“When I speak of Greenwich Village, I have no geographical conception in view. The term Greenwich Village is to me a spiritual zone of mind...the city which hasn’t a Greenwich Village is to be pitied. It has no life, no illusion, no art.”
-Hippolyte Havel, 1915
Unlike most streets in Manhattan, the ones in the Village don’t intersect in equidistant lines to form a grid. Instead, the streets—mapped in the 1800’s—run diagonal to the rest of the city. That’s right. Even the streets of the Village aren’t straight.
It’s right after a storm and lights from Stonewall and the Duplex reflect in rainbow puddles as I make my way to Rocco’s—a pastry shop in the neighborhood since 1974. I’m here to meet the playwright Robert Heide, who’s lived in West Greenwich Village since 1958. As I wait for him, I see four creatives having a work session over coffee and croissants and bulky copies of Ulysses by James Joyce. Once a haven of eccentrics and beautiful rejects, the Village is now one of the most expensive neighborhoods to live in the city (a one bedroom apartment costs around $5,000 per month), but the image of artists under fluorescent lights embodied like an Edward Hopper painting somehow continues to be what the Village remains.
“Oh, the laws are gettin’ tougher, the police are gettin’ rougher
If they raid this bar again, we’ll have no place to play.
For they do not want a drag joint and they’re very firm on that point,
Though we break no laws, we’ll have to go away.”
-The Queen is in the Closet, a 1950’s gay camp album recorded under the pseudonym Byrd E. Bath and distributed by anonymous mail order.
Robert and I first met at Julius’, the oldest queer bar in the Village and home of the Sip-In, a legendary act of civil disobedience by the “homophile” Mattachine Society in 1966.
“At Julius’, there was a period of time where people dressed up in a tie and a jacket. There was a dress code,” Robert tells me once we’ve settled in at Rocco’s. “It was very Princeton, Ivy League territory. Everybody was an ‘intellectual’ that had read Sartre or Gertrude Stein...so there was a certain elitism in that bar at the time.”
These days, the lively bar at Julius’ flaunts a large wooden cock on a chain and a road sign reading I’M NOT STRAIGHT.
The late 50’s through the 60’s in the Village was as full of queer rebellion as the social climate would allow. “A lot of us guys would go over to Lenny’s Hideaway. It was a very well-known gay bar...you’d walk down all those steps, there’s a big jukebox playing show tunes, like Ethel Merman or Barbra Streisand...You’d stand around the jukebox—it was a fun place actually—and you’d pick people up.” It wasn’t just trade at Lenny’s either. “Tallulah Bankhead would show up and...she rattled on and on and on ‘Dahling’ this, ‘Dahling’ this.”
It was through Lenny’s Hideaway that Robert formed a lasting friendship with the playwright Edward Albee and his partner, composer William Flanagan.
“At Lenny’s Hideaway, they used to call Edward and Bill ‘The Two Owls,’ because they would stand at the bar and act very weird and occasionally one would nip the other one’s ear and the other one would jump, so that was a little game that they played.”
Heide’s antics with Albee, Flanagan, and playwright Terrence McNally in the early 60’s would immortalize him as the inspiration for Honey in Albee’s seminal play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
The degree that the Village inspired now-legendary artists of the day was a major factor in immortalizing the neighborhood. Heide’s play The Bed was an off-Broadway hit and preserved on film by Andy Warhol. “I was running around with the general manager of The Living Theater...He’s the inspiration where I wrote The Bed, cause we’d be sleeping, drinking, taking dope for two, three days straight and just not getting out of bed,” says Robert. “It was just, y’know, this kind of feeling of incredible freedom in that time.”
Literary titans frequented the area too, with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg regularly milling around. Robert once ran into the pair along with other beat writers like Jack Micheline and Gregory Corso at The Gaslight Café. “Allen had—I don’t know if you’d call it a poem—but he’d say ‘Jack Kerouac. Stop fuckin’ me up the ass, Jack Kero-whack.’” The Gaslight on MacDougal Street was a regular hangout for some of the foremost queer literary icons today: James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Audre Lorde and more.
