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STONEWALL THE RIOTS THAT SPARKED THE GAY REVOLUTION
By DAVID CARTER
ST. MARTIN'S PRESS Copyright © 2004 David Carter
All right reserved.
Chapter One Greenwich Village, USA
GREENWICH VILLAGE BEFORE THE STONEWALL RIOTS: HISTORY AND TRADITIONS
In the late 1960s, Tony Lauria, known to his friends and associates as Fat Tony, the son of an important Mafioso named Ernie, decided to open a gay bar in Greenwich Village. He did so despite the unhappiness it caused his father, a man so conservative that it was said that meeting with him was almost like having an audience with the pope. Ernie had made his fortune in traditional Mafia operations such as the carting business and felt that running a "fag bar" was for people on the lower echelons of the Mafia hierarchy. The father had high ambitions for Tony and sent him to Xavier, a Catholic preparatory school. Despite the quality education Tony had received-as shown by his good diction-he preferred to hang out on the street with other neighborhood boys whose thick Italian accents made them sound like actors playing mobsters. The father's success, his lofty aspirations for his son, and his displeasure at his son's barroom venture suggest that an archetypal father-son conflict may have been behind Fat Tony's decision.
Fat Tony's father owned the apartment building on the southwest corner of Waverly Place andSixth Avenue, in which he and Fat Tony lived. An impressive structure, the proud building towers over its neighbors and displays knights carved in stone on its facade. At seventeen stories it is high enough that its upper floors command a fine view of the neighborhood.
Looking east, Washington Square Park, for many the very epitome of the Village, is just a block away. The popular park has a history hardly suspected by the many New Yorkers who think of it only as a pleasant place to walk, little knowing, for example, that the golden leaves they enjoy strolling through in the fall have grown out of the bodies of other New Yorkers. In the city's early days, when most of New York's population still inhabited Manhattan's southern tip, a marsh covered the park. During the 1798 cholera epidemic the city desperately needed an out-of-town paupers' graveyard and drained the marsh to meet this exigency. On the northwest corner of Washington Square an extremely tall English elm tree stands only about ten feet from the park's edge. A straight line drawn west from this tree would practically hit the front of Tony's father's building. Some say the tree on the corner is the oldest tree in the entire five boroughs. Oldest or not, the Hanging Elm earned its name when Manhattan established a public gallows and chose it as the site for executions. Perhaps the city chose the tree because of its proximity to the paupers' graves, which allowed the city authorities to dispatch its least valued citizens without bothering to haul the bodies away. When the graveyard had consumed ten thousand bodies, the poor were not even shown the minimal respect ordinarily granted a final resting place, for the graveyard was converted into a military parade ground. Eventually, the beggars and the criminals had their revenge. When the army brought in their heavy artillery to show it off, the weight proved too much for the decaying bodies to support and the weapons collapsed into the unmarked graves of the poor. After that unexpected defeat, the city turned the site into a park.
To the west of Ernie's building lay another vista with a compelling past. The street that runs from the Hanging Tree to the front of the mob-owned apartment building intersects Christopher Street just where Fat Tony's new business was situated-but not before passing the Northern Dispensary, the city's oldest clinic, where Edgar Allan Poe had been a patient. (Poe would no doubt have appreciated the irony that immediately adjacent to the building where sick people had gone seeking to escape the grave there was once a sausage factory; in recent years, as if inadvertently betraying its ancestry, the ground floor of the same building housed a leather clothing store.)
Fat Tony could hardly have found a street with a more colorful history than Christopher Street for his new business. The oldest and longest street in Greenwich Village, Christopher Street at one time extended beyond its current length to about the middle of what is now West 8th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Where Christopher Street used to begin was the location of the Eighth Street Bookshop, the most influential bookstore in Manhattan for Beat literature. In 1964, when Allen Ginsberg-better known to some for being openly homosexual than for his poetry-returned from his long stay in India, he stayed in a room above the store while looking for a place of his own. It was at the Eighth Street Bookshop that Al Aronowitz, the New York Post reporter who had written some of the first articles on the Beats, dropped by one day with a young folk singer he wanted Ginsberg to meet, namely, Bob Dylan.
