Advocates support proposed LGBTQ landmarks, but want Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn home included

Posted On Wed, June 5, 2019 By

Posted On Wed, June 5, 2019 By In History, Landmarks Preservation Commission

Top, left to right: GAA Firehouse, James Baldwin Residence, LGBT Community Center; Bottom, left to right: Audre Lorde Residence, Women’s Liberation Center, Caffe Cino; Photos courtesy of NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

During a hearing on Tuesday, New York City residents, members of the LGBTQ community, and elected officials voiced their support for the landmarking of six individual sites related to the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Advocates say the proposed landmarks would recognize groups and individuals who have advanced the LGBTQ rights movement. Ken Lustbader, co-director of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, urged LPC to preserve the sites. “The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation of these six LGBTQ sites has the power to provide both a tangible, visceral connection to what is often an unknown and invisible past and the intangible benefits of pride, memory, identity, continuity, and community,” Lustbader said on Tuesday.

Last month, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to calendar the historic sites, which include the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse, the Women’s Liberation Center, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, Caffe Cino, an Upper West Side home owned by James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde’s Staten Island home.

The commission’s decision to calendar these sites comes ahead of Stonewall’s 50th anniversary, and NYC’s annual Pride celebration.

The Historic Sites Project serves as the first initiative aimed at documenting historic and cultural sites associated with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in the five boroughs. The project adds significant sites from between city’s founding in the 17th century to the year 2000 that reflect the LGBT community’s diversity. The organization is also nominating sites to the National Register of Historic Places for their significance to LGBT history or amending existing nominations to reflect this history.

Several members of the LGBTQ community testified on Tuesday in favor of designation. Rob Wheeler, the deputy director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center, reiterated how important it was that the city formally recognize historic LGBT sites.

Matt McGhee, a NYC resident and former patron of the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse, one of the sites being considered for landmark status, stated: “In America, justice for all is pledged. I believe these memorials to granting our gay rights- our rights- can play an ongoing role in keeping the promise alive. For without justice, there is no liberty. The memorials are advocates for our continuation of justice for all. We need the reminders.”

Not everyone fully supported all of the proposed landmark sites during the hearing. A representative from Gilcar Realty voiced his concerns about designating James Baldwin’s 71st Street residence as a landmark. He argued that, while the converted townhouse is absolutely culturally significant, neighbors are concerned about the antiquated facade as well as exacerbating the existing shortage of housing on the Upper West Side.

And the current resident of Audre Lorde’s former house on Staten Island expressed concerns about possible renovations the city might require if the house is deemed a historical landmark.

Additionally, several members of the community supported the proposed six sites but felt that Walt Whitman’s Clinton Hill residence, where he wrote “Leaves of Grass,” his first collection of poems, was being overlooked in its significance as a historic site. In 2017, the LPC rejected the request landmark Whitman’s home, but advocates are again asking the commission to reassess their decision.

Brad Vogel, an author and member of the Walt Whitman Initiative’s board, launched a Change.org petition seeking landmark designation for Whitman’s home at 99 Ryerson Street. As of Wednesday, more than 5,600 people have signed the petition.

The LPC has not yet calendared Walt Whitman’s former Brooklyn home, but Chair Sarah Carroll said that the issue would be revisited at a later date. The commission is scheduled to vote on the six historic sites on June 18.

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