Out in Front: The Significance of the Stonewall Inn
In case you don’t recognize the name, the Stonewall Inn is a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. In the course of my ongoing and exhaustive research on the subject of Seedy Places Where History was Made, I visited the Stonewall a couple of years ago. Let me tell you, the Ritz it ain’t. Outside, it was nondescript at best. Inside, it was dim (a good thing, since it struck me as the sort of place that looks best in near-darkness) and dank, with the smell of many years’ worth of cigarette smoke and spilled beer emanating from the walls and floor.
Clearly, the Stonewall didn’t make it to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 on the basis of its architectural splendor. And while the building was originally constructed (as a pair of stables, incidentally) in the 1840s, antiquity isn’t one of its strong points, either. What makes the Stonewall significant is what happened there in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969.
Police raided the bar that night, which was not an unusual occurrence in those days. But this time the Stonewall’s patrons—some of them in drag—fought back, a turn of events that most definitely was unusual. The ensuing near-riot, which continued intermittently over the next several nights, is generally considered to have marked the birth of the Gay Pride movement and has been enshrined as a watershed event of such significance that chroniclers of gay and lesbian history routinely divide their narrative into “before Stonewall” and “after Stonewall” eras.
You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that the Stonewall Inn is the first property to be added to the National Register specifically because of its association with gay and lesbian history. This official recognition of the site of an important turning point in our cultural history offers a welcome opportunity to acknowledge the enormous contribution that gays and lesbians have made to the cause of preservation in America.
It isn’t exactly news, though we’ve treated it as if it were a secret best left undiscussed, that gays have traditionally been in the vanguard of efforts to revitalize historic neighborhoods. In city after city, as any savvy observer of the urban scene can tell you, the first sign that a shabby block might be on the brink of rebirth was the appearance of new residents driving cars (or, more recently, SUVs) with pink-triangle or rainbow-flag bumper stickers. And if you go on many historic-district house tours, chances are you’re no longer surprised to find out that the beautiful Victorian rowhouse you’ve been admiring was restored by a same-sex couple.
(Question: Could it be that gay men and women have an intrinsic preference for older neighborhoods, just as they have a gift for biting wit, an ear for show tunes, and a knack for knockout window treatments? Now, there’s an intriguing subject for a master’s thesis if I ever heard one.)
It comes down to this: Preservationists have been loudly—and rightly so—in our praise of the urban pioneers who have turned so many neighborhoods around, but we’ve been skittish about acknowledging that much of that hardy pioneer stock is gay. Happily, this don’t-talk-about-them-and-maybe-they’ll-go-back-to-being-invisible attitude is fading.
For as long as I can remember, there’s been a lot of talk about welcoming members of minority communities to the preservation movement, and we all know that self-conscious efforts to be “welcoming” are often painfully awkward. Well, in this case, everyone can relax. In a very real sense, gays and lesbians don’t need to be welcomed. We’ve been here all along—often out in front, waiting for everyone else to catch up.