Interviews

An Artist’s Mission to Preserve New York City’s History of Lesbian Nightlife

Gwen Shockey’s Addresses Project compiles photos, interviews with lesbian and queer-identified community leaders, and a comprehensive online map of former lesbian bars.

Gwen Shockey, “Sahara” from the Addresses Project (all images courtesy of Gwen Shockey)

On October 5, 2018, I spoke with artist Gwen Shockey at her studio in Prospect Heights about documenting and archiving lesbian and queer nightlife, and tracing the sites of past and present lesbian and queer bars in New York City in her continuously expanding Addresses Project ​(2015 – ongoing). Addresses Project takes on multiple forms, including photographic prints, a library of oral history interviews conducted by Shockey, and a comprehensive online map of the ghosts of New York’s queer past. Shockey’s thoughtful research on nightlife heavily centers on oral histories garnered through dozens of interviews with the generation of lesbian and queer-identified community leaders who organized and experienced these spaces, dating as far back to the 1950s and through the gay liberation movement. These anecdotes call to attention the formative role of nightlife spaces in shaping and strengthening LGBTQ identity, and how it continues to be a fecund site for activism, resistance, and expression.

Gwen Shockey’s photographic prints of buildings that once hosted lesbian nightlife in Addresses Project​ recalls Zoe Leonard’s ​Analogue ​(1998 – 2009), which archived disappearing storefronts and remnants of urban life in different New York City neighborhoods — notably the Lower East Side. During a panel discussion called Queer Conversations on Culture and the Arts, at California College of the Arts on September 28, 2012, Cvetkovich described, “Leonard has suggested that the photographs document how losses from AIDS reconfigured the city. They speak to the problem of absent archives, by cultivating a capacity to see things that don’t seem to be there. The photographs enable us to glimpse ghostly presences.” To this point, Shockey’s ​Addresses Project similarly encapsulates the past through the dissonance of photographing spaces as they are today, having been transformed into something else. The photographs reinforce the vivid and often sensory memories from people who frequented these spaces, arguing for the significance of remembering them. Relying on storytelling and word-of-mouth, Shockey creates a counter-archive by mapping these sites that were hidden from law enforcement and thrived covertly from the general public. To be sure, while the lesbian-specific bar has diminished, new all-encompassing and intersectional queer events and spaces such as No Bar in the East Village have opened. This suggests that nightlife spaces are adapting to more fluid definitions of queerness.

In our conversation, Shockey discusses the importance of salvaging nightlife spaces for queer women, the Italian-American Mafia’s involvement in running bars, the process of mapping out sites through oral histories, and Margarita Tuesdays at Cubbyhole.

The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project notes that there are only three active lesbian-specific bars left in the five boroughs of New York City: Cubbyhole and Henrietta Hudson in Greenwich Village, Manhattan and Ginger’s Bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn. This is in contrast to 50+ flourishing bars for gay men. Since our interview, the long-running Bum Bum Bar in Jackson Heights, Queens permanently shut down in 2018. 

This article has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Gwen Shockey, “Henrietta Hudson” from the Addresses Project

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Hyperallergic: What first inspired you to begin your project in mapping out sites of lesbian bars in ​the Addresses Project ​(2015 – ongoing)?

Gwen Shockey: The project came to be while I was in graduate school, and I was thinking about queer space and the space of the bar. I was out in undergrad and everything, but I didn’t have a community and I hadn’t found a place yet. I studied abroad in Paris, where I went to my first lesbian bar ever, and it was so unreal — and breathtaking — to be in a room full of queer women. I never knew it was possible to feel so understood and so seen and so visible and so beautiful, in a way. To be seen with desire and to look with desire and to not feel ashamed or edit your gaze. You know, when I’m around straight women, unless I’m very close to them, I do feel this hesitancy or self-awareness of crossing over into space that I’m not supposed to because of that acknowledgment of my sexuality. In any case, that experience was totally life-changing for me. And the second I moved to New York I started going to Cubbyhole every Tuesday night, drinking way too much and staying up way too late.

H: Well, Tuesday nights at Cubbyhole are margarita nights.