Given Christopher Street's length and history, it is not surprising that a walk down even a couple of its blocks can provide a sampling of the long Village tradition of bohemian life and its influence across time. In walking from where the Eighth Street Bookshop stood to the Northern Dispensary on Christopher Street, the short physical distance traveled suggests a parallel journey of ideas over a vast expanse of time. Allen Ginsberg found inspiration in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, calling him "the first psychedelic poet," making this short tour all the more suggestive, for while 8th Street had the Eighth Street Bookshop as a cutting-edge literary presence in the 1950s, in the late 1960s the street became one of the main purveyors of psychedelic posters and clothes.
Where Christopher Street begins today, at its intersection with Greenwich Avenue, we find the former site of Luke Connor's, a popular gathering place for the actors and writers of the Provincetown Players, an association of some of the twentieth century's most important talents in the theater, such as Eugene O'Neill. A few doors in from Greenwich Avenue is 11 Christopher Street, where the influential poet e.e. cummings once lived. Farther down the block, just two doors west of where the Stonewall Inn would open, was the Lion's Head, a pub popular with writers. This bar offered refuge for creative spirits from playwright Lanford Wilson and composer David Amram to writers James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Frank McCourt. At the end of this block of Christopher Street, at the corner of Seventh Avenue South, The Village Voice's office was in a building whose jutting triangular shape resembled a ship's prow, suggesting the forward-looking aspirations of the innovative writers and artists who worked for The Voice; among them, photographer Berenice Abbott, underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas, and poet Frank O'Hara. Through its encouragement of Off Off Broadway theater, The Voice helped to expand the very concept of theater.
In a subtle way, another element of the avant-garde history of these few blocks ties into this history. Just as the Village's population rose and fell over the decades and centuries, so did its reputation as a bohemian quarter. (It was the Village's reputation for unconventional lifestyles that first attracted gay people to the area around the turn of the century, as they sensed that a place known for wide tolerance might even accept sexual nonconformists.) When both Seventh Avenue and the Seventh Avenue subway line were extended south into the Village, the new easy access led to a rediscovery of the area as a bohemian enclave. This in turn led to a burgeoning of the real bohemian scene and the birth of a tourist-trap imitation one. It was in part because of the propinquity of the new subway station that Sheridan Square, close by Christopher Street, became the epicenter for both kinds of venues. These were composed mainly of clubs and another Village institution, tearooms, which were very modest restaurants that often catered to a particular clientele.
With the onset of Prohibition, artists, intellectuals, and gay men and lesbians began to socialize more and more in tearooms, since bars could no longer serve alcohol. Among the rare early American books to depict lesbian love is the autobiography of "Mary Casal," The Stone Wall, published in 1930. That same year, two former stables at 51 and 53 Christopher Street were merged into one building at the ground-floor level and became Bonnie's Stone Wall, which soon gained a reputation as one "of the more notorious tearooms" in the Village, a reputation not easily earned in a time when tearooms were routinely raided by the police. It seems reasonable therefore to assume that in naming her "notorious" business Bonnie's Stone Wall, the owner, presumably Bonnie, was alluding to the new memoir to send a coded message to lesbians that they would be welcomed there. The tearoom's notoriety does not seem to have harmed business, for Bonnie's Stone Wall was one of the rare cases of a tearoom that not only survived but also evolved into a full restaurant. Decades later, Bonnie's Stone Wall had lost its rebellious edge and become a popular place to hold wedding receptions and banquets and had even become a particular favorite of policemen. By the 1940s its name had already changed to the more bucolic-sounding Bonnie's Stonewall Inn, and by the 1960s it had been changed again to the Stonewall Inn Restaurant. It was the former Stonewall Inn Restaurant that, in 1967, having sat vacant for some time after a fire gutted it, metamorphosed into the gay club the Stonewall Inn. While the staid restaurant's uproarious origins were quite forgotten by the second half of the twentieth century, it seems as if fate had marked the place from its very beginnings as a site of homosexual rebellion.
