In 1960s New York City, gay men and lesbians were routinely harassed by the police vice squad. The few bars in Greenwich Village that would serve them were frequently raided. Gay men would also be assaulted by the police walking down the street. An estimated 100 gay men were arrested each week for gross indecency or public lewdness. On June 28, 1969, a typical police raid at the Mafia-run Stonewall Inn ended up very differently though: it led to a rebellion that launched a global civil rights movement. Patrons refused to leave the bar, telling the police that they can either let them dance in the bar, or they will dance out in the streets, but the harassment must end, explained Richard Landman, a land use lawyer who was actually there. He led us on a walking tour of LGBTQ history in the West Village at the American Planning Association annual meeting in New York City.
Landman, who himself was brutally gay-bashed four times, explained that the Stonewall Inn doesn’t look like it once did. The bar was bare-bones, with little seating. It was one of the few places were gay men and lesbians could dance. It has gone through a number of lives over the decades. It was gutted and became Bagel Nosh for a while, then renovated to look like a collegiate bar, as it does today. Part of it has since become a nail salon. But, with its designation as a historic landmark in 2000 by New York City, the facade was protected. And when President Obama created the Stonewall National Monument in 2016, the bar facade, nearby Christopher Street Park, and the surrounding sidewalks became protected in perpetuity.
The park and surrounding streets were critical to the rebellion, explained Michael Levine, an urban planner who was also at Stonewall Inn the night the movement began. As “Puerto Rican drag queens faced off against Irish cops, shouting ‘we’re not leaving,'” the open space in the triangle just south of Christopher Street Park became important — it allowed the crowd to expand and the protest to grow in strength. “Open space in the public realm invites things to happen.” (That space was covered in trees and plants in 2001).
Levine said the rebellion was about making a statement. “If you don’t let us dance inside, then we’re going to dance outside in the streets. It wasn’t a riot; it was a rebellion.” Levine said it was a simple message, but so significant. “We wanted to stand up for our rights. We’re coming out and standing up.”
After the first night of rebellion on a Friday, protestors came back five or six consecutive nights. “On Saturday night, we danced again in the streets. That really embarrassed City Hall, so they sent reinforcements, and there was a nasty confrontation. Sunday night was really frightening, because the Mayor had had enough. Tactical police arrived and blocked 6th and 7th avenues. By Monday, the national press had broken the story.” Levine emphasized that drag queens, who started the rebellion against the police, “gave us gay liberation. We can never forget that.”
The vice squad police who raided the bar weren’t from the local precinct, so they didn’t know the tangle of streets down in the Village well. “Protestors would run down side streets and circle back, eluding the police. The lack of the grid then also enabled the rebellion,” Levine explained.
“It couldn’t have happened without the irregular streets and open space.” He added, laughing: “the police were really embarrassed — gay bar patrons had them running in circles.”
Continuing the tour over drinks at the Stonewall Inn, where they are crafting a new cocktail called “The Park Ranger,” Joshua Laird, commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor, which is responsible for the national parks that surround New York City, said the National Park Service (NPS) realized it wasn’t telling the story of civil rights well. “Our new focus is to cover the stories of Latino immigration, LGBTQ civil rights, and Japanese internment.” LGBTQ heritage in the U.S. has become one of the park service’s thematic areas, but it took a number of years to finally happen.
The NPS carefully examined Stonewall before proposing its designation as a National Monument. “We looked at a number of other sites, but Stonewall was really the turning point. Organizations around the world put Stonewall in their names.”
Christopher Street Park is the “legal heart” of the monument, but it extends to the surrounding sidewalks and the Stonewall Inn building facade, all spaces important to the rebellion, as Levine explained.
Next, the NPS will undertake a planning process in which they will reach out to scholars, the LGBTQ community, and general public to figure out how we can “best tell the story.” The NPS hopes to go beyond Stonewall. “This is the beginning, not the end of the story,” Laird explained.
Indeed, Stonewall, which is still a functioning gay bar, and Christopher Street Park, an active neighborhood park, are “living history,” so the NPS needs to create a new model. “We can’t just plant a park ranger there with some brochures,” Levine said. “But we also don’t want it to turn into a circus.”