GS: Oh my god, yeah. I would often go alone; I started meeting more and more people. And I started going to the Leslie-Lohman ​Museum and meeting queer artists that way, slowly building up a kind of community. These places became super important to me, like second homes. And then, in grad school, in 2016, when the Pulse shootings happened, I think for most queer people in this country it was really startling. It was so much more shocking and upsetting than I really thought it would be for me. I went to Cubbyhole that night and went to the vigil at Stonewall, thinking a lot about these spaces: what it really means to have this safety, what it meant to have that threatened and ​destroyed because of homophobia, and having it be called a terrorist attack when it was so connected to racism and homophobia.

I did a performance piece with a couple of friends for Pulse and everything just started from there. It changed into being about safe space and the bar scene and trying to find all these addresses for queer spaces in the city. A lot of it came from conversations I was having with my friends about how important these spaces were to us and how threatened they felt. I just started having all these conversations about coming out and finding community, and for almost every one of my friends, the lesbian bar played a big role.

M​any people are doing projects about this, the disappearance of the lesbian bar. I think it actually goes so much further than that. It is really also about the visibility of the lesbian voice and the queer and non-male voice. For me, this has become about finding history and role models and trying to really honor the women who came before me, who created these spaces, who sacrificed and risked everything to keep these spaces open.

You know, Wanda Acosta — with her Sundays at Café Tabac party — she would have a lot of celebrities come through in the ’90s right after the AIDS epidemic, when it was still really dangerous [to come out]. Ellen Degeneres had come out, but it was still risky. You could lose your entire career and your house and your family. And [Acosta] would have all these celebrities come through. It’s so cool to hear about that stuff.

So all these iterations [of the project] have come out of thinking about what it means to locate these spaces that were treasured by women, queer women, bisexual women, and trans women — people who had to fight for space. In the ’60s and ’70s, women weren’t even allowed to take out loans without the signature of a man, to open a space on your own. There was a club called the Sahara, and it was opened by four women — Leslie Cohen, Barbara Russo, Michelle Florea, and Linda Goldfarb — and it was really on the heels of all these Mafia-owned lesbian bars. So it was a huge deal for them to open up their own space. The Mafia showed up at the bar and threatened them, and they had no money. It was a huge ordeal. And this place, Gloria Steinem would go there — and Jane Fonda. It was an amazing political social space.

Again, historical map-making: the map has become this important component of this invisible. It all connects to Sara Ahmed and ​Queer Phenomenology​! Orienting myself, taking these sort of pilgrimages all over the city—no one around me knows what I’m doing. I’m standing in the middle of the street photographing this building that everyone else is just walking past. It’s a sort of pointless task in a way. I take the most inconvenient routes, I get sidetracked, and end up wandering all around. In a funny way, it’s like these lovely little queer pilgrimages. I feel like I’m making these weird little maps of my own.

Gwen Shockey, Girl Party Wallpaper series

H: I would consider your personal experience of adventuring to find these sites a huge component of your project. And the verbal anecdotes are part of the process.

GS: Totally. A lot of these addresses I’ve gathered through these oral history interviews. One woman I interviewed, she’s in her late 60s or early 70s, she used to go to this bar called The Hilltop — it was the first bar she ever went to. She described it to me like: “You take the train up to Harlem …You get out …You walk up the hill, and turn right.” Following her directions, trying to find this place was futile. I don’t think I found it, but I love that memory-based, “in-the-dark-kind-of-drunk” trying to find [the location]. And for that reason, I’ve been photographing [the sites] during the daytime. Because seeing these places in the stark light of day and all the people who live around them speaks to how the city has changed over the years. The types of people who walk by Henrietta Hudson on a Sunday morning are a lot of wealthy families going to brunch or church, and there’s Henrietta’s sitting quietly after a night of debauchery. ​[Laughs]

H: I like that process of translating oral histories to directions.

