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LGBTQ History: Cooper Square and Bowery

32 Cooper Square, once Paresis Hall, is to the left of the building where the Village Voice was once housed.
32 Cooper Square, once Paresis Hall, is to the left of the building where the Village Voice was once housed.

In the 1890s, the Bowery, like Bleecker Street, was a center of ‘gay’ nightlife in New York City. On Bleecker Street, the Black Rabbit and the Slide did business, offering live sex shows and male prostitutes. On the Bowery, Manilla Hall and Little Bucks, like the Slide, served as ‘fairy resorts,’ where male prostitutes waited tables, performed, and offered sex. The Sharon Hotel, just north of 14th Street at 136 3rd Avenue, was another such establishment. (Gay New York, 42) Columbia Hall, located at 32 Cooper Square (just across the street from Little Bucks), was the best known of these.

'Biff' Ellison was portrayed as a homosexual in
‘Biff’ Ellison was portrayed as a homosexual in Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. Whether he was or not, the nature of his establishment at ‘Paresis Hall’ was no secret.

Columbia Hall, better known as Paresis Hall, was opened by James T. (‘Biff’) Ellison by the 1890s. Ellison (a gangster affiliated with the Five Points Gang, and then the Gopher Gang) apparently made no attempt to disguise his establishment as anything other than a ‘fairy resort.’ An investigator who visited the place in 1899 noted that he had ‘constantly’ heard of it before, and that despite what was to be found within, he was easily admitted to the hall. Male prostitutes there acted much as female prostitutes did at other establishments: working the tables, soliciting the men sitting at them, and getting a commission on all the drinks sold. According to one officer, they acted in an ‘effeminate’ manner, painting and powdering their faces, and calling each other by feminine names (‘Princess this and Lady So and So and the Duchess of Marlboro…’). (Gay New York, 33)

For the men who came to Paresis Hall, however, it was not entirely the ‘degenerate resort’ that tourists and reformers saw. Like the Slide in the early 1890s, it functioned as an important social center, providing a sense of community and support. For a population crowded into tenements with no privacy available, saloons and halls like Paresis Hall were places where they could meet, socialize, organize, and ‘enjoy one another’s company.’ Many working class men and youths in the tenement districts met in places like this, where they could hold unsupervised gatherings, create informal social clubs, and even sponsor larger dances or balls. A few men of the Paresis Hall men organized a club called the Cercle Hermaphroditis, which permanently rented a room above the bar. At the time, laws against transvestsism, as well as the antagonism of other men, made dressing in women’s attire on the streets dangerous. Paresis Hall gave them a space where they could gather without fear, and store some of their personal things in a place more private than their living areas.

The hall also served as an entry point into a much larger ‘gay world,’ where men just beginning to identify as ‘fairies’ could learn subcultural styles, and ways of speaking and behaving. They could exchange information about developments affecting them, from news of police raids to upcoming balls or social events. Here, they could build and express solidarity, and provide the kind of emotional support needed to reject the views of a largely hostile world beyond Paresis Hall. (Gay New York, 42-43)

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