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OUTgoing: Mapping the Hidden History of New York’s Gay Nightlife

It’s my nature to ask the queer survivors of 70s and 80s New York about the after-dark they experienced. Lesbian, gay or trans, they went through the 1970s disco sexfest, followed by the brutality of the AIDS crisis which changed the lives of every LGBT person. The stories from iconic spots like the Anvil, Bonnie and Clyde’s or Studio 54 are unfamiliar now — spectacular, cruisy dance floors; dark leather bars; and a network of bathhouses. I’m a night owl and find the vice side of New York to be much more to my liking. Today’s gay nightlife experience feels sterile and conservative in comparison, and leads me to relive the past through stories. Recently I was chatting with a gay male friend in his 70s and long-time East Villager:

Him: My favorite, Tunnel Bar, was on 7th and 1st. It was cruisy, but it was a great place of community. My family used to come on Sundays to a potluck.
Me: Your real family came to a cruisy bar to hang out? That’s amazing.
Him: Yeah. Family, friends. Everyone was invited. It was great. The 70s were great.
Me: So I hear. Which corner?
Him: Southeast
Me: Wait, that’s my hardware store now.

Washington Square Park‘s historic nightlife from OUTgoing.

As it turns out my local bank was a landmark gay dance club, The Saint, and my grocery store was Andy Warhol’s Electric Circus, on St. Marks Place. After a few of these conversations, one starts to think every corner in Gotham was once a gay bar (which is actually true in the West Village, incidentally). But it also makes you aware of the constant physical transition both the city and the queer community is in. Queer neighborhoods, sometimes informally called ‘gayborhoods’, have provided a safety, socialization and a place for people to learn to be gay since at least the late 1800s — moving from Mulberry Street (1890) to Greenwich Village(1920–60) to Christopher Street(1965) to 23rd street (1995) to 49th Street (2005). It seems obvious the gay center of gravity would shift again, but it isn’t quite as clear where it is going this time, or how familiar it will look.

Post-marriage-equality gays and straights normalizing to each other sets up a very possible scenario where queer culture is lost in a flurry of mixed straight-gay clubs and same-sex couples with strollers. Lesbians just lost their last space in San Francisco, the Lexington Club, a wonderful spot that my gay sister and I frequented in the 90s. Take into account that street cruising has now also gone online to the dating/hookup apps, like Grindr and Scruff, and you start really questioning what queer neighborhoods will look like in 20 years.

If our dating is going online, then the queer intake ritual should, too.

So to compare the past to the present in order to speculate about the future, I started collecting and documenting data, informally at first. I had been asked to give a talk on an LGBT issue and mapping, and decided to start this new queer history mapping project, OUTgoing, right then and there. I opened up a CartoDB map and started filling in the nightlife spots I knew had existed from memory and a scattering of others as inspirational starting points.

This launched a data-gathering spree and I grabbed every in-business location tagged ‘gay bar’ in the five boroughs from Yelp’s API, then went to the internet to find as many discussions of past gay nightlife as I could. I found plenty of threads detailing clubs of the past, and following clues built up some great resources and a solid list of 100 or so spots.

Since the mid-sixties, gay guides have led the LGBT community to their places, and are now stored in LGBT archives and libraries.

Outside of the internet, there were the decades of gay guides to the city, starting in the mid-sixties. So I sought, photographed and recorded the historic gay guides I found in a few archives from the New York Public Library and The LGBT Center. The map now holds 969 locations of bars, clubs, bathhouses, cafes, restaurants and cruising spots across the city since 1859 — which will be enhanced by the stories and images behind the nightlife from the people who were part of it.

There are so many men’s bars throughout the years that they practically map themselves. It’s the harder-to-reach parts of the LGBT community that take some special effort. At one time there was a not-for-profit switchboard that any resident or visitor could call to find out safe and popular spots to go. It was a 311 for gay nightlife and it kept a solid record of the bars and bathhouses, with constant updates of openings/closings. It has been a special focus of OUTgoing to prioritize lesbian — or trans — locations. Thanks to the 1976 Lesbian Switchboard (741–2610, in case you needed it), the map has an accurate listing of the women’s bars at the time.

A sample of NYC section of the 1976 Lesbian Switchboard operator reference, listing the lesbian bars in Manhattan.

But it’s impossible to thoroughly document a history which has been intentionally erased over the years. To start, there are stories we will never hear from the 100,000 New Yorkers who have died of AIDS. This project can’t be complete because of those missing voices. The aging queers who were there — including the thousands of long-term AIDS survivors — need to have their stories told right away.

Ultimately, those stories and this map are intended to inspire dialogue between the younger and older queer generations, simulating part of a coming-of-age ritual that has happened in queer neighborhoods for decades. Even the most open-armed straight society isn’t going to tell a young queer the story of the parties and battles that were fought, nevermind teaching young queers (of every gender status) to cruise, navigate still-difficult prejudices and understand their place in history. If our dating is going online, then the queer intake ritual should, too.

OUTgoing, an interactive map of LGBT nightlife spots since the 19th century, can be found at outgoingnyc.com.