, and me he knew;
    Then a policeman came walking by,
    Chased him away, and I asked him why.
    “Wasn’t he pulling your leg?,” said he.
    Said I, “He never laid hands on me!”
    “Get off the Bow’ry, you Yap!,” said he.
    I’ll never go there anymore.

  3. I think space did and still does remain an important element of human relationships. The desire for connections and commonalities, of any type and on any level, is integral to the social nature of people. We all want friends. So I agree that this need for shared interests and relationships absolutely parallels in the stories of immigration and gay culture. I think in American culture this space identification goes even deeper. Specific cultural groups’ identities have been prescribed on the geographic locations in which they connected. New Orleans is identified with Creole culture. The Lower East Side is identified with European immigrants. San Francisco’s The Castro neighborhood is identified with the gay rights movement. Even though geographic areas change and evolve and become the common ground for other cultural groups, many times they still retain their former identities.

  4. I hadn’t thought of it before, but I completely agree with your point about New York (and the country in general, really) lacking in historic sites celebrating the formerly vibrant gay culture.

    Are most museums just conservative in nature? Some institutions seem to refuse to even consider the possibility of homosexuality in their past. One New England museum ignored the potential significance of two women choosing to live together in one house for their entire lives – and this happened in the 1900s, right at the beginning of the cultural movement of Gay New York!

  5. I remember reading stories a few years ago about the projected disappearance of gay neighborhoods. Demographic shifts had new people moving into what had been established as gay spaces. Straight families and couples were also specifically seeking out living space in these neighborhoods because of their presumptive cleanliness and vibrant culture. Preserving gay enclaves such as San Francisco’s Castro District were becoming pressing issues in the face of gentrification.

    I wonder if the threat of these spaces losing their identity could cause a push from inside the GLBT community to move toward commemoration and preservation of their history.

  6. I wonder if the lack of recognition for early twentieth century gay historical sites has to due with the simple fact that the general public is blissfully unaware of this history. Before reading Gay New York, I had no idea that there was such a large and vibrant gay community at this time. It could also be that by the time it became more acceptable to talk about gay history, many of the people who had lived during this time were unable to advocate for the importance of their own story. I also wonder to what degree the cleaning up of New York under Mayor Giuliani in the 90’s helped erase some of the seedier areas of town where many of these sites were located.

  7. I also have to wonder that if the lack of historic sites celebrating homosexual culture in NYC is due to the transformative nature of the City. New Yorkers are very proud of the fact that their city constantly changes and transforms; evolves if you will. Although the buildings still remain of some of these infamous haunts described in Gay New York, their function has changed. For a city that celebrates its love of change, how would one marry that with this idea of celebrating and honoring important bastions of gay culture?

    I’m reminded of a situation that Gretchen brought up in Intro to Museums. The city had recently acquired a historic Dutch house from New York’s founding. The problem? It was in an Asian (I believe Asian but first years please correct me if I’m wrong!) neighborhood. For Gretchen, the question became, “What do you do with this house, when your direct community (the Asian neighborhood) doesn’t care two cents about the house or what that house represents?” I think that question might be applicable here, too. How, in cities like NYC where historic landmarks are in transformative locations, do you give that site its proper due, even if the surrounding communities don’t care or don’t want it? How do you reach back to the past when the city demands that you look to the future?

    I believe wholeheartedly that NYC needs to reclaim the history of its gay culture, I’m just interested in hearing people’s opinions on how to bridge the cultural heritage with a city, neighborhood, etc. that may not exactly see the importance or the need for such a movement.

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