The Oldest Gay Bars in New York
As New York gears up to celebrate Pride weekend, a look back to New York’s earliest gay bars reveals how, long before the Stonewall Riots, LGBTs found places to be themselves.
For many drinkers, the history of LGBT bars in New York begins and ends with Greenwich Village’s famous the Stonewall Inn, site of the eponymous 1969 Riots.
While the watering hole—recently transformed into a memorial site for the terrible massacre at Orlando LGBT nightclub Pulse—is, of course, historically significant, it is certainly not alone.
Just a few blocks away from Stonewall is Julius, which this past April was added to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.
It has the distinction of being the oldest gay bar in New York and, according to the National Park Service, one of the city’s oldest continued operated bars.
It was also there, three years before the influential Stonewall riot, that the Mattachine Society held its legendary “sip-in,” which publicized the fact that any establishment serving openly gay men or lesbian women would get their licensed suspended by the State Liquor Authority.
Thanks in great part to the protest and the publicity that it generated, this outrageous policy was changed, which paved the way for a new generation of bars that welcomed gay men and lesbian women.
But this wasn’t the first time that New York bars helped shape gay identity. There’s “a way longer history,” says Ken Lustbader, who is one of the directors of the New York City LGBT Historic Sites Project.
In the 1870s, there were establishments that were known for their “bohemian” atmosphere, like the subterranean Charles Pfaff’s Beer Cellar that was staffed by effeminate men. It was popular with gay men as well as with straight men and drew a crowd of writers and artists. (Several years earlier Walt Whitman even featured the spot in an unfinished poem: “The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse…”) By the 1890s, there were also what Lustbader says were called “pansy bars” that were “commercialized places of vice.”
However, “you wouldn’t call them gay bars,” warns George Chauncey, author of Gay New York and co-director of The Yale Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities. These establishments, which were clustered near the Bowery, offered drinkers a lively atmosphere where some of the waiters wore makeup and, according to Chauncey, “some of them would sing in a falsetto voice.” You could also expect “campy repartee with the customers.”
The Slide, which was slang for hook up in 1890’s parlance, was perhaps the most famous and infamous of these watering holes thanks to a series of attacks in local newspapers. Amazingly enough, more than a century later, the building that The Slide was located in, 157 Bleecker Street, still stands. “The façade changed but the building is still there,” says Lustbader. (For 36 years, it also housed famed music club Kenney’s Castaways, that showcased a range of artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Yoko Ono, Patti Smith and even the Fugees.)
In 1890, The Slide, according to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, was called by the New York Press “the wickedest place in New York.” It however, was “one site in the middle of a whole neighborhood of places where fairies gathered,” says Chauncey. While Chauncey says that these joints were “pretty out there sexually” there were, in fact, other saloons in the area that went further and “had back rooms where men could have sex.”
So, what were people drinking in these watering holes? According to cocktail historian David Wondrich, author of Imbibe! and Punch, regular bars served beer and whiskey, while in the better bars you could find Manhattans, Gin Rickeys and Martinis. Absinthe, he says, was also often used to tip off gay men that they were welcome at an establishment.
But this period was short lived. The Slide “also tells the story of oppression and harassment,” says Lustbader. The struggles by police and reformers to shut it down “helped to define the construction of what homosexuality would be.”
At the turn of the century, the New York State Legislation went on a campaign to rout out corruption. These bars, according to Chauncey, were able to exist because of bribes and “they became targets,” he says.
But it wasn’t long before another legislative initiative, Prohibition, provided the environment for a new wave of bars to open up. The Roaring Twenties saw a huge number of speakeasies open in Harlem and Greenwich Village that catered to gay men and lesbian women. The 1890s and the 1920s were “incredibly open periods in New York history,” says Chauncey.
Once drinking became legal again, that openness unfortunately began to dissipate. After World War II, according to Lustbader, thanks to McCarthyism, the rise of psychoanalysis and the increased religiosity of the country there “were places to go but they weren’t as visual.” The atmosphere forced gay men and lesbian women to drink in private clubs and establishments with mob ties. This era, of course, ended with the sip-in and the Stonewall Riots.
So, it’s only fitting that Sunday’s Gay Pride Parade, which makes its way down Fifth Ave to the intersection of Greenwich and Christopher Streets, ends just steps from The Stonewall Inn and not too far from The Slide.