At the intersection of 132nd Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem — where an eight-story apartment complex is currently undergoing construction — once stood the first major Renaissance-style theater to desegregate in the city, showcasing productions that featured Black performers, many of them queer, in the late 1910s. Where an unremarkable parking lot lies today, marking the corner of 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Avenue, an annual drag ball would draw up to 8,000 attendees through the 1920s and 1930s. At 147 West 142nd Street — the site of an apartment complex built in 2008 where rent has skyrocketed in the past decade — Jamaican American poet and writer Claude McKay hosted salons where conversation often revolved around breaking free of dominant ideologies of race and sexual identity.
These and other locales are part of the recently published Disappearing Queer Spaces, a digital pamphlet that compiles seven Harlem Renaissance-era spaces that were the lifeblood of the queer community during that intensive period of literary and artistic expression and Black jouissance, but which have since been razed.
“Harlem is a rapidly gentrifying community,” Abriannah Aiken, a Master’s student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), told Hyperallergic. “We’re losing a lot of culture … It’s affecting everyone in this community, but specifically, it’s affecting queer people of color.”
Aiken and Brian Turner, co-leading chairs of Queer Students of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (QSAPP) at Columbia, worked on Disappearing Spaces along with several other members of the organization.
Together, the seven locations remind us that the Harlem Renaissance was, as historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. put it, “surely as gay as it was Black” — another way of saying that it was full of artistic experimentation; heated intellectual dialogue; and big parties patronized by a rich, straight, female ally (A’Lelia Walker, heiress to Madam C. J. Walker, often crowned America’s first Black female self-made millionaire).
“She invited like 3000 people [to her home for parties],” Turner explains. “No one could get in, because it was always so packed!”
QSAPP collaborated with Andrew Dolkart, a professor in Columbia’s Historic Preservation Program and one of several preservationists involved in cataloguing over 400 LGBTQ+ sites in the city in one searchable map. Although groundbreaking, that comprehensive map did not include historic sites that no longer exist. QSAPP wanted to remember some of the spaces that queer people throughout history have inhabited and reveled in, even if they have not survived to the present day.
Those locations include Hotel Olga, established in 1920 and intended for Black travelers who were visiting Harlem, which offered accommodations to queer celebrities such as blues singer Bessie Smith and writer and philosopher Alain Locke; the “Niggerati Manor,” a brownstone where writers including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston convened to discuss ideas and art; Jungle Alley, the “epicenter of [the Renaissance’s] thriving nightlife”; and Claude McKay’s apartment, where he hosted “rent parties,” a social phenomenon common in Harlem at the time wherein hosts put on social, musical, and artistic events and charged admission to cover the cost of rent.
“We really wanted to tell a comprehensive history of what was going on during the Harlem Renaissance and what kind of spaces there were for the queer community and how they existed at that time,” Aiken said.
“There were lavish drag balls,” she added, “but then there were also intimate settings like house parties.”
“We also found in the research we did that a lot of poor White people would come to Harlem to escape the more conservative spaces of more established New York because they could be more accepted and invisible,” Turner said. “And that wasn’t true for the Black and other people of color residents in the area — they couldn’t go out — but they were very accepting of people that came in. So it was kind of like this melting pot of people that just enjoyed each other’s company.”
Aiken’s favorite of the disappeared spaces is Edith’s Clam House, a speakeasy where lesbian and cross-dressing blues singer Gladys Bentley performed in her iconic tux. “I love the idea of a regular bar that is transformed into a queer space by this icon coming up, singing, and bringing queerness onto the stage,” she said. Turner’s favorite is A’Lelia Walker’s home, dubbed “The Dark Tower,” where queer musicians, writers, and artists partied. He also notes that lost to history alongside all the architecture is a giant erotic mural adorned with brightly colored phalluses made by writer and painter Richard Bruce Nugent.
QSAPP will hand out physical copies of Disappearing Queer Spaces at the Harlem Pride celebration this Saturday, June 25, from 12 to 6pm.