As the Civil Rights movement and the Sexual Revolution pressed forward, the Village became more unapologetically queer. Homophobic aggression went less and less unchecked—even by the neighborhood’s straight occupants. “Jimi Hendrix, I met him at a cafe. I’m sitting with him, my arm around the chair...and a guy comes up and calls me a ‘faggot’ or something. Jimi said to him, ‘Get the fuck outta here, man or I’m gonna punch you in the fuckin’ face...this man is my lover.’ I wasn’t. He wasn’t gay, but he said that.”
The rugged genius and raw creativity in the hub was growing louder. The bubble was about to burst.
We are the Village Girls,
We wear our hair in curls!
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!
-A kickline of drag queens outside Stonewall, as riot police approached them
I’m at a straight German beer bar with Tree Sequoia. A West Village bartender for over 50 years, the 79 year old just got off his Friday night shift at Stonewall, where he was working the night of the riots in 1969.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere brought by the social movements of the 60’s, raids were still a looming, dreaded presence infecting every queer space. “I went to jail 10 or 12 times, cause it was against the law to be gay,” Tree says.
“You couldn’t serve a known homosexual alcohol. When they raided a bar, they’d take us to jail...They’d put us in a big bullpen, y’know, no fingerprints. No nothing. Then we went before a judge, sometimes they’d say ‘You’re wasting my time, go home. Other times, they’d say ‘you’re a bunch of perverts’ and they’d fine us $20. The mafia would send their lawyer down to pay the fine. Normally, it was the 6th Precinct that would raid us and they’d say, ‘Okay, girls, line up.’”
He adds that many bartenders kept a hammer behind the bar to break bottles in the instance of a raid, because broken bottles weren’t permitted in court.
The constant oversight by police in the neighborhood led to a playful resentment from the queer folks of the area. “We loved harassing them. We used to call cops ‘Lily Law,’ ‘Betty Badge,’ and ‘Patty Patrol’....Somebody would say ‘What’s a penny made out of?’ and we’d go ‘dirty copper,’ just to annoy the police.”
With resentment and fear interrupting self-expression, the riots—or some act of massive resistance—seemed inevitable.
“I was with John and we were watching the whole scene from Sheridan Square Park. We didn’t think it was what it was that night. It was later that the history of it came out,” Robert says back at Rocco’s. “We didn’t think it was such a big deal, but later we learned that people were trapped in there.”
No less, the riots live on in a hybrid of history and mythology.
“It wasn’t because of Judy Garland,” Tree says, “Lorna Luft says it’s because of Judy Garland and Liza’s like ‘No.’”
Though he insists the death of the gay icon Judy Garland didn’t spur the Stonewall Riots, Tree remembers her fondly, stressing what her life meant to the gay community. “When she was at the Palace, she would go to different gay bars and after she left, that bar would be known as ‘Judy’s Place,’ Tree remembers. “At one point in New York City we had five Judy’s Places. She usually brought her own bottle of wine and, if there were young kids, outside, underage, she’d go out and talk to them. Sit on the stoop. She knew that’s why she was a star. That’s what I loved about her. She was not unapproachable.”
Garland’s role in the riots is just one point of contention across a wealth of accounts.
“In the movie,” says Tree, “They have people squirting lighter fluid through the cracks of the windows. Name one person you knew that carried lighter fluid. We broke the windows and threw lit garbage cans through the window. That’s how we set the bar on fire.”
Robert befriended Marsha P. Johnson, a trans drag queen and activist whose part in the Stonewall Riots would immortalize her. He knew her as “Black Marsha”--her drag name at the time--and would escort her to the train. “Black Marsha hit a cop over the head with her high heel...She was living in Hoboken at the time, she would live in different places. She would meditate. Sometimes right in the middle of the highway. She was crazy, but in a good way.”
Whether or not Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick—or if a lying brick was the inciting incident of the riots at all—tends to get far more attention than Johnson’s decades of activism and outreach in the Village during and decades after the riots until her death in 1992.
“I don’t know. I don’t know who threw the rock,” Tree shrugs.
“We were so busy screaming, cheering, booing the cops…We snuck out. We snuck out the side of the wall, there was a loose board, but Fat Tony—one of the mafia bosses and Mario Mae West who was chunky—They were too big to run or jump over a bar or anything...Then, the cops were deathly afraid to leave cause we were outside. By that time, 25 people became a couple hundred.”
