For several days now, a conspicuous “For Rent” sign has hung over the door of a gay bar on Christopher Street.
It would hardly be news: Bars open and close every day—and this one isn’t even the oldest one on the block. But because of its name—the Stonewall—the bar has assumed for itself a certain inevitability.
Seventy-six years after the first bar of the same name was opened at 53 Christopher Street, the prospect looms that the historic site of the 1969 riot widely credited as the birth of the gay-rights movement might disappear.
And the neighborhood surrounding the block of Christopher Street just east of Sheridan Square (which has been ceremonially named Stonewall Place) is raising a glass to the Stonewall’s demise.
Born in infamy on a sultry summer night when a ragtag group of drag queens and gay hipsters started hurling bottles at the police who were raiding the bar, the Stonewall, neighbors say, remains riotous—at least for the now ultra-gentrified Greenwich Village.
“They promote these urban youth parties,” said Bill Morgan, the owner of the Duplex, a popular gay nightspot at the end of the block where Stonewall is situated. “They pushed out the regular gay clientele in favor of this new, urban, hip-hop, gangster clientele. Then you bring a bunch of 18-to-20-year-olds in the area who have no place to go and start goofing off and being loud. It’s disruptive to the neighborhood and brings in the wrong element in the neighborhood.”
“Stonewall over the last few years has been a blight on the community and an embarrassment to the gay community,” said Rick Panson, a member of Community Board 2. “The gay community is not looking for a strip-club-mentality lifestyle.”
And what are the gay patrons of the Stonewall looking for in the West Village?
On “Touch” Monday, the Stonewall’s hip-hop party was in full swing when Dorian Smith, a dancer wearing a sleeveless shirt and skull cap who has been visiting the bar for three years, answered.
“It’s home for me,” he said. When asked for his age, he said “twent—32”). “All the black clubs have been closing down, so I come here. It’s so comfortable here.”
“I come here because you don’t have to be too much of a queen,” said El Williams, 25. “I’m into white guys, don’t get me wrong, I like going to Crowbar and Roxy. But this place gives me a different feel. It’s more authentic to me. It’s a hip-hop crowd and I can just be myself here.”
“I’m really comfortable here,” said Myke Melendez, a 22-year-old who lives in Harlem. “If I’m on the street holding a guy’s hand, it’s like whatever. Or if I’m trying to pick a guy up, it’s like whatever. I like it here.”
DOMINICK DESIMONE TOOK OVER THE LEASE on the historic location, which hadn’t been a bar for nearly 20 years, in 1989, amid promises to return the bar to its former glory and create a fitting commemoration of its original character.
Many were dubious.
David Carter, the author of Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, told the story of how he pointed out to the owner that the original flagstones of the bar’s most popular dance floor remained intact even 20 years after the bar had closed. The next time he walked by, the flagstones had been covered in what he described as “bathroom tile.”
“They were interested in exploiting the Stonewall name to make money,” Mr. Carter said. “They had no appreciation for the site itself. I think it was a purely money-making venture done under the guise of preserving and honoring history. This was a total fraud from the beginning.”
But if DeSimone was expected to capitalize profitably on the Stonewall name, records show the plot didn’t work. According to documents filed with the New York Secretary of State, the bar has been in ruins for months: It was sued earlier this year by its liquor vendors (the bar lost) and now virtually all its possessions are up for collateral to lenders, everything down to the barstools.
“He’s getting evicted,” said Bob Gurecki, who owns a portion of the bar with Mr. DeSimone. “I knew something was happening, but I didn’t know it was this bad.”
Mr. DeSimone, who is straight and was interviewed from a hotel in St. Lucia on Monday, defended himself and said that tight finances are just a reality.
“Think how many $6 drinks you have to sell to make up for $20,000 a month in rent,” he said.
But ask anyone at the bar, and they point fingers directly his way.
“There’s been terrible mismanagement,” said a bartender who goes only by “Tree” and who also served at the original Stonewall in the 60’s. “Dominick doesn’t know how to run a gay bar.”
Now Mr. DeSimone is being pushed out by the owners, Duell Management, after falling $150,000 behind in rent payments this year, Mr. DeSimone and Gregg Kennelly of Duell said.