Christopher Street's origins go back to the time when the area that became Greenwich Village seemed remote from Manhattan's southern end, where the Dutch founded the city. When the Dutch government wanted to reward Wouter Van Twiller, the third director of New Amsterdam, with a farm, he was given two hundred acres of land within the present-day Village, near the Indian settlement known as Sapponckanican. With the passage of time, the original Dutch farmland was subdivided and resubdivided as the population of farmers slowly grew. The tempo of populating this portion of Manhattan sped up dramatically when a series of four epidemics of yellow fever and cholera struck lower Manhattan between 1791 and 1805. Early New Yorkers fled to what was then seen as an outpost so distant that they could not imagine a plague following them that far.
These flights from plague eventually transformed the Village from a rural country hamlet into an area so populous that it became necessary to lay down roads. From their earliest days, Villagers have shown a certain appreciation of their own traditions and a willingness to defend them. Perhaps the earliest manifestation of this trait occurred when the first Village roads were planned by the residents who were careful to see that the roads followed the footpaths left by the original Indians as well as those added by the early settlers. A number of the Village's original streets were therefore laid out because Indians and farmers, with their close ties to the earth, had followed paths that seemed natural to them, so that the Village's streets were created for the convenience of human feet and not for wheeled vehicles. When an attempt was made in 1817 to impose a grid plan on all of Manhattan's streets, the citizens of Greenwich Village successfully resisted the plan and the Village became the only part of Manhattan north of the Wall Street area where the new street plan was not implemented. This resistance shows that the Villagers' sense of their community as a unique place and their resistance to conformity have deep roots. To understand Villager psychology, this ingredient of feistiness must be factored in. Villagers have long been willing to fight for what they want as well as to applaud those who have the courage to stand up for their beliefs. When the antecedent to the subway trains, elevated trains (the "el"), were built too close to Village residences, housewives angered by the trains' loud racket are said to have stacked bricks in their kitchens to throw at the passing trains. Villagers were so proud of a leader of a riot that they named a street for him: Gay Street was named for attorney Sidney Howard Gay, the editor of the Anti-Slavery Standard, to honor him for his role in the 1834 abolition riots.
The New York Public Library has a collection of 54,000 photographs of old New York, taken between the 1870s and the 1940s. The first appearance in this collection of the two buildings that would one day become the Stonewall Inn bar is a photograph taken in 1899 that shows two white horses drawing a trolley as they approach 51 and 53 Christopher Street. It is appropriate that a pair of horses are featured in the earliest image of these buildings, since they were both built to serve as stables in an era that relied heavily on animal muscle for transportation. The horses bespeak a period when Americans lived closer to the land, a slower time when people were not so alienated from their own natures or from their fellow beings. Even in bustling Manhattan, businesses took the time to pay attention to the amenities: of these two Christopher Street stables, one was home to the all-black horses that delivered goods for Saks Fifth Avenue, and one of the stable keeper's duties was to paint the horses' hooves black to match their coats.
However, 1899 was also the year that Henry Ford started the Detroit Automobile Company and that New York City got its first fleet of taxicabs. The next image in the library's collection of these buildings is taken in 1928, and 53 Christopher Street is a French bakery. Number 51 still has "The Jefferson Livery Stable" emblazoned on its facade, but these words are obscured by a larger poster nailed on top of it proclaiming that the building is about to be altered into "most desirable STUDIO APARTMENTS." A clear view of 51 and 53 Christopher Street is blocked by a car and a delivery truck.
While Greenwich Village grew by fits and starts-and had occasional declines-it maintained a certain level of isolation until well into the twentieth century because its irregular street plan impeded a direct flow of traffic into the Village. The increasing popularity of both the automobile and the recently introduced subway system added to the public pressure to extend Seventh Avenue. At the close of World War I, Seventh Avenue, which used to end at 11th Street, was extended south, with its new section named Seventh Avenue South.
Excerpted from STONEWALL by DAVID CARTER Copyright © 2004 by David Carter. Excerpted by permission.
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