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Greenwich Village: The Birthplace of a New Era

Updated on April 21, 2012

Greenwich Village: The Birthplace of a New Era

Gentrification is most widely referred to as a process by which working-class, old ethnic, industrial, or run-down neighborhoods are converted to middle-class housing and/or chic entertainment districts. An appropriate example for a neighborhood which was considered to be mainly made up of gay, poor and out casted people was Greenwich Village in the 1960s. What made this neighborhood more accepting to gay people than the neighborhood four blocks over? Neighborhoods surrounding the Village included the Financial District, SoHo, Little Italy, Tribeca, and Chinatown. What made the Village the breeding ground for an entire group of people to stand up for what they believed in? How were homosexual people treated in those territories compared to other places in the city, or in the country? In order to understand the present situation of how gentrification happens in neighborhoods, more specifically how the Village in New York changed to the way it is today, ushering in a whole new group of people, not just homosexuals, it is vital to understand the history of these neighborhoods and how they came to be. How did the occurrences in this public neighborhood, which really became a private space in the night hours, influence rights for all gay and lesbian people in the future? “Thus in the expanding scholarship about gay men by queer theorists and others, an important emphasis is placed on the significance of particular places and spaces in the city which are identified with non-heterosexual identity. Indeed in some of the earliest work about gay gentrification, it was even claimed that gay men were not gay unless they had a visible territorial identity that marked them out as different” (In Public Spaces). In the 1960’s, if a gay person lived outside of the Village, they were treated as if they should be functioning in a society outside of the “straight bubble”, and move into their designated private space.

The Stonewall Riots of June 28th to July 3rd 1969, following a police raid on a Mafia-owned gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, began a long stride toward rights for Gay Americans. Stonewall was the largest gay bar in New York, possibly in the US. “It’s Mafia bosses seem to have been running an extortion ring out of the club, targeting the more well-to-do gays among its eclectic clientele” (Gorton). The Stonewall Inn welcomed not only “drag queens” or full-fledged transgenders, but also younger and more marginal gays, many of whom were homeless and living at large in the Village. There were also lesbian women, although they were a smaller percentage. The one thing all of these “outcasts” had in common was that they turned to the Stonewall to escape their closeted existence. When the police raid began on June 28th, the drag queens were rumored to be the first group to offer resistance while still inside the club. “They were regarded as offenders under an arcane 19th-century law, and were subject to humiliating examination by policewomen to ascertain their genital identity” (Gorton). This is a clear indicator that there has been much change in how people are treated by police during riots and rebellions, as today no one would be subject to such a terrible invasion of privacy, in a public space where they were welcomed. The gay population truly felt that they were unwelcome in every part of the city, of the country, except for in Greenwich Village. This part of the city was theirs, they earned it, and they claimed it. To be so disrespected as for other people to question their sexuality, and force it upon them to give up their identity, is most definitely a strong reason for why the homosexual people finally stood up to the police and general public who did not accept them for who they beyond a doubt believed they were.

During the riot, sources say that the “queens” began chanting “We are the Stonewall Girls” and repeatedly ran around the irregular blocks of Greenwich Village (possibly another reason why the Village was their safe haven- because not only were these people “different” or “bizarre” in the eyes of others, but so were the streets compared to the others in the city) and confronted the disoriented police from behind. Inspector Seymour Pine, who was in charge of the raid, stated that he was never more afraid than when he was holed up in the club with his fellow officers as the rioters bore down from outside. On this transformational night, the homosexual population, who so often populated the streets of Greenwich Village, simply stopped acquiescing in their own persecution and began demanding fair treatment and respect.

This specific rebellion occurring on Christopher Street points to the idea that a specific public/private space can be the birthing place of a large movement, depending on the type of people who inhabit it. In the 1960’s, being homosexual was largely unaccepted, and in Greenwich Village, gay and lesbian people felt accepted and safe. However, there were still many homophobic people who did not appreciate the new inhabitants of the Village.

“Richard Enright was the commissioner who publicly pledged to stamp out the ‘depraved tastes’ of the ‘new underworld’ in the Village, to make it ‘unattractive to the sightseer’ and restore it ‘to its previous status as a respectable residential and business neighborhood” (Heise). It is interesting how Enright refers to the Village as previously being “respectable”, as if the generation of people who moved in the area to find a safe haven, were people who did not live up to those standards. The main group of people who did live and work in Greenwich Village on Christopher Street were “a real imagined territory of prostitutes, gay men and women, and bohemian artists and writers” (Heise). The population seemed very much like a “starving artist” type of place, not just an area where gay citizens could live their lives the way they wanted to. What is not always realized is that the Village was a place for anyone struggling and under pressure in society. It was a neighborhood who accepted everyone for who they were, and although that is still true today, it has become a neighborhood so popular to live in, no longer can the starving artists and writers live there. Some may argue that they are the people who made the Village what it is today, and it seems unfair that they cannot afford to live there any longer.