The following month, a headline on the first leaflet from the Gay Liberation Front read:
Do You Think Homosexuals are Revolting?
You Bet Your Sweet Ass We Are.
Though Tree and Robert didn’t think much would amount from the riots at the time, the bar and the park where rioters gathered are now commemorated by the first national monument dedicated to LGBT people, all due to the activism and freedom borne from those sweltering, liberating nights.
“They’ve lost that wounded look all fags had ten years ago.”
-Allen Ginsberg, after the Stonewall Riots
“I was in the first march. Up Sixth Avenue. It was wild,” Ruth Kuzub told me. “We were mad. We were furious because they were mistreating people and arresting people. It was sad. We went all the way uptown, marched all the way up to the park and we stopped all the traffic.”
Ruth and I met one night at Marie’s Crisis, another Village institution. She usually comes in the early morning hours once the crowd around the piano starts to fade. The remaining customers always listen, rapt, every time she sings Could I Leave You? in her soft soprano.
Once a Broadway chorus girl, Ruth has owned her jewelry store, The Silversmith, at 184 ¾ West 4th Street for 58 years now. The store is less than four feet wide but every inch is festooned with handmade jewelry from all over the world. “Most of it’s sterling. Gold got too dangerous to have around.”
Her mind is sharp and her voice is soft except for frequent bursts of booming laughter. “This street here was full of artists at one time, ‘course they all gradually went to Heaven or moved out of town. It was fun. There was a guy that used to practice the bugle! [laughs] He lived down the street and you’d hear him with his bugle every day, playing.”
Between the post-Stonewall environment and before the dread of the AIDS epidemic, the 70’s ushered in a decade of liberation and unapologetic gay sexuality.
“Christopher Street in the 70’s was completely open,” said Robert Heide. “There were guys in those torn dungarees with just everything hanging out. The cops didn’t even care...After you went to Studio 54 where you might carry on in a bed with somebody, at 4 in the morning, there was this place called the Anvil.”
Though technically (and fittingly) in the Meatpacking District, the Anvil was infamous across the Village for its erotic shows and the action in its dark rooms. One Gay Times article from 1976 said after a visit to the bar: “Fist-fucking is actually possible, I discovered. Preferably with lots of Crisco, and if the actors(?) in the films are to be believed it can be a quite an enjoyable experience.” The back room of the Anvil was a veritable orgy, with sawdust lightly sprinkled across the floor to soak up the sweat.
“There would be visitors sometimes from uptown,” says Robert. “Downstairs was where the sex went on, but the visitors—like Lee Radziwill came once with Jackie Kennedy and Truman Capote to see the scene because it was so weird. You’d leave and it would be morning, daylight.
The unfettered revelry and the Bacchanal indulgence of the cruising era brought much-needed release, but something dark was on the horizon.
“I lived over this bar,” says Ruth, “I couldn’t go home til 4 o’clock in the morning.” Her voice grows hushed, as if she’s telling me bad news: “It had a back room. And everybody that used the back room got sick and died.”
Robert’s eyes flicker down at his coffee. “It was kind of a very volatile crazy time and I looked up one time...and said ‘This can’t go on...Something’s gonna happen.’ Little did I visualize that there would be this medieval plague.”
Death Singing: 1980-1995
“And woe to the sun
And woe to the young
Another hearse is drawn
Have you seen death singing
In the straw-colored light?”
- Patti Smith
“I ran into my upstairs neighbor,” Ruth says. “I said, ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m not well.’ I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘I have AIDS.’ I said ‘What’s that?’ I didn’t know what it was. And he and his roommate passed away and the guy across the hall from me also and there was a gay bar that I lived over and most of those kids died too.”
As the Reagan administration continued to ignore the problem, the bodies amassed. The Village was—in a sense—a battlefield: ACT UP and other activist groups were mobilizing with the urgency and radicalism necessary to save lives as the bodies of their comrades ceaselessly hit the ground.
“I watched friends of mine disappear...and their skin would turn that color,” says Tree.
“My friend’s parents made him sit on the floor of the garage and they’d hose him down. They didn’t want him in the tub cause they thought they would catch it. And when he died, his family wouldn’t let any of his friends go to the funeral or to the cemetery. And he was only about 22. Handsome as hell.”
