Tag Archives: West Village

Insomniac City: A strange tale of love and a tribute to off-beat New York

Writer and photographer Bill Hayes moved to New York in 2009 and experienced what many of us have already learned:  the nights are magic and the subway is a wilderness.

He began jotting down his observations of peculiar experiences, the strange behaviors of others existing in their own little New Yorks. “Every car on every train on every line holds a surprise,” writes Hayes, “a random sampling of humanity brought together in a confined space for a minute or two — a living Rubik’s Cube.”

Above and below: A couple of the many strange and captivating photographs by Bill Hayes featured in the book.

During the day he would aim a friendly camera towards New Yorkers of all shapes and affinities. Hayes left San Francisco after the tragic death of his partner and fortunately seems to have fallen into New York like one of its many prodigal souls. His experiences aren’t unique; they mirror yours and mine.

Except for the fact that, oh yes, he falls in love with a noted British neurologist and author — the late and dearly missed Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks, photographed by Bill Hayes

In Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, Hayes’ new memoir and urban rumination, we’re presented with a bird’s eye view of New York’s universal appeal to outsiders, paired with a microscopic look at two of those outsiders.

Sacks, a celebrated author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Awakenings (the basis of the Robert De Niro/Robin Williams film), was a guarded individual, coming out to himself late in life and socially removed from non-professional affairs.

Hayes introduces us to Sacks’ extraordinary worldview, an intellectual who brought critical thinking into the slightest of gestures and loved going to the roof to drink wine out of the bottle. The love and reverence Hayes has for Sacks is clear, referring to him throughout the text as just ‘O’, giving us their intimate moments only when they illuminate something of his genius.

Insomniac City is a fragmentary, often poetic look at love of a city and of an individual, told in notes and journal entries. It’s a book one could easily devour in a single sitting but I suggest prolonging the experience, reading a little at a time, allowing the individual anecdotes to inform your own adventures out in the big city.

It take on a set of colossal tasks; it can be poem, a documentary and a tribute on just a single page. Hayes is giving us permission to stare into his life — and into the lives of others — in the same durations of time that we experience each other in our daily lives.  In those flash moments of bonding on mass transit or on the street, where we may imagine what another person is thinking and feeling before they vanish.

And knowing, in his vignettes, that he’s exposed an intimacy with strangers, he then bares his own to us, his unabashed mix of love, friendship and bewilderment to a wonderful, complicated man, who also came and went.

INSOMNIAC CITY
New York, Oliver and Me
Bloomsbury Publishing

 

Photographs courtesy Bill Hayes and Bloomsbury

Jane Jacobs: Saving Greenwich Village

PODCAST The story of Jane Jacobs, the urban activist and writer who changed the way we live in cities and her fights to preserve Greenwich Village in the 1950s and ’60s.

 

Washington Square Park torn in two. The West Village erased and re-written. Soho, Little Italy and the Lower East Side ripped asunder by an elevated highway. This is what would have happened in New York City in the 1950s and 60s if not for enraged residents and community activists, lead and inspired by a woman from Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Jane Jacobs is one of the most important urban thinkers of the 20th century. As a young woman, she fell in love with Greenwich Village (and met her husband there) which contained a unique alchemy of life and culture that one could only find in an urban area. As an adroit and intuitive architectural writer, she formed ideas about urban development that flew in the face of mainstream city planning. As a community activist, she fought for her own neighborhood and set an example for other embattled districts in New York City.

Her legacy is fascinating, often radical and not always positive for cities in 2016. But she is an extraordinary New Yorker, and for our 200th episode, we had to celebrate this remarkable woman on the 100th anniversary of her birth.

FEATURING: Mrs. Jacobs herself in clips interspersed through the show.

PLUS: ROOOOBERT MOOOOSES!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

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Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #200: JANE JACOBS: SAVING THE VILLAGE

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Jacobs at the White Horse Tavern, sometime in the 1960s. Jane lived on the block!

Cervin Robinson/New York Times (http://cervinrobinson.com/)
Photography by Cervin Robinson/New York Times. Visit his website for more extraordinary images of New York City (http://cervinrobinson.com/)

 

Jacobs in Washington Square Park (though I believe this is 1963 and not during the 1958 protest).

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

 

Washington Square Park in 1935. The 1958 activists were so successful in their goal of saving the park that they were able to banish automobile traffic from it entirely.