“Though Greenwich Village in the 1910’s and 20s is remembered for its sexual, social, and aesthetic freedom and experimentation, a proper accounting of this period is not complete without understanding the geographic and discursive forces that constructed, regulated and quarantined the spatially and socially marginalized populations whose liberation has been celebrated in many cultural histories” (Heise). The way we look back on the Village and how it is still looked at today is with the idea that it is a place of freedom and acceptance, and that makes it look glamorous to outsiders who believe their lives could be improved if they lived in a neighborhood like that. The entire rebellion of the gay community in the 1960’s set off the reputation of the Village as the place to be if you want to live your life the way you absolutely feel is the most comfortable. It has become a place where no longer starving artists and writers and outcasts can go to escape the harshness of the rest of the world, because it has become so in demand to the remaining public. The forces that may have pushed the Village to become what it did, a place of rebellion, were other factors such as the City Practical urban planning movement of the 1910s, the emergence of a new nighttime leisure economy (clubs and bars), the heated gentrification battles between Italians, gays and lesbians (who gets what?), and a new class of urban corporate officials. Probably the factor that had the biggest effect was the campaigns of the New York Police Department to prosecute queer sub cultural sexual practices. Out of these forces emerged a sexual underworld, and eventually began the liberation movement. What happened in this small, miniscule neighborhood changed the way the rest of the world looked at a specific group of people.

“The village’s reputation for unconventionality and sexual experimentation made it a Mecca for gay people across the country” (Heise). The people who generally inhabited the Village were people looking for an escape from the glaring, unaccustomed world they were stuck in. It is important to wonder how the people who lived in these gay neighborhoods were treated in the past as opposed to now. “In transgressing boundaries, slumming reinforced the association of homosexuality with a degeneracy that was reassuringly endemic to a specific locale. When new opportunities for land speculation and residential gentrification arose, the Village's queer spaces were subjected to the "remorseless enforcement of sanitary regulations" and outright police harassment (Burnham 107). Zoning ordinances and stepped-up police surveillance worked to eliminate queer life or push it further underground, below the new "flat surface," the spatial textures that arise from the intricate symbolisms and imaginary realms of marginalized populations (Lefebvre 42). Barnes reveals how the movement of capital redefines and redifferentiates space with little or no regard for its inhabitants, and she responds to this by representing the Village from an insider's perspective that mediates between the "outer world" and the neighborhood she is hesitant to reveal. Ultimately, in her prose the underworld-hidden be- low the basements of a "depraved" neighborhood-remained concealed: she keeps the city's sexual mysteries mysterious in order to make them "real," shielding her marginalized neighborhood from the modern city's fatal exposures” (Heise).

A huge difference from the way people were treated then to how they are treated now is the fact that there was literally zoning ordinances, land use planning used by local governments, in which people were allowed to live in, or be completely banned from, in order to prevent the queer life from “spreading” and making it difficult for new, “normal” people to move in. The movement of capital, or money, redifferentiates space with no regard for its inhabitants, as evident not only by the way in the 60s, the people who had money lived in one area, and the people who didn’t have much money (artists, writers, outcasts) most likely lived in the Village. However, today, the people who have money are almost the only people that are able to afford living in the village, which is a huge turn of events, and one that the population in the Village during the 60s would never imagine be the case. However, the start of the rise of the upper class moving into the Village began soon after this homosexual rebellion.

“The neighborhood had increasingly become a tourist area and nightlife zone for uptown whites, who came to indulge in wilder forms of sensuality and to see lesbians and homosexuals on the streets” (Heise). Every person at one time or another has felt targeted by society or felt that they were discriminated against, even the upper-class white people. When these well-to-do people noticed that a group of people so widely singled out as the “wrong” kind of people were standing up to the rest of the world, the Village looked like a magical place where anyone would prosper. If they can do it, everyone can do it.

Again the question can be asked, why did this liberation occur in Greenwich Village and not the neighborhoods surrounding? Why the Stonewall and not the Sewer or the Snake Pit (other bars in the city)? The answer lies in the unique nature of Stonewall and the Village. It catered to a large group of people who were not welcome in, or could not afford other places of homosexual social gathering. When it was raided, they fought for it because they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and open-minded gay place in town. Greenwich Village is a prime example for how a public neighborhood, which may have some areas of private space, can become a safe haven for a crowd of outcasts. One public space that offers strong grounds for people to stand up for themselves has lasting effects on how the rest of the world operates in the future.


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