The obituaries section of any paper was merciless, funerals were incessant, and—other than toxic amounts of AZT to keep the worst at bay—virtually no treatment was readily available.
“In the New York Native, that I wrote for,” says Robert, “they did a lot of articles on AIDS...but I did articles to liven up the gay sensibility, or to keep it going. A book about Lana Turner, Tallulah Bankhead...I did reviews on books like that just to take the pressure off the other articles.”
Ruth remembers an encounter she saw around the Village’s annual Halloween Parade. “I just remember this boy, crossing Seventh Avenue...and his face was covered with red pock marks. It was Halloween and his partner said to him, ‘Oh don’t worry about it, they’ll just think you put it on as a costume.’”
“I knew 38 people who died,” she continues. “It was devastating. I would go to funerals all the time. It was just so devastating. So many people I knew died. It was horrifying.”
With countless members of chosen families ripped away, their deaths unavenged by an apathetic government, those remaining were left to wonder why.
“People would say How come you two are still alive? They would say things like that.” Robert tells me, with Tree echoing the sentiment about himself: “My best friend in the world, Johnny Poole, we’ve been friends for 55 years. Every now and then, we’ll still look at each other like ‘Why are we still alive?’.”
Groups like ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group protested and lobbied pharmaceutical companies as well as government agencies—all the while educating themselves on possible combinations for a cure or at least an effective treatment. Their work would result in the distribution and refinement of protease inhibitors—or “Lazarus pills”—whose combination with other treatments prolonged the lives of HIV/AIDS patients by decades.
“The activists and organizers and ordinary New Yorkers who made Stonewall a household name knew that the single biggest question for our country has always been: Does ‘We, the People’ include all of us?”
-Cynthia Nixon, at her campaign launch for New York governor at Stonewall, 2018
“Many younger people...they don’t want to know about the past. They don’t know who Bette Davis is,” says Robert. “My niece teaches sixth graders, they don’t know who Bob Dylan is. And they don’t care. They only live in the present. And that’s a mistake, because our history is rich.”
Within the past five years, queer Americans have seen uneven bouts of progress: from highs of achieving marriage equality to—most recently—detestable lows: an administration moving to ban the acknowledgment of trans identities everywhere.
“We have to train the younger generation that...it wasn’t born for them, it was fought for them,” Tree insists. “That’s why I lecture at high schools and colleges around the United States. They should know we went to jail so they could have their rights. Disco lights and music like that weren’t there. All the gay bars were dingy, because why open a nice gay bar when you know you’re gonna be raided or closed?”
Ruth remains political in her eighties, calling her representatives with steadfast insistence, taking firm stances against greed and hatred. “You have to keep calling them. You have to nudge. You have to be a pain in the butt, cause if you’re not then you never get anything done.”
She detests the grim, empty storefronts rampant in the neighborhood, permanently going unused. “Put an artist in. Bring some artists back here from Brooklyn...fill the empty stores with artists, don’t charge them rent then,” noting the luxury housing above them.
Robert is ambivalent:
“I think it is incredible that gays have come of age and that there is gay marriage—which now might be destroyed by the Conservative right, they’d like to destroy that. They’d like to destroy others. Transgender people. I mean you follow the news, it’s just insane. So we could get back to that kind of general repression...which is what it was back then. There was a built in guilt.”
The performance of Robert’s play The Bed filmed by Andy Warhol is being restored and digitized for an upcoming Warhol retrospective at The Whitney.
Tree continues to tell the story of the riots, while never failing to have more adventures. When one film company tried to get him to leave his annual trip to Brazil for an interview: “I said, ‘Fuck no, I’m suckin’ dick.’”
“It changes and it changes and it changes and I think it’ll change back,” Ruth says of the Village, smiling. “This street used to be full of artists and the Village used to be full of artists, but I think it’s going to change back now.”
While more queer neighborhoods have since emerged in New York out of Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, the Village is the only one suspended in a permanent state of revolution--its hard-fought history thrumming through the bars and bookshops, its future enlivened by the curious minds and unsettled hearts inside them.
Evan Brechtel is a queer writer living in New York. You can find his body of work at www.evanbrechtel.net. @EvanBrechtel.