Landlords Squeeze Stonewall Just in Time for Pride
"It shows how easily we can be exploited to protect our own story," said philanthropist Tim Gill.
When Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland toured the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s West Village last Thursday, her visit to the first national monument honoring the LGBT rights movement was meant to mark the beginning of Pride Month.
But instead, Haaland’s visit kicked off a seven-day countdown until the landlords who own part of the original Stonewall Inn—currently intended to serve as a permanent ranger station, visitor center, and community space for the monument—put the space back on the commercial market.
The empty storefront at 51 Christopher Street has been the subject of more than two years of negotiations between the building’s owners and Pride Live, the nonprofit organization working alongside the National Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association to create the visitor center.
But hours after Haaland called the monument “an incredible reminder about the struggle the LGBTQ+ community across the country and globe face just to be treated fairly, love who they want to love, and live their truth,” the owners of 51 Christopher Street told Pride Live that they had one week to sign a long-term lease.
Talks for securing a long-term lease for the space included state and local officials, architects, historians, community leaders, and the National Park Service, and looked like they were nearing a successful conclusion. But the one-week ticking clock—a not-uncommon tactic in the bloodsport that is New York commercial real estate—could permanently thwart plans to recognize the Stonewall Inn’s pivotal role in queer history.
“During the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, we learned how precarious the history of our movement is,” said philanthropist Tim Gill, whose eponymous foundation has granted more than half a billion dollars to LGBT causes. During the Obama administration, Gill worked with the Department of the Interior to identify key locations in LGBT history in America, an effort that culminated with the creation of the Stonewall National Monument in 2016.
Gill, who called the National Park Service “a steadfast partner” in creating and protecting the monument, blamed the impasse at the historical site on the fact that many important LGBT historical spaces are held in private hands, and are therefore seen as potentially lucrative bargaining chips in negotiations over locations of extreme historical and sentimental value to the community. National monuments often rely on “friends of” groups rather than federal funding, unlike national parks, which means that the building’s owners are squeezing a nonprofit and its supporters—not the federal government.
“It’s problematic that our movement doesn’t own these key pieces that mark our brave activism and social agitation, and that we continue to be subjected to the whims and winds of the New York real estate market,” Gill said. “It shows how easily we can be exploited to protect our own story.”
The original Stonewall Inn was a mob-run bar in the late 1960s, one of a number of such establishments in the West Village that were popular with gay men and transgender people—and were equally popular spots for raids by the New York Police Department. Typically, law enforcement would only arrest patrons who weren’t carrying identification or who had danced with one of the undercover officers masquerading as fellow patrons.
But on June 28, 1969, police raided the bar and attempted to indiscriminately arrest everyone present. Without an adequate number of patrol wagons to take all of the Stonewall Inn’s customers and employees into custody, agitated spectators began calling out at the police and demanding the release of their charges, throwing coins, beer bottles, and bricks at patrol cars.
Tensions eventually boiled over into a full-blown riot after a police officer shoved one of the protesters, with unrest lasting for more than three days in protest of law enforcement’s harassment of LGBT New Yorkers. Gay bars had been periodically raided for decades, and queer people were routinely harassed and arrested by law enforcement for minor or nonexistent infractions, but the Stonewall Riots, as they later became known, were different.
“We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit,” Michael Fader, one of the rioters, would later explain in a conversation with historian David Carter. “Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us.”
The riots are now seen as the unofficial beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement and are marked every June by parades and protests around the world.
“Raids like this were nothing new, but this time the patrons had had enough, so they stood up and spoke out,” President Obama said in 2016, when he designated the area around the Stonewall Inn as a national monument. “The riots became protests, the protests became a movement, and the movement ultimately became an integral part of America.”
But in the years since that declaration, the Stonewall National Monument’s status has been complicated by the fact that the Stonewall Inn itself is still private property, and has been separated into two spaces in the decades since the riots. One space holds the modern Stonewall Inn, a successor bar, while the other is an empty storefront that once served as a nail salon, a bagel shop, and a (straight) cocktail lounge. With no permanent visitor center, National Park Service rangers have resorted to handing out pamphlets on the monument from an idling SUV in the years since the monument’s creation.
The specific terms of the proposed long-term lease are still under wraps, but annual market rents for similar spaces in the West Village routinely run into the high six figures, with millions more likely needed for restoration and refurbishment of the space. Similar face-offs between tenants and landlords in the West Village have led to a neighborhood “rent blight” that has shuttered dozens of nearby storefronts over the years, as owners await the arrival of a Chase Bank or 7-Eleven that can afford the price.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, the owners of 51 Christopher Street said that they had issued an updated proposal to Pride Live in April, and that the ultimatum was only issued “after not receiving a substantive response for nearly two months.”
“We would like to reach a resolution in a timely manner and believe we have a fair proposal on the table,” the owners, identified in public records only as “Christopher & Seventh Realty, LLC,” said. “We remain ready and willing to continue discussions in good faith but again, we have received no formal response to-date.”
Diana Rodriguez, the founder and president of Pride Live, declined to comment on the specifics of the negotiations but told The Daily Beast that restoring half of the original space as a site for education about the Stonewall riots is a key component of the nonprofit’s mission.
“There is a need to preserve LGBTQ+ history and connect the Stonewall legacy to a new generation of community members and allies,” Rodriguez said.