As the gay community focuses on Stonewall at 40, it’s nice to know that the place where it all began still appeals to queer travelers
Unlike Dallas, where anything south of I-30 is lumped together in a generic (and often incorrect) catch-all called "Oak Cliff," neighborhood boundaries are important in New York City. The Stonewall Rebellion took place in Greenwich Village, historically a home for artists and bohemians, the place where beatniks lived in the ’50s and hippies flourished in the ’60s and no artist could afford to live today. Not SoHo, not Nolita, not Chelsea or Tribeca. You’d better get that right if you take a pilgrimage to the site of the modern gay rights movement.
And there’s reason to do so. NYC is big enough that you can easily concentrate an entire day within a few city blocks and still not run out of things to do.
Greenwich Village is a small but well-defined neighborhood with Washington Square Park as its heart. The Washington Arch, built to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the first president’s inauguration in New York City, marks the beginning of Fifth Avenue; New York University surrounds the park.
The Village generally extends from the Hudson River to Broadway; cross Broadway and you’re in the East Village (considered part of the Lower East Side, not part of Greenwich Village); cross the Hudson and you’re in… well, New Jersey, and no one wants that.
Houston Street forms the southern boundary and 14th Street the northern (while New York has an East Side and a West Side, no one in Manhattan has any idea which way is north or south — it’s uptown and downtown). Cross 14th Street and you’re in Chelsea. Across Houston is SoHo and Tribeca. (And it’s HOUSE-ton, please, it’s not named after a city in Texas.The street was there 200 years before Texas was a twinkle in Sam’s eye.) Staying within the Village’s boundaries is easy because 14th and Houston are major two-way thoroughfares, New York City rarities.
Though largely residential, the Village offers lots to do. A walk down some of the narrow streets reveals some city history.
A literary neighborhood since the 1800s, Edgar Allan Poe wrote "The Raven" at his home on West 3rd Street in 1844. Henry James lived here when he wrote "Washington Square" in 1880. More recent resident writers include Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas.
The gang from "Friends" lived in the village. The exterior of Monica’s apartment is on the corner of Grove and Bedford Streets. Phoebe lived at 5 Morton Street.
Christopher Street is probably the area’s best-known street because many of the first gay bars as well as the recently closed Oscar Wilde Memorial Book Store were here. Another, Gay Street, which runs for just one block from Christopher Street to Waverly Place, is known for a quirk in its architecture. The houses on one side of the street are Federal style, but Greek Revival on the other. Originally an alley, the city widened it in 1833. Houses on one side remained. Those on the other weren’t replaced until well after a recession known as the Panic of 1837. And the origin of the name is unknown but it was probably named after an early resident, not the recent community.
Off-Broadway originally referred to the small theaters in the Village. The Cherry Lane Theater is the oldest, continuously operating since it opened in 1924. Others include the Astor Place Theater, home of the Blue Man Group, and the Lucille Lortel on Christopher Street.
Off Broadway isn’t the only Village entertainment. The Comedy Cellar and Comedy Village attract top names including Wanda Sykes and Jerry Seinfeld in an intimate setting. Jazz clubs include Blue Note Jazz and Club Groove.
The Whitney Museum, whose main location is on Madison Avenue on the West Side, will open a branch with twice the exhibit space in a building designed by Renzo Piano who also designed the Nasher Sculpture Center. No opening date has been announced.
The restaurants have gone upscale as well. The hottest ticket in Manhattan for two years has been the Waverly Inn, which doesn’t accept reservations and doles out seats like a bouncer with his hand on the velvet rope outside Studio 54. If you can get in with the likes of Tom Hanks and Lindsay Lohan, you’ve already made it.
More accessible, but still a madhouse without a reservation list, is Balthazar. If you’ve been to Dallas’ CafÃ© Toulouse, you’ve seen the Texas version of this Parisian bistro, with great, fin-de-siecle dÃ©cor and a lot of yummy high-end cafÃ© food like risotto, duck confit and salade nicoise. It’s pretty reasonably-priced, too — for New York.
Tom Colicchio’s Craftbar is more affordable and casual than his flagship Craft, but based on the same concept: Fresh, simple family-style food like sandwiches and pastas.
And no West Village venture is complete without standing in line outside the Magnolia Bakery, waiting patiently for the doors to swing open and the sweet waft of its exquisite cupcakes to provide one of the great culinary indulgences.
Many of the bars in the neighborhood have been around since the 1970s. Boots and Saddle is one of New York’s most popular leather bars. Ty’s has been a neighborhood institution for 40 years. The dance floor at The Monster has been there since it opened as the El Chico nightclub (not gay) in the 1930s. At one time, The Monster had branches on Fire Island and Key West.
Two lesbian bars are Henrietta Hudson, the most popular women’s bar in New York, and The Cubbyhole.
And while show tunes are a mainstay of gay life anywhere, in New York they’re an institution. Marie’s Crisis bills itself as the home of show tunes and The Duplex has a piano bar downstairs and a theater upstairs.
The most notorious of the bars is Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street. A police raid the night of Judy Garland’s funeral fueled the rebellion that marks the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. (A segment of Christopher and Hudson streets two blocks from the bar has been renamed Sylvia Rivera Way in honor of the trans woman who was a Stonewall survivor and activist pioneer.)
Right outside the bar, in Sheridan Square, stands sculptor George Segal’s acclaimed white bronze monument to the movement, "Gay Liberation," which was erected in 1980 and was the first permanent public memorial to gay rights anywhere. No trip to Greenwich Village would be complete without pausing there to reflect on what Stonewall meant — and still means.
PRIDE GOES EAST
It’s amazing how much gays are wanted during an economic downturn. While the Stonewall Rebellion began in Greenwich Village, surrounding NYC neighborhoods are participating in the festivities as well.
Pride Goes East is a weeklong celebration beginning June 21. Restaurant deals, store discounts and free entertainment are designed to bring the expected waves of LGBT tourists to the eastside East Village and Lower East Side neighborhoods.
Deals include 25 percent off in-stock merchandise at Adrienne’s bridal salon and rubber fetish items at Demask both on Orchard Street. La Barra Cevicheria on Broome Street offers 20 percent off their Mexican cuisine to Pride week visitors.
At La Mama Gallery, a group exhibition, "Tainted Love," presents art as activism.
Pride @ DMAC is a week of theater, art, music, film and dance performances at Duo Multicultural Arts Center. "30 Gay Plays in 60 Straight Minutes" is a timed show, whose 15-member ensemble races against the clock to perform each play in random order in two minutes or less.
On June 27, free performances, rainbow kite flying and al fresco dining begin at 3 p.m. on East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and the Bowery. Bring your own lawn chair.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 19, 2009.