Christopher Street, New York, is famous for being gay for many years. It started out as a rural path in 17th century New Amsterdam and is one of New York’s oldest thoroughfares.
Clones in Christopher Street, New York, 1970s | Fred W. McDarrah/Village Voice | 14259
Back in the 19th century, a class divide split the bohemian, artistic eastern end and the working-class western end. Race riots erupted in 1932 between striking white longshoremen and black strikebreakers. Social tensions among different ethnic communities often led to street fights.
George Chauncey in Gay New York writes that gays were evident on Christopher Street by the 1920s and ’30s, when Stewart’s and the Life Cafeteria catered to gay men.
When the docks declined, gays became the majority in the area. “Many of those places that were seamen’s bars and longshoremen’s bars became gay bars,” says historian Allan Berube. “And the piers, as they became vacant and decayed, became a kind of urban wilderness,” where men cruised the abandoned waterfront warehouses. Then came the 1960s, when cruising gave the street a visibly gay character. Men walked to the piers—and the trucks parked under the (since demolished) elevated highway—to find sex. “The trip to and from the waterfront created a steady traffic,” says Samuel Delany, 62, who recounts his escapades by the trucks in his autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water. “What made Christopher Street gay was the fact that the trucks were at the end of it.”
As visibility increased, so did harassment and violence. Bob Kohler, who has lived in the Village for more than 50 years, says gay men were regularly assaulted in those days, by bashers and police alike.
The raid on The Stonewall Inn in 1969 | NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images | 14260
When the police raided the Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969, however, Christopher Street took a dramatic turn, as did gay life everywhere.
“I don’t think anybody saw a revolution in the air,” says Kohler, who witnessed the raid. “But it changed everybody’s life. It changed the world.” That summer, he recalls, the street “looked like an armed camp.” Christopher Park, in front of Stonewall, was fenced off, with cops on duty all night. “Everybody was waiting for the next riot,” says Kohler. But it never came. Instead, the Gay Liberation Front formed and within weeks organized a peaceful “stoop-in,” where people sat on stoops to claim Christopher Street’s sidewalks as gay turf.
Christopher Street became the heart of a gay commercial district and gays and lesbians formed the majority of residents.
“Christopher Street clones decided to reclaim their masculinity,” their mustaches and Levi’s creating a uniform look on the street that excluded folks who were trying to challenge gender norms. But the broad-based political legacy of Stonewall persisted. The street became the site of inclusive rallies and demonstrations far beyond the annual commemoration of the riots every Pride Day (originally called Christopher Street Liberation Day),
said activist Pauline Park.
The height of gay political activism in Christopher Street was the 1970s. Protests against the movie Cruising in 1979 had local store owners closing shops and blocking signs to prevent filming on Christopher Street. A killer obsessed with gay men sprayed the Ramrod bar on West Street in November 1980, killing two and injuring many more, and several thousand people took part in a memorial procession down Christopher Street. Every time something dreadful happened—such as a new outrage by Anita Bryant or the Supreme Court—the cry could be heard up and down Christopher: “Out of the bars and into the street.”
It did not last. When AIDS started sweeping the gay community in 1981, the street fell ill as well. Businesses closed, cruising declined, voyeuristic straights stayed away, and longtime residents and patrons died by the thousands. “It was like going to a carnival,” says Kohler, “and suddenly somebody pulled the plug on the lights.”
Post first published 4 September 2011
Post updated 1 June 2013