Places that Matter

Stonewall Inn

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Photo by Eric César Morales, 2014
Photo by Eric César Morales, 2014
Photo by Eric César Morales, 2014
Photo by Eric César Morales, 2014
Photo by Eric César Morales
Photo by Eric César Morales, 2014
Marina Gan
A landmark in the gay rights movement
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Written by Eric César Morales for Place Matters

In the 1960s, New York City had one of the largest gay populations in the country. However, police regularly raided gay bars and clubs to enforce “morality” laws that prohibited people from cross-dressing, same-sex couples from dancing, and businesses from selling alcohol to the gay community. These raids were the physical manifestations of tolerated, city-sanctioned harassment. On June 28, 1969, during a raid on Stonewall Inn, homeless street kids took a stand against police by first throwing pennies at officers. The skirmish escalated into three days of rioting, demonstrations, and street battles. Known as the Stonewall Uprising, the Stonewall Riots, or simply Stonewall, the events created a media sensation, garnering international attention. They inspired LGBTQ communities around the world to rise up in protest of discrimination, spurring forth the modern gay rights movement and the international fight for equality.
Located on Christopher Street, Stonewall Inn and the surrounding area have an extensive history as a Bohemian enclave and a site for non-conformist lifestyles. As bars could not serve alcohol during Prohibition, many artists, intellectuals, gay men, and lesbians gathered in teahouses to socialize. To cater to them, in 1930, two former stables, originally constructed in 1843-1846, were merged into one building to create a teahouse, Bonnie’s Stone Wall, a name which many consider to reference a lesbian love story published the same year, called The Stone Wall: An Autobiography by Mary Casal. Gaining a reputation as a haven for non-traditional lifestyles, the venue survived a period of time where teahouses were consistently raided. Over the years it evolved into a mainstream restaurant, disentangling itself of its complex history, adopting the name, Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn, later to become, Stonewall Inn Restaurant.
In 1966 the venue closed when a fire destroyed the interior, but on March 18, 1967, Stonewall Inn was re-opened by mafia member, Fat Tony, and his associates. Fat Tony's gang intended to take advantage of the black market business of catering to the gay community by providing a bar and dance floors for them to congregate. Patronage typically included males in their late teens to late twenties, drag queens, and sometimes lesbians. Weekday admission was $1.00 and $3.00 for weekends, with the latter price including two free drinks. To curtail the state liquor laws that prevented the sale to homosexuals, they operated the venue under the rouse of a private club and even kept a sign-in book by the door to further the illusion.
Numerous cost-saving measures were put into effect, varying from apathetic business practices to hazardous conditions. For instance, the original sign was kept in the front of the building, with the word “Restaurant” simply cut off. Rather than replace the burnt wood or investing in décor, the owners painted the whole interior black. They also watered down alcoholic drinks and failed to provide running water or even proper sanitation in the bar. Instead of washing glasses, bartenders filled the sink and a plastic tub with water and then dipped used glasses in, swished them around, and refilled them for the next customer, a practice sometimes credited with causing an outbreak of hepatitis. Corner-cutting notwithstanding, the bar functioned as an oasis for the disenfranchised gay community of the area. In fact, it was the largest gay club in the city, unique in that it stood on a main transportation route in an open area, and had two dance floors with juke boxes, contrasting significantly with the smaller gay bars and clubs tucked away on side streets that also existed at the time.
While Fat Tony and his associates may not have been interested in the health or social welfare of their patrons, it still made good business sense to invest in some safeguards to protect against the rampant and often violent homophobia that existed at the time. Windows were sealed with plywood and two-by-fours, then painted black for protection and privacy, and thick oak doors at the entrance were reinforced with steel doors that included two vertical eye slits cut into them, allowing bouncers to weed out potential threats. One of the bouncers, Blond Frankie, had a nearly photographic memory when it came to faces and he had worked at a number of gay bars before, enabling him to easily distinguish between the regular gay club goers of the area from individuals who were not part of the scene and might be undercover officers. Additionally, they regularly paid off the police of the local Sixth Precinct to decrease the amount of times they would be raided, and to provide warning when they did initiate a raid. Some estimates place the bribe amount at $1,200 a month. When raids occurred, the doorman would attempt to prevent the officers from coming in by re-affirming the venue was a private club. If that did not work, the lights would turn on, the music off, and the patrons would be given an opportunity to stop dancing and change into approved clothing–at the time, the law required everyone to have on three articles of clothing specific to their physical sex. Those who were unsuccessful in evading the police would be lined up to have their identification checked. Those without identification or dressed in full drag would be arrested, along with some of the employees and management. 
On Tuesday, June 24, 1969, in an effort to crackdown on gay clubs, a raid was organized on Stonewall Inn by the NYPD's First Division morals squad, rather than the local police. Clients and personnel were arrested, and liquor was confiscated. However, the club was soon back up and running, prompting the police to attempt another raid to shut it down for good. At 1:20am on Saturday, June 28, eight police officers, four of whom were in plainclothes, raided the Stonewall Inn. While waiting for the patrol wagons to arrive, they queued people outside, and released those who were not being arrested. This time, those who were released walked across the street and watched events unravel from Christopher Park. Within minutes, about 150 people had congregated. By the time the first patrol wagon arrived, the crowd had grown to at least ten times the number of people who were arrested. When a lesbian in handcuffs was escorted to the police wagon, she loudly complained that her handcuffs were too tight, only to be hit on the head with a club and heaved into the back of the wagon. 
The crowd, consisting primarily of young adults from homeless street kids to drag queens grew infuriated with this. They started throwing pennies at the officers, then beer bottles, then bricks, and then they attempted to overturn the police wagon. With the police outnumbered by roughly 600, the officers barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn for their own safety. Garbage cans, bottles, rocks, and bricks were hurled at the building, breaking the windows and a parking meter was uprooted and used as a battering ram on the doors of the Stonewall to get to them. Humor, however, was still involved in the mayhem, as drag queens lined up arm in and arm in a singing chorus line to taunt the police by defying traditional gender roles. The Tactical Police Force of the New York City Police Department arrived to free the police trapped inside and with the larger police force they then detained and arrested anyone they could. By 4:00am, the streets had been cleared.    
Both civilians and police officers were injured, and there were a number of arrests. Almost everything in the Stonewall Inn was broken, including pay phones, toilets, mirrors, jukeboxes, and cigarette machines. News of the riot spread quickly throughout Greenwich Village and the rioting began anew the next night as people gathered in front of Stonewall Inn, choking Christopher Street and the surrounding areas. Demonstrations continued through to Wednesday night. 
Although the Stonewall Inn closed a few months later, the events that transpired served as the flashpoint for the gay rights movement with the Stonewall Inn as the epicenter. Over the next few decades, the building became home to myriad different establishments, and then reopened in the early 1990s. While ownership has changed hands over the years, the Stonewall Inn continues to be an important site for the gay community. The area where the events occurred is listed as a National Historic Landmark, and, sponsored by the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects and Designers in 1999, the building was recognized by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
(June 2014)
Carter, David, 2010. Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York, NY: St.
Martin’s Press.
Carter, David, Andrew Scott Dolkart, Gale Harris, and Jay Shockley, 1999. “National Historic Landmark Nomination.”
“Stonewall,” 2000. National Historic Landmarks program.
“The Stonewall Inn,” 1999. Greenwich Village History.
Weems, Mickey. 2011. “Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park.” Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife.
Additional Sites of Interest:
PBS: American Experience
New York Public Library’s Online Exhibition


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