Actions are being taken by the National Parks Conservation Association to recognize the small patch of public space outside the Stonewall Inn as a national park.
NEW YORK — Last week, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously voted to grant landmark status to the Stonewall Inn, the Greenwich Village gay bar recognized as the home of the birth of the modern gay-rights movement.
While supporting the action, many referred to President Obama’s 2013 inaugural address, which cited Stonewall, along with Selma and Seneca Falls, as monumental signposts of the country’s continuing struggle for broader equality.
Even the Real Estate Board of New York, the powerful lobbying group that can look upon preservation the way vegans regard a rib-eye, sent a representative to stand in support of the distinction.
“We don’t come here often,’‘ the spokesman joked, before enumerating the reasons the Stonewall, housed in an unremarkable building that once functioned as a stable, warranted this kind of attention.
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The preservation movement in this country began in earnest in the mid-1960s with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act, three years before the 1969 Stonewall riots, and arguably as a collective psychological response to the social and political upheaval of the period, the sense that nothing was destined to remain the same.
Gay-pride festivities owe their existence to the Stonewall uprising, which began early June 28, 1969, with a police raid. The confrontation that erupted between bar patrons and police lasted three days, drew national media coverage and inspired and rallied gays nationwide.
The naming of the Stonewall as a city landmark ensures that the structure cannot be radically altered — there will never be a 20-story luxury-condominium complex springing from the roof — but it doesn’t prevent the owner of the building from leasing it to a chain purveyor of green juice or cold-brewed coffee.
There are already actions being taken by the National Parks Conservation Association to recognize the small patch of public space outside the Stonewall Inn as a national park. “You can imagine the irony of going to Stonewall Park and then discovering that you’re standing in front of the Stonewall Starbucks,” David Ehrich, a former banker at J.P. Morgan and founder of an initiative called Save Stonewall, said after the hearing Tuesday. “Building a partnership with the landlord is crucial.”
One by one, classic bars of a long-gone era in gay night life have disappeared from New York City’s landscape, along with so much else. As the Stonewall Inn was being protected, the Candle Bar, on Amsterdam Avenue, the oldest gay bar on the Upper West Side, was closing, the building’s new owner apparently having little interest in retaining it. Early in its more than 50-year history, it served a largely working-class clientele.
Looming over the commission’s hearing was the question of how actively preservation efforts should focus on buildings that resonate culturally but are not architecturally or aesthetically significant. The Stonewall Inn joins a list of more than 50 buildings, of the 33,000 to which the commission has given landmark status in the past half-century, designated for meaning rather than appearance.
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, was one of several speakers who made a case for the commission’s recognition of other sites relevant to the city’s gay history: the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on West 13th Street, where Act Up took shape; Julius Bar, site of the first planned act of civil disobedience for LGBT rights; and the former Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse.