January 20, 2011
Forty-two years ago, the modern gay-rights movement began in a New York City tavern near the corner of Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street.
Tired of the constant raids by the NYPD, which was enforcing laws against homosexuality, patrons of the bar fought back, leading to a pitched battle in the streets that has since come to be known as the Stonewall Rebellion. Among the laws the young transsexuals and gays protested against at the time, were ordinances prohibiting the serving of alcohol to any “openly homosexual person”, restrictions on how closely two men could sit next to each other at any establishment serving alcohol (15 inches, and the cops brought tape measures to check this), laws forbidding cross-dressing, and, of course, laws against gay or lesbian sexual activity, including kissing.
The Rebellion began the struggle for gay rights and equality which continues to this day. Christopher Street, which runs through Greenwich Village from Sixth Avenue to the Hudson River, became gay America’s Main Street. LGBT-friendly businesses, such as the Oscar Wilde Bookstore, the Monster, the Eerie Pubs, and London, joined the Stonewall as the thoroughfare’s identity as a gay Mecca emerged during the ’70s and ’80s.
Along with the development of Christopher Street as a center of LGBT culture, and its prominence as the end-point of the annual Heritage Of Pride March, (the largest gay parade in the world, commemorating the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion) came venues catering to gay people of color, such as Keller’s, Two Potato, and Chi-Chiz.
The LGBT community finally had a gathering place that was as diverse as the city it was located in. On any given summer weekend, you could find LGBT people of every description-black, white, Latino, Asian, young, old, tops, bottoms, bears, queens-in every style of dress, plying their way up and down the rainbow-bedecked blocks of Christopher Street and the surrounding avenues. People could express themselves openly and freely, in ways they couldn’t do at home, with all kinds of stores, restaurants, and bars eager to accept them and their business. In recent years, however, the climate and tenor of Christopher Street has been going through a change.
After the closing of Keller’s in 1991, and Two Potato, which was forced out of business in 2004 by David Poster and his Christopher Street Patrol, which cited “noise complaints” and “crowded sidewalks”, it became apparent that the gentrifying Village was becoming less tolerant of black gays in their community.
Even as Two Potato fought to stay open (a former NYPD Sixth Precinct police officer, Tim Duffy, recalls Two Potato as being no worse than other area bars) , Poster engaged in an extended effort to close them down. He fought the renewal of Two Potato’s (and its later iteration, Chances Are) liquor license, and accused the bar of harboring “prostitutes and drug dealers.”
Actively supporting the pizza shop that replaced Two Potato, Poster was satisfied that the “nuisance” of black gays on Christopher Street had been “abated”. But even as Poster was campaigning to shutter Two Potato, Chi-Chiz had already been operating just a few doors down the street.
Chi-Chiz, opened in 1998 by owners Ronelle Wilson and Everett Ray, became the last gay bar for people of color on Christopher Street. Many of Two Potato’s former customers flocked to Chi-Chiz, which became known as a Village gathering spot for the city’s black and Latino gay communities. Chi-Chiz, mindful of the extraordinary efforts made by Poster and local block associations to run Two Potato out of business, was careful to manage its business with an eye towards keeping neighbors’ complaints to a minimum.
The new bar did well, even finding its way into contemporary literature, in Delvon Johnson’s Love Yourself First. But clouds were forming on the horizon toward the end of 2009. By then, the weather change on Christopher Street was becoming more pronounced, with the closing of the Oscar Wilde Bookstore, after 41 years of operation. It was the oldest LGBT bookstore in the United States, a place where one could find works by Wilde, Baldwin, and Harris, as well as modern, accessible, provocative works by authors like James Earl Hardy, Lee Hayes, and Nathan James, plus the latest LGBT magazines and things like gay-rights buttons.
Skyrocketing rents put the bookstore out, and only Rainbows and Triangles remains, albeit in Chelsea, about a mile north of the Village.
As 2010 broke, David Poster, now with the Greenwich Village Block Association, set his sights on Chi-Chiz, which, after the closing of the Starlite Lounge in Brooklyn, had become the last black gay bar in the entire city. Poster enlisted the aid of the NYPD, which conducted a raid on Chi-Chiz in March, which shuttered the bar until a judge permitted its provisional re-opening a few days later.
No other LGBT bars in Greenwich Village were raided or inspected during this time frame. Citing the same “public nuisance” issues he had raised with Two Potato, Poster, the city, and New York Liquor Authority went after Chi-Chiz in a multi-pronged attack, complaining of dug sales, “rowdy” patrons, and lax security. Chi-Chiz responded by tightening their house crules and adding extra security. Nothing helped. In a period of a few months, the NYPD wrote a dozen violations against Chi-Chiz, all of which were later dismissed in court.
Chi-Chiz attorneys Tom Shanahan and Christopher Lynch pointed out that the ticketing amounted to harassment, forcing the owners to spend large sums of money on legal fees, instead of operating their business. Poster, and the city, finally forced Chi-Chiz’ closure two weeks ago. Almost immediately, the property was vacated, the Chi-Chiz awning and signs removed, and the storefront made available for rent or sale.
There was widespread speculation that Chi-Chiz, like Two Potato before it, was forced out of business to exploit the commercial real estate value of the locations, and to stop LGBTs of color from gathering on Christopher Street, a white, high-rent area. The demise of Chi-Chiz is just the latest example of a Village becoming more divided under the rainbow flag that festoons its many historic streets. The face of the area is indeed changing, but losing its diverse, unique character, in the process.