Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
The interactive project OUTgoing aims to map the history of New York City’s queer bars.
Back in the 1890s, the scene was on Bleecker Street, at a bar known as “The Slide.” The name was defiantly honest: it came from the era’s slang term for a place where men picked up other men for sex. The cops shut it down just a few years after it opened.
But they couldn’t shut down New York’s nighttime gay scene.
The bars and clubs where New York’s queer men and women met for sex, for friendship, for dancing, for drinks, for laughs—these could not and would not be stamped out. Not by the police, who raided them on a regular basis through most of the 20th century, until a revolutionary stand was taken at the Stonewall Inn. Not by AIDS, which sucked the life out of the bars and bathhouses, filling them with fear and uncertainty and death. Not even the 21st-century rise of apps like Grindr and Scruff, which threatened to make real-life cruising obsolete. Through it all, the party has gone on.
Now Jeff Ferzoco has created an interactive map, OUTgoing, that captures the ever-unfolding history of New York’s LGBT nightlife venues. Ferzoco, an information designer with his own company, linepointpath, came by the idea naturally. “I go out a lot,” he says. “Probably four or five nights a week.” While chatting about spots that had vanished over the years with a fellow patron at his local bar, Nowhere, he started thinking about mapping them all.
Soon, Ferzoco was delving into research, combing through histories such as Gay New York and The Gay Metropolis and consulting old pamphlets. (The “New York City Gay Scene Guide” of 1969 included listings for “all the exciting gay bars, clubs, baths, motels, meeting places THROUGHOUT the CITY” while the 1970 edition promised, “Realistic: Only those places where you will be welcome are listed.”)
The resulting map, which is very much a work in progress, is a fascinating trip through time and space. Each nightspot is marked with its dates, its audience, its “genre” (i.e., “leather” or “lesbian”), and Ferzoco’s source. Ultimately, the map will enable users to submit stories, photos, and other information.
Currently, Ferzoco has marked 800 spots on the map. He estimates there will be as many as 1,500 in the end, covering all five boroughs as well as the surrounding area.
His research has uncovered revealing patterns. Between 1931 and 1960, Ferzoco found records of just 26 gay nightspots, a number that rocketed to 318 between 1961 and 1990, then dropped to 264 between 1991 and 2010 and stands at just 99 today. Those numbers reflect the complex history of the closet, the sexual revolution, the AIDS epidemic, and the mainstreaming of queer culture.
He knows there are more out there, and is particularly interested in having users contribute information about outer-borough spots, as well as women’s hangouts, which are often shorter-lived and thus harder to track.
Ferzoco has already uncovered some anecdotal gems, including a story about the way that off-duty produce trucks parked on the far West Side were used as “darkrooms” (unlit spaces for sex, usually found in the back of clubs or bars). In one case, a truck like this was the venue for a surprise party, with a little celebration before the attendees went back to their previously scheduled activities. “There’s a lot of romance in all of this,” he says.
That romance is what he thinks will keep gay bars alive, even in the age of Grindr and Scruff. “I think people deny how much they really like meeting at bars,” he says. “It’s all about serendipity, timing, a little fear and a little excitement. I think the bars are going to remain, and that cruising will remain, as fatigue of the apps sets in.”
Ferzoco isn’t discouraged by the dip in the number of venues. The New York gay nightlife scene has, after all, proven to be remarkably resilient, ever since the days of The Slide. He predicts many wild nights out in the future.
“New forms of gay bars are going to open up, and I can’t wait,” he says. “We are rising into a period where the gay experience is so good, and I think it’s getting better. Because we’re finally past the fear of dying, in whatever way.”