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Is Gay Street really ‘gay’?

It’s one of the quaintest and most intriguing streets in the West Village.  It’s located just a block from the Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement.  And as Off the Grid favorite Jerry Seinfeld would say, it’s thin, clean, and neat.

Could a million tourist postcards be wrong?

So in honor of Thursday’s National Coming Out Day, Off the Grid asks and answers the question:  Is Gay Street really “gay“?

To help answer this question, we need to examine the history of the word “gay,” as well as the history of Gay Street.

Neat and thin.  Charming and musical.  But gay?

Gay Street is one of a handful of one-block long streets in Manhattan, located just west of the hustle and bustle of Sixth Avenue, between Christopher Street and Waverly Place.  With a bend at its northern end, you can never really see the street in its entirety in one view; the three and four story Federal and Greek Revival-style houses which line much of its length give Gay Street a remarkably intimate feel, while the larger converted late 19th century factories at its northern end adds to the sense of visual isolation by blocking out the more modern apartment buildings just to the north.

As narrow as the street is now, it was actually widened on its east side in 1833; that’s why the houses on the west side of the street are in the federal style and date from the late 1820’s and early 1830’s, while the houses on the east side were built later, in the Greek Revival style.  In the later 19th and early 20th century, when the Village was the center of New York’s African-American community, many of the residents of Gay Street were black, and many were musicians (read more in the Greenwich Village Historic District designation report).

Gay Street stands out, even in the quirky tangle of West Village streets.

Notable later residents of Gay Street included writer Ruth McKenna and her sister Eileen, whose experience living in the basement of #13 was the basis for the book, play, and movie “My Sister Eileen,” and later the Broadway musical “Wonderful Town.”

So we know Gay Street is charming and literary.  But is it really “gay“?

In modern parlance, “gay” has come to mean attracted to the same sex.  But this was not always so, and the word’s evolution, interestingly, mirrors that of Gay Street and its environs as well.

Gay originally meant happy, carefree, exuberant.  However, by the late 19th and especially the early 20th century, the connotations of the word gay came to be increasingly associated with a lifestyle unfettered by the conventions of the day; as time went on, this especially came to mean the sexual conventions of the day.  The term ‘gay’ was associated with both men and women, many of whom lived in places like Greenwich Village or Paris, often habitues of the cafes and clubs of these unconventional communities, typically unmarried, frequently without traditional jobs, who did not seem to care what the rest of the world thought of them, and lived the “gay life.”  No doubt some of these iconoclasts were “gay” by today’s definition, but many were not.  It was not until the mid-20th century that use of the term “gay” came to more commonly mean specifically those attracted to the same sex, and not until the late 20th century that this definition  had come to eclipse other uses and associations.

Up through the mid-20th century, gay connoted an unconventional lifestyle, but not necessarily same-sex attraction.

Of course during this same time period Greenwich Village, and the West Village in particular, also evolved from being one of the premiere locales for those who were “gay”– as in unfettered by contemporary conventions — to, more specifically, a mecca for those who were “gay,” as in attracted to the same sex.  So where in this arc of the evolution of the meaning of the word gay, and of Greenwich Village’s identity, did Gay Street get its name?

The name appears to go back to at least 1827.  According to “The Street Book:  An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins” by Henry Moscow (one of many books available in GVSHP’s library), the name Gay Street first appears officially in the New York City Common Council minutes on April 23, 1827 — when Greenwich Village was first being settled as a suburb of New York by merchants fleeing the yellow fever epidemics downtown, and long before Greenwich Village had come to acquire any associations with the “gay” life — carefree, same-sex, or otherwise.

Historic Bromley map of Manhattan, showing Gay Street lower right (courtesy of David Jarrett — historic maps available on GVSHP’s website at www.gvshp.org/_gvshp/resources/historic_maps.htm)

In fact, while the exact origin of the name of Gay Street does not appear to be conclusively established, most authorities on the matter believe that it was likely a family name, since most (but not all) streets in the area were named for local families, and according to Moscow, newspapers from the late 18th century do show at least one man with the surname Gay who lived not far away on the Bowery.  In part because of the street’s association with African-Americans, it has often been assumed that the street was named for Sidney Howard Gay, editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard.  But he would have been only 13 when the first published reference to “Gay Street” appeared, making this highly unlikely.

Gay Street looking north.

So while Gay Street is one of the Village’s most charming and literary streets, and its name does, by a wonderful coincidence, reflect important elements of the West Village’s distinctive and evolving character, it appears that the origins of the name are not really “gay” at all — at least not in the contemporary sense.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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