New York Parks Department
New York Parks Department

 

What Moses had planned for the park:

NYPL
NYPL

Robert Moses, pictured here in Brooklyn in 1956. Although he frequently situated as the arch-nemesis to Jane Jacobs, in fact they were rarely in the same room together.  Their battles were fought in the press and in City Hall.

AP
AP

Jacobs presenting damning evidence about the proposed West Village demolition, taken at their main headquarters the Lion’s  Head, in 1961 at the corner of Hudson and Charles Streets.

Jane_Jacobs

Jane Jacobs and her son Ned in 1961, during the West Village protests.  The Xs were placed on buildings to be condemned. Activists wore sunglasses with Xs on the lenses in protest.

1
Photo courtesy Aesthetic Realism

 

The February 21, 1961, article from the New York Times which riled up the West Village. The  East Side project would eventually become Haven Plaza Apartments, but residents would fight off the designation in the West Village.

Untitled

January 01, 1963 — Jacobs protests the destruction of Pennsylvania Station with architect Philip Johnson.

14

A map of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Although this plan never came to fruition, the stack of buildings near the bridges seems to be coming to pass — on the Brooklyn side!

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Another sketch by Paul Rudolph” of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, showing the new construction from the Holland Tunnel as it enters through Manhattan.

paul

 

Jane Jacobs in Toronto, Dec. 21, 1968. She would continue her activism there, helping other community activists in foiling plans to build the Spadina Expressway.

SCANNED FROM THE TORONTO STAR LIBRARY *U42 GRAPHIC Jane Jacobs outside her home on Spadina Road just north of Bloor Street. Photo taken by Frank Lennon/Toronto Star Dec. 21, 1968. Also published 19730425 with caption: Jane Jacobs. Urban affairs expert. Also published 19740520 with caption: Toronto's in good shape, says author Jane Jacobs, but "We've got to be thinking about how we make sure it stays that way." Just being Canadian gives it some advantage, she says, but she fears amalgamation will bring some of the problems of cities like New York.
TORONTO STAR LIBRARY

 

The tale of Newgate, the New York state prison in the West Village

You may not be aware of the Weehawken Historic District, a collection of 14 buildings of unique architectural character in the far West Village.  It lies at the foot of Christopher Street and centers around the one-block-long Weehawken Street. You really should take a stroll down here. It will take you all of one minute; the street is approximately 63 feet long.

But a surprising structure once sat on this very spot two hundred years ago — Newgate Prison, the official state prison of New York from 1796 to 1828.

The city of New York was still very much confined to the area below today’s Canal Street. The new prison lay on the outskirts of Greenwich Village, a hamlet of farms and estates that served as New York’s first suburb of sorts. Just a few feet from Newgate was the Greenwich Market, south of Christopher Street (on the spot of the big red, Federal Archives Building).

The prison was considered a progressive upgrade to New York’s dreadful Bridewell Prison, which sat near the area of today’s City Hall.  Built before the Revolutionary War, Bridewell had no windows and wretched facilities; prolonged incarceration here often met death.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

With Newgate, enlightened reformers moved the prison out of the middle of town — always a good thing — and nearest the water, providing better ventilation and access to ferry transportation. “A more pleasant, airy, and salubrious spot could not have been selected in the vicinity of New York,” said one writer in 1801.*

Newgate was named (or rather nicknamed) for its larger, more infamous counterpart in London which became a favorite setting in Charles Dickens novels. New York’s Newgate was similarly ominous, with high stone walls mirroring the shape of forts along the waterfront.  Indeed Fort Gansevoort, in the area of today’s Meat-Packing District, was built several years after Newgate.

Below: From the original 1796 survey of the spot where Newgate was constructed. Today’s Weehawken Street would have been later laid at the spot of the prison’s western border. Skinner Street would later be known as Christopher Street. Amos Street is now West 10th Street.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

This soon proved an inadequate and ill-placed facility. Overcrowding led to prison riots and jail breaks, hardly the behavior you want to see across the street from a civilized public market. By the 1820s, the area of Greenwich Village became desirable real estate as the boundaries of New York — bolstered by the slow development of the 1811 Grid Plan — moved northward.

The western edge of Greenwich Village would be spared from the installing the grid thanks to tenacious land-owners. But it certainly wouldn’t do to have a wily prison sitting next to a developing neighborhood. In 1824, former New York mayor Stephen Allen (technically the first elected mayor) was put in charge of relocating the state prison to someplace more remote. And so, in 1828, Newgate’s prisoners were transferred to a new facility — in Sing Sing.