GS: Yeah. The memory component is a really important one, because so many of these spaces, especially in the early years, were illegal and kept secret to protect the identity of these women. Some of [the bars] didn’t have names, so I think there’s a memory component of it being this treasure hunt almost. Karla Jay, when I interviewed her, I asked her how she found lesbian bars cause there wasn’t the internet, there was the Village Voice. She told me she would go to the [West] Village and look for women who looked — I think she said “suspect” — lesbian-ish; women whose hands were close together or who were touching. And then she would follow them to see where they would go.

They would go to like, the Sea Colony or other bars. That’s kind of how that would happen for her, which I thought was really interesting. And then her activism introduced her to all these political groups that were mostly queer. That relates so much to coding and gesture, and all this secretive language which I actually think is so valuable and so amazing and has affected my art-making a lot too, in a different way. This is also something I’ve been thinking about in relation to more mainstream representations of queer life. Because now kids can see themselves in some way or another in mainstream media, I’m not sure how much of a need there is anymore for finding yourself, for finding coding in the straight world around you. Because you can latch on to one queer character and identify with that. Versus, I saw myself, my quiet sadness, in the Virgin Mary’s face, you know? Things in culture that I would be like, “oh man, she looks like how I feel” — this is queer for me.

Gwen Shockey, “Eve Addam’s Tea Room” from the Addresses Project

H: What have you been doing with the oral histories and anecdotes you have collected through interviews?

GS:Well, I’ve been doing all these interviews and tracking all of these locations and recently put it all online so that it is accessible to the public. The Lesbian Herstory Archive in Park Slope has been one of the most important resources for my research. I want to follow along in their mission to keep lesbian and queer history public access. The women I choose to interview were activists, nightlife creators, community creators in the arts; women who either really changed things in the lesbian community or were responsible for forming lesbian movements. I’ve done about 50 to 60 [interviews] and am always trying to find bits of time to transcribe them.

I think it’s an interesting time to be talking about this stuff because there is so much more of a need for alternative spaces—thinking about alcoholism and how many people just don’t want to be in the bar space. It’s not a utopia necessarily for everyone. Even women who I’ve talked to who went all the time really hated it in there. They didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, found it depressing and scary, but it was the only place, you know? So I think the choice now to have so many different options is amazing. So many people are starting their own social gatherings. That shift is exciting.

H: More recently, there’s been a nostalgia, or revisiting, of things that happened in previous generations by the younger generation who didn’t experience them.

GS: ​I think it’s totally happening now. I think older women think it’s really funny how obsessed we all are. I mean, obviously there is great value to recording this history, especially since so many women who were there at the beginning of the gay rights movement are getting older. For instance, Tanya Saunders, the owner of Cubbyhole, passed away. These women are getting old, and these stories, a lot of them are recorded in autobiographies and essays and everything but, there is a lot of this history that is at risk of totally disappearing. On one hand, older women find it a little funny that there is a lot of nostalgia for a time that was really horrible and hard. But there’s a reason for this nostalgia, I think. Take the Pride Parade for an example. Now it’s called a parade, but it used to be a march. It was political, it was angry, it was in reaction to serious oppression. And it was counter-capitalism, it was counter to all these mechanisms that were harming queer people and making it illegal to exist as a person. Now the pride parade … it’s just a capitalist parade. It must be crazy to have been there at the beginning and to see it now. I spoke with Ellen Broidy who was really involved in the beginning of the creation of the Pride March and she was like, “I don’t recognize it anymore.” But at the same time, for a kid in the Midwest, it’s life or death to know that Chase bank will hire a gay person. That’s really valuable in a lot of ways.

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Gwen Shockey, Girl Party Wallpaper series

You can access Gwen Shockey’s map of past and present lesbian and queer nightlife spaces and oral history archive consisting of interview transcripts for Addresses Project here

In June 2019, Gwen Shockey exhibited new works in a solo show, ​Venus Rising​, at Practice Gallery in Philadelphia. Most recently, she was a recipient of the 2018–2019 Leslie-Lohman Museum Queer Art Fellowship and was a consultant for the Stonewall 50 exhibition Letting Loose and Fighting Back: LGBTQ Nightlife Before and After Stonewall at the New-York Historical Society. The exhibition is on view until September 22.

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