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NYC commission takes first step in mandating LGBT landmarks

The city has individually designated 1,415 landmarks since 1965, a classification that bars certain changes to the sites without official approval, according to commission spokeswoman Zodet Negrón.

Architectural historian Michael Caratzas of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission spoke at a hearing Tuesday in Manhattan in which the city agreed to consider designation of 6 LGBTQ sites as landmarks. (Credit: Newsday / Matthew Chayes)

The Greenwich Village theater that broke the law punishing onstage depictions of homosexuality. The Staten Island home of New York State’s onetime poet laureate and self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” The decommissioned firehouse in SoHo where gay rights activists plotted to “zap” politicians for their stances on civil rights legislation.

On Tuesday morning, New York City took the first formal step closer to legally mandating the preservation of those buildings, and three others, connected to the history of the civil rights movement for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

In a succession of six unanimous “aye” votes, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission added the six buildings to its consideration calendar. The city has individually designated 1,415 landmarks since 1965, a classification that bars certain changes to the sites without official approval, according to commission spokeswoman Zodet Negrón.

Of those, only one landmark is solely designated for LGBTQ relevance: the Stonewall Inn, site of the riots beginning June 28, 1969, against the NYPD’s then-commonplace raids of bars frequented by LGBTQ patrons. The events at Stonewall, landmarked in 2015, are credited with jump-starting the modern LGBTQ movement.

Negrón said a final vote on the six buildings is expected before the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

The buildings are:

  • Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse, 99 Wooster St., Manhattan. Called the city’s “first gay community center,” the alliance had its most active years at the former firehouse, from 1971 to 1974. Activists organized sit-ins, picket lines and confrontational “zaps” of newsmakers, but also held Saturday night dance parties. The alliance, first to adopt the Greek letter lambda as a symbol of the movement, affixed it on a large shield on the building’s front. The interior was partially destroyed by arson in 1974.
  • Women's Liberation Center, 243 W. 20th St., Manhattan. Operated between 1972 and 1987, the center was symbolic of some lesbians’ break away from the then male-dominated groups and housed feminist social service groups, women's political committees and lesbian organizations. “At a time when some feminists rejected the voices of lesbians,” commission researcher Margaret Herman said Tuesday, “the Women's Liberation Center intentionally welcomed them.”
  • The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, 208 W. 13th St., Manhattan. The former schoolhouse has helped the LGBTQ community through groups including the Partnership for the Homeless, S.A.G.E. and Community Health Project, an HIV clinic. A partnership at the center contributed 1,200 panels to the AIDS memorial quilt, and in 1986, helped pass the city's law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
  • Caffe Cino, 31 Cornelia St., Manhattan. From 1958 to 1968, the building's commercial storefront helped birth Off-Off-Broadway and the city's first gay theater. It hosted poetry readings and experimental theater. Among those who got their starts at Caffe Cino: Tom Eyen, who would write Tony-winning "Dreamgirls" and John Guare, author of “Six Degrees of Separation.” The building is now home to the Drunken Munkey restaurant and bar. The New York Times wrote in 1965 that, unlike Broadway, "Homosexuality, incest and sadomasochism are treated frequently and sometimes humorously." Theaters like Caffe Cino that depicted "sex degeneracy, or sex perversion," such as homosexuality, could be padlocked under a law in effect until 1967, Negrón said.
  • James Baldwin’s apartment house, 137 W. 71st St., Manhattan. Harlem-born James Baldwin, essayist, novelist and civil rights activist, spent most of the last two decades of his life there on the Upper West Side, purchasing the converted former row house in 1965 for his family. Baldwin, who was gay, split his time between Europe and the United States and worked in the apartment on screenplays, stage plays, novels and corresponded with other prominent figures. Among Baldwin's visitors to the building were Toni Morrison, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.
  • Audre Lorde's home, 207 St. Paul’s Ave., Staten Island. Born in 1934 to Caribbean immigrants, Lorde was a librarian, writer, poet and later a professor and theorist at Hunter and John Jay colleges. She spoke at the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and co-founded the publisher Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Lorde also wrote the book, "I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities." She was the state's poet laureate until 1992, when she died.

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