Weehawken Street in 1900 looking south….

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photo by Robert Bracklow, Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

… and north.

MNY217957

The hefty walls of Newgate were torn down, and  l’il Weehawken Street — all 63 feet of it —  was then created and paved in 1830.

By the way, Weehawken Street did get its name from the town of Weehawken, as it was the dock of a colonial ferry that connected with the picturesque New Jersey town. Weehawken was the site of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.

They both get their name from the same Lenape Indian source meaning either “place of gulls” or “place of rocks that look like trees.”

 

 

*From the official Weehawken historic designation

Lauren Bacall’s Guide on How To Become A Successful Model in New York City, 1941

Lauren Bacall, the cinema and stage legend who died yesterday at age 89, was once the less enigmatic Betty Joan Perske, a New York girl with a lot of moxie.  As a sixteen year old, she ventured downtown from her home on the Upper West Side (84th Street, under the elevated train) to look for work as a model and actress.

In her great autobiography By Myself, she recounts her experiences as a teen model.  Go back in time and take her valuable advice on how to make it in the cutthroat world of the Garment District in 1941!

Know the finer places: “I asked a couple other girls how to find work modeling clothes on Seventh Avenue.  They said I should … go down to certain Seventh Avenue buildings — nothing really below 500 Seventh Avenue. The best houses were in 550 or 530 and you could squeeze in 495, but that was it — anything below that was tacky.”

Lie a little: At 498 Seventh Avenue, “[a] woman came out, looked at me, asked me about my experience — I told her I had been a photographic model for several years (a white lie), that I was an actress, that I knew how to move and would certainly be a very good model.”

Play act: “I kept telling myself, ‘It’s a part — play it….’  Finally the woman asked me if I would try on one of the model dresses….I walked through the curtains.  Mr. Crystal asked me to turn — I did, without falling down or getting dizzy…”

Dress the part:  “I spent the next week going through my scant wardrobe to make certain I had enough to wear to work.  Then a trip to Loehmann’s in Brooklyn.  Loehmann’s was a large store that stocked clothes from all the Seventh Avenue houses — lower-priced clothes of unknown designers as well as the most expensive…. There were no dressing rooms in the store.  Women ran around in their slips, girdles and bras — all shapes and sizes — grabbing things from saleswomen as they brought them down. A madhouse.”

Watch and learn:  At Crystal’s, her first modeling house, “you undressed and either sat in a slip or put on a cotton smock.  There was a long make-up table with a chair for each of us….I watched [the older models] as they applied their make-up — a base, then full eye make-up.  It didn’t look heavy, but it was there. I did the best I could do with the face confronting me in the mirror.”

Composure: “When I showed a dress and a buyer would ask to see it close to, I’d be motioned forward.  The buyer, male or female, would then feel the fabric, discuss it — I’d stand there until I was dismissed.  An occasional male buyer would feel the goods a bit more than necessary and I never knew what to do.  I was petrified, though no one ever was really fresh, just suggestive — just enough to make me aware that I’d better keep on my toes, protect myself.”

Build from rejection:  She was laid off at Crystal’s for being too thin (can you imagine?) but promptly got a job modeling evening gowns.  “I was much happier at Friedlander’s than at Crystal’s.  He laughed at all my little jokes, the other models were good girls (there were only two of them), the feeling was much cozier.”

Plan your escape route: “The other girls seemed fairly uncomplicated to me — they would keep on modeling until Mr. Right came along and then they’d get married and be all set.”  But Betty wanted to be an actress.  On her lunch breaks, she would go up to Walgreen’s at 44th and Broadway. Then this happened.

After six months she quit — “I was not getting any closer to the stage in the Garment District” — and eventually moved with her mother to 77 Bank Street in the West Village.  This allowed her a full time foray into theater work, first as an usher, then as a extra and bit part player.

But she still modeled for extra money, including a stint as a Montgomery Ward catalog model.   Although would soon move on to full-time acting, her experience as a model was invaluable once she was put in front of a movie camera.  Her cover work for Harper’s Bazaar even got her noticed by director Howard Hawks.

