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Stonewall Inn: State and National Register Pioneer

Six sites were recently designated landmarks by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission based on their LGBT history and association, two of which were part of a five-year campaign by Village Preservation: the LGBT Community Center and the former Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse. This comes four years after the first and until recently only NYC individual landmark based on LGBT association, the Stonewall Inn, was designated by the City (which Village Preservation also originally proposed and campaigned for), and within days of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.

Stonewall Inn at 51-53 Christopher Street

However, long before the City honored the significance of Stonewall, it and the surrounding streets were listed on the New York State Register of Historic Places, and on June 21, 1999, the US Department of the Interior announced the inclusion of Stonewall on the National Register of Historic Places (Village Preservation was the co-applicant for that listing).  This was the first time that a site was honored this way based on its LGBT significance. Stonewall was further honored in 2000 when it became a National Historic Landmark.

Fifty years ago this month, early in the morning of Saturday, June 28, 1969, the modern LGBT civil rights movement was born – patrons of the Stonewall Inn and members of the local community resisted a routine police raid on the bar, located at 51-53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Like many other gay bars in New York City, Stonewall was run by members of the Mafia, who were able to skirt around the red tape often thrown in the way for gay establishments seeking liquor licenses. Organized crime figures would either obtain illegal liquor licenses or pay the police to turn a blind eye to the sale of alcohol.  Stonewall did not have a liquor license but was operating as a private club, since “clubs” were not required to have a liquor license. However, the sale of liquor was prohibited and Stonewall never had a cash register, keeping money in cigar boxes.  Admission was strict due to a fear of plainclothes police officers.

In the 1960s, a pattern of random police raids and harassment was occurring in many gay establishments in the Village, specifically around Christopher Street, a thoroughfare well known for its gay culture and nightlife. Often times, bar owners would be alerted of an upcoming raid and pay off police not to proceed. At 1:30 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, June 28, 1969, an unannounced raid took place at the Stonewall Inn. Six plainclothes police officers raided the bar. Everyone with valid identification was allowed to leave, except staff. Customers dressed in drag were also held in the bar, as drag attire was illegal at the time. Those who were allowed to leave, however, didn’t disperse. They gathered along Christopher Street and were joined by people hanging out across the street in Christopher Park, residents of the neighborhood, and passersby. It is reported that this crowd amounted to well over 400 people. Some estimated that it reached 1,000.

Stonewall in 1969 (photo courtesy of Larry Morris for the NY Times);

When patrons of the bar were finally allowed to exit, they stepped out into this crowd and a celebration ensued. But when the police began exiting with those in custody, the crowd booed and surrounded the officers. The crowd rioted when more arrests were made. The officers, to escape the intensity of the crowd, withdrew back inside the bar and barricaded themselves in. The crowd persisted, smashing windows with bricks and bottles. A parking meter was used to break down the door. Fearful that the crowd would come in, officers drew their guns. Around 3:00 a.m. fire trucks and the NYPD Tactical Patrol Force (a unit established to deal with anti-Vietnam protests) arrived on the scene equipped with billy clubs and other weapons. Thirteen arrests were made before the crowd dispersed.

News of the night’s events spread quickly. Craig Rodwell, a prominent gay activist and then-owner of the Oscar Wilde Bookshop (the world’s first gay and lesbian book store), distributed several hundred flyers about the event throughout the Village.  There was little action for the next few days, it is thought, in part, due to inclement weather.  However, on the night of Wednesday, July 2 the protest began anew.  Between 500 and 1,000 people once again gathered outside of Stonewall.  The TPF police were dispatched, taking the whole evening and into the day to eventually disperse the crowd.

Post-Stonewall, the LGBT community became less afraid to openly assert their sexuality and voice their opinions. Noted gay activist Franklin Kameny, quoted in the National Register listing, States, “by the time of Stonewall we had fifty to sixty gay groups in the country.  A year later there was at least 1,500.  By two years later, to the extent that a count could be made, it was 2,500.  And that was the impact of Stonewall.”

These statues by George Segal are titled Gay Liberation in honor of gay rights and the Stonewall Uprising. Unveiled in 1992, these statues reside at Christopher Park, across the street from the Stonewall Inn. The park is included in the National Register listing.

Read our series on local LGBT History- South Village, NoHo, West Village, and East Village. Read about the LGBT history of Bleecker Street, MacDougal Street, Cooper Square/Bowery, and Christopher Street, And here is a list of LGBTQ resources and information we put together last year.

The fight to preserve LGBT history is not over! We have lost many historic sites that played important roles in LGBT history, including the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, St. Vincent’s Hospital, and 186 Spring Street, and are fighting hard to preserve what is left! See a list of important LGBT sites here or the map below.

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