As of Sept. 1, Duell Management will offer the space to new tenants for $100,000 up-front and $22,500 a month thereafter.
Mr. Kennelly said Duell is looking for a “responsible” owner. When asked if the company would look to keep it a gay bar, he said, “We’re keeping our options open.”
But, to be sure, Stonewall’s problems today have not been entirely internal.
The bar has had numerous altercations with neighbors about noise and late hours. But lying just beneath the surface of many complaints recorded by The Observer was the crowd that Mr. DeSimone had attracted to the place.
“We have a desire to bring back the neighborhood to its heyday,” Mr. Kennelly said, the director of business development at Duell. “Business owners in the area have expressed to me that the neighborhood has changed, and not in a positive way, over the last few years due to a changing demographic.”
“I’ve heard it’s a younger, urban crowd that is gang-related,” he added.
But when was the Village’s heyday? Was it when E.E. Cummings and Djuna Barnes prowled the White Horse tavern by night? Was it the heyday of 1969, when the Stonewall was mob-run and one of the biggest back-hole dives in the city? There are accounts of no running water and patrons handing off unwashed glasses. With its dark walls, it was a place that invited everyone, “from German Shepherds on up.”
“In Stonewall’s heyday you had underage hustlers, people selling drugs, and it was really a seedy place,” said Mr. Carter. “Out of a fluke of fate, the Stonewall is probably closer now to what it was in 1969 than the super-gentrified, yuppified Village is to the bohemian Village of 1969.”
“Everything (even the tenements) have been tarted up and the West Village is the most expensive and desirable real estate in Manhattan,” wrote Edmund White, the gay writer, in an e-mail to The Observer. “Before gay liberation, blacks and Hispanics were accepted …. Now white middle-class gays have become as snobbish as their straight counterparts—I guess that’s the price of assimilation, but unfortunately it’s a price that others must pay.”
If the Stonewall grew up in the Village, it could be easily said the two grew up together.
“For one thing, everything was so much cheaper back then,” said Charles Kaiser, author of The Gay Metropolis, a history of gay life in New York City. “Brownstones were broken up into apartments and a 21-year-old kid could move into even if he didn’t have a trust fund. It was much more economically diverse back then.”
Even then the bar was a hangout for blacks and Hispanics. And Christopher Street is a drag that has for decades attracted black gay men in particular, from neighborhoods where they felt less safe being open about their sexuality.
But with the real-estate boom in New York, and the Giuliani era, the rough edges of Greenwich Village were smoothed out to the consistency of a granite countertop.
The change also may have led, not coincidentally, to Stonewall’s reopening. The bar closed for two decades shortly after the riot and reopened in 1990, but seemed briefly to be an authentic way for the neighborhood to cash in on its historical cachet.
But that is just the problem: An authentic Stonewall belonged in the authentic Greenwich Village of 1969, neighbors say. Not in the Greenwich Village of today.
Because of noise ordinances enforced by local residents, at night, no one can enter through the Christopher Street entrance, but instead through a depressingly ordinary entrance on Seventh Avenue. On Monday night, patrons were directed to enter via a side door, following a yellow sheet of bulletin-board paper with black-painted letters that read “Stonewall.”
What nobody believes is that the new Stonewall—if it is even a gay bar, or even a bar, and if that is even what it’s called—will be the same again, either as it was in 1969 or as it is today. And if the new management decides to turn gay patrons away all together, then the final nail will be driven through the casket. Don’t, however, expect a Save Stonewall campaign to be organized to save Mr. DeSimone’s neck.
“People don’t really care,” said Bob Gurecki, one of the co-owners. “We’re famous all over the world, but no one in New York cares. The younger community doesn’t even know what it is. The older community doesn’t go out or care.”
“I never saw this Stonewall as having to do with the original or keeping the name alive,” said Mr. Kaiser. “It had no connection to the real place, which hadn’t existed for 20 years when this one opened. It exploited the name.”
“We’re hoping, really hoping they keep this a gay bar,” said Tree, the bartender. “I want to make sure we keep the history of Stonewall here. I’m really going to miss the loyalty of the customers and the loyalty of the tourists.”
Last Saturday, Tree scrubbed the bar’s surface clean in anticipation of the evening rush.
“We could have done more,” he said of the Stonewall. “We failed its history.”