Her debut in To Have And Have Not with future husband Humphrey Bogart electrified audiences.  Now as Lauren Bacall, she seemed to instantly generate magnetism. “Slumberous of eye and softly reedy along the lines of Veronica Lake,” wrote Bosley Crowther for the New York Times, in her first film review,” she acts in the quiet way of catnip and sings a song from deep down in her throat.”

Or, Bacall might have said, she did the best she could do with the face confronting her in the mirror.

Richmond Hill: West Village’s former Vice Presidential mansion and the lonely refuge of Aaron Burr

[Richmond Hill, residence of Aaron Burr.]

Richmond Hill, the spacious mansion and 26-acre estate on the outskirts of town that had once been George Washington‘s headquarters and later the home of John Adams, was also home to another vice president — Aaron Burr.  This was the place he lived on that fateful day, July 11, 1804, when he entered into a duel with Alexander Hamilton.

Here’s a lovely description of the home from an 1861 biography of Burr by author James Parton:

“[Burr’s] style of living kept pace with his increasing income.  In a few years we find him master of Richmond Hill, the mansion where Washington had lived in 1776, with grounds reaching to the Hudson, with ample gardens, and a considerable extent of grove and farm.  Here he maintained a liberal establishment and exercised the hospitality which was then in vogue.

The one particular in which Richmond Hill surpassed the other houses of equal pretensions, was its library.  From his college days, Colonel Burr had been a zealous buyer of books, and his stock had gone on increasing till, on attaining to the dignity of householder, he was able to give to his miscellaneous collection something of the completeness of a library.

It is evident enough, from his correspondence, that his favorite ethos were still those whom the ‘well-constituted minds’ of that day regarded with admiring horror.  The volumes of Gibbon’s History [The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire] were appearing in those years, striking the orthodox world with wonder and dismay.  They had a very hearty welcome in the circle at Richmond Hill.”

—  the Life and Times of Aaron Burr, by James Parton, 1861

After the duel, Burr liquidated his assets, selling Richmond Hill to John Jacob Astor.  With the grounds heavily cut up and sold, he had the mansion rolled on logs to the newly carved street corner and turned into a theater and opera house.  At this time, he also moved the carriage house further north, where it was later re-purposed and today houses the romantic restaurant One If By Land, Two If By Sea.

It made for a very sumptuous opera house, it appears.  According to author Eric Homberger, “Boxes at the Richmond Hill were furnished as though they were an extension of the elegant parlors of St. John’s Park, with ‘light blue hangings, gilded panels and cornice, arm-chairs, and a sofa.'”

It was parallel in style, perhaps, to the Astor Place Opera House across town.   Eventually it deteriorated into a lowly roadhouse and saloon — but certainly, the most gorgeous one in town — called the Tivoli Saloon before being torn down in 1849.

Richmond Hill House or Theater.

Today the site of Richmond Hill and its former ground are occupied by this building, currently the home of WNYC, and the surrounding blocks of this area of the far West Village.

Top image courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

A short history of a short street named Raisin Street

[34-36 Barrow Street]

A 1932 photo of 34-36 Barrow Street by Charles Von Urban, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York. Click here to see what this section of the street looks like today

In this week’s Ghost Stories of Old New York podcast, Tom speaks of the ghosts at romantic restaurant One If By Land, Two If By Sea, located in an old carriage house that was moved from its original location to its present home on Barrow Street in today’s West Village.

Barrow Street is a quiet hook of a path, emanating from the southeast side of Sheridan Square, bending west when it meets odd, little Commerce Street, then wanders westward to the water’s edge.  If you’ve ever been lost amid the crooked streets of the West Village — and who hasn’t, at some point — then you’ve certainly stumbled onto Barrow.

The road that became Barrow was close to the estate of Richmond Hill, the esteemed manor that was once home to America’s first two vice presidents, John Adams and Aaron Burr.  In the heady post-Revolution period, this path was originally named Reason Street, for Thomas Paine‘s ‘The Age of Reason’.  Indeed, Paine once lived at a couple nearly locations, at 309 Bleecker Street and 59 Grove Street (where he died).

As legend has it, however, residents soon took to calling it Raisin Street, both as an accented corruption of the original name and a possible insult to Paine (who was not beloved at the time of his death in 1809).

Raisin Street, most notably, became the home of New York’s first ‘Orphan Asylum’ in 1805.  Six orphaned children were placed here under the care “of a pious and respectable man and wife.” [source]

While many streets in New York City are named for healthy fruits — Brooklyn produces Pineapple, Orange and Cranberry Streets, for instance — few are named for shriveled ones.  In 1807, Trinity Church, the principal landowner of Reason/Raisin Street, directed that the street be renamed for Thomas Barrow, a vestryman and agent for the church.

I’m sure it is a happy accident that a principal character in Downton Abbey is also named Thomas Barrow.

In good company: The local significance of Obama’s inaugural quote: “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall”

As many others today are ruminating on the symbolic and historic implications of yesterday’s presidential inaugural ceremony, allow me to dwell a little on a curious milestone of far lesser importance.

Until yesterday, no place in New York City has ever been mentioned in a presidential inaugural speech.  Not Ellis Island, not the Statue of Liberty, not Wall Street, not the World Trade Center, none of our fortresses or other towering landmarks.

In fact, New York as a city has actually been name-checked only once. (See below.)  But no individual place has ever been mentioned in what are considered to be the most memorable set of presidential speeches.

That is, until yesterday, when President Barack Obama referenced the name of a West Village gay bar — Stonewall Inn.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

“Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” represent flashpoints of various American social movements.  With his mention of Stonewall — representing the Stonewall riots and subsequent street gatherings of June-July 1969, considered the birthplace of the gay-rights movement — the president has elevated the struggles of gay Americans to those of the women’s movement (the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848) and the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s (the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965).

The rhetorical flourish of alliteration unites these movements by the places in which they occurred.  Stonewall thus becomes shorthand for the gay rights movement.  But as it is the actual name of a bar — still very much in operation, right off Christopher Park — Stonewall Inn now holds another very special place in history.

The United Nations, of course, has been mentioned a few times, mostly in the 1940s and 50s. (Without surprise, mentions of the international body literally drop off to nothing after that.)  But all references relate only to the legislative body, not the actual place.  In fact, when it was first mentioned in 1949, by President Harry S. Truman — “We have constantly and vigorously supported the United Nations and related agencies as a means of applying democratic principles to international relations” — its headquarters in Manhattan had not even been completed.

Below: Federal Hall on Wall Street, site of the first American government and the inauguration of George Washington in 1789

When New York has been mentioned in inaugural addresses, it’s because it was the location of the first inaugural address in April 1789, when the seat of American government was in New York.

“This occasion derives peculiar interest from the fact that the Presidential term which begins this day is the twenty-sixth under our Constitution,” Benjamin Harrison remarked in his 1889 speech.  “The first inauguration of President Washington took place in New York, where Congress was then sitting, on the 30th day of April, 1789, having been deferred by reason of delays attending the organization of the Congress and the canvass of the electoral vote.”

George H.W. Bush makes specific mention of Washington’s inauguration in 1989, which happened to be the 200th anniversary of that event. “I have just repeated word for word the oath taken by George Washington 200 years ago, and the Bible on which I placed my hand is the Bible on which he placed his.  It is right that the memory of Washington be with us today, not only because this is our Bicentennial Inauguration, but because Washington remains the Father of our Country.”

While this means very little in terms of the city’s historical stature, it means a great deal to the gay rights movement, and certainly to the bar itself. Or as Stonewall Inn owner Stacey Lentz recently said: “We’re not just a bar. We’re the Stonewall. It’s like owning Rosa Parks’s bus. We don’t own the movement, but we own the bus.”

For more information on Stonewall Inn, check out our podcast #48 The Stonewall Riots (download here or on iTunes.)  

Pics courtesy NYPL

In good company: The local significance of Obama’s inaugural quote: “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall”

As many others today are ruminating on the symbolic and historic implications of yesterday’s presidential inaugural ceremony, allow me to dwell a little on a curious milestone of far lesser importance.

Until yesterday, no place in New York City has ever been mentioned in a presidential inaugural speech.  Not Ellis Island, not the Statue of Liberty, not Wall Street, not the World Trade Center, none of our fortresses or other towering landmarks.

In fact, New York as a city has actually been name-checked only once. (See below.)  But no individual place has ever been mentioned in what are considered to be the most memorable set of presidential speeches.

That is, until yesterday, when President Barack Obama referenced the name of a West Village gay bar — Stonewall Inn.

index

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

“Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” represent flashpoints of various American social movements.  With his mention of Stonewall — representing the Stonewall riots and subsequent street gatherings of June-July 1969, considered the birthplace of the gay-rights movement — the president has elevated the struggles of gay Americans to those of the women’s movement (the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848) and the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s (the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965).

The rhetorical flourish of alliteration unites these movements by the places in which they occurred.  Stonewall thus becomes shorthand for the gay rights movement.  But as it is the actual name of a bar — still very much in operation, right off Christopher Park — Stonewall Inn now holds another very special place in history.

The United Nations, of course, has been mentioned a few times, mostly in the 1940s and 50s. (Without surprise, mentions of the international body literally drop off to nothing after that.)  But all references relate only to the legislative body, not the actual place.  In fact, when it was first mentioned in 1949, by President Harry S. Truman — “We have constantly and vigorously supported the United Nations and related agencies as a means of applying democratic principles to international relations” — its headquarters in Manhattan had not even been completed.

Below: Federal Hall on Wall Street, site of the first American government and the inauguration of George Washington in 1789

When New York has been mentioned in inaugural addresses, it’s because it was the location of the first inaugural address in April 1789, when the seat of American government was in New York.

“This occasion derives peculiar interest from the fact that the Presidential term which begins this day is the twenty-sixth under our Constitution,” Benjamin Harrison remarked in his 1889 speech.  “The first inauguration of President Washington took place in New York, where Congress was then sitting, on the 30th day of April, 1789, having been deferred by reason of delays attending the organization of the Congress and the canvass of the electoral vote.”

George H.W. Bush makes specific mention of Washington’s inauguration in 1989, which happened to be the 200th anniversary of that event. “I have just repeated word for word the oath taken by George Washington 200 years ago, and the Bible on which I placed my hand is the Bible on which he placed his.  It is right that the memory of Washington be with us today, not only because this is our Bicentennial Inauguration, but because Washington remains the Father of our Country.”

While this means very little in terms of the city’s historical stature, it means a great deal to the gay rights movement, and certainly to the bar itself. Or as Stonewall Inn owner Stacey Lentz recently said: “We’re not just a bar. We’re the Stonewall. It’s like owning Rosa Parks’s bus. We don’t own the movement, but we own the bus.”

For more information on Stonewall Inn, check out our podcast #48 The Stonewall Riots (download here or on iTunes.)  

Pics courtesy NYPL

‘Stonewall Uprising’ and reenacting a historical riot

BOWERY BOYS RECOMMEND is an occasional feature where we find an unusual movie or TV show that — whether by accident or design — uniquely captures an era of New York City as well as any reference or history book. Other entries in this series can be found here.

Rarely do documentaries on New York City history ever hit movie theaters, so I was excited to catch ‘Stonewall Uprising’ this weekend at the Film Forum. I found not only the subject matter interesting — the Stonewall riots, as described by people who were there — but the clever way the filmmakers visual ed an event with so little archival images to use.

The riots outside the Stonewall bar in June of 1969 set police officers against gay street kids and drag queens, and the chaos spilled out into the crooked streets of the West Village for days after. What followed could not have been predicted: the formation of a energized gay community and the birth of New York’s annual Pride march.

The film, directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, makes use of excellent interviews from both participants in the riot, and even Seymour Pine, the officer in charge of closing Stonewall bar that fateful night, makes an appearance. Setting the oppressive atmosphere are several scenes of grainy industrial films, laying bare the social mores of the 1950s and 60s, and heavy reliance of CBS News’s infamous expose ‘The Homosexuals’. If anything, ‘Stonewall Uprising’ is a faithful adaptation of David Carter’s terrific book on the same subject.

Since people weren’t exactly carting around video cameras to mob-operated gay establishments in the 1960s, the directors devise reenacted scenes. However, unlike the poorly acted and costumed reproductions that you sometimes see on the History Channel at 2 a.m., the visuals of ‘Stonewall Uprising’ are often disturbingly lifelike.

Outside a few notably modern camera angles, the footage often looks like the careful re-animation of old photographs, like some kind of new James Cameron viewer-immersing technology. I guess I was distracted by the reproduced scenes, yet it never took away from the film’s intent, most likely because the candid interviews presented were fresh, often funny, and sometimes heartbreaking.

Check it out in a local movie theater or be sure to watch for it on television sometimes. (It’s an American Experience production so I imagine it makes an appearance on PBS soon.)

For a refresher of the tumultuous events of that year, check out our podcast from 2008 on the history of the Stonewall Riots.