“Don’t leave me this way
I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive, without your love
Oh baby, don’t leave me this way, no
I can’t exist, I’ll surely miss your tender kiss
Don’t leave me this way”
–Thelma Houston “Don’t Leave Me This Way”
Living in New York, you get used to loss–not necessarily just the loss of beloved people, but of establishments. These bars, clubs, dives and cafes, particularly queer and queer-friendly spaces, are not just favored locations to grab a bite or a beer, but they’re where communities and even, worlds are built and thrive (even if temporarily). “Spiritually, gentrification is the removal of the dynamic mixture that defines urbanity–the familiar interaction of different kinds of people creating ideas together,” writes Sarah Schulman in her seminal The Gentrification of the Mind. “Urbanity is what makes cities great, because the daily affirmation that people from other experiences are real makes innovative solutions and experiments possible.”
In a city like New York, which gentrifies at light speed, how do we remember these disappeared and disappearing spaces? How can we honor and preserve the memories of the contact made inside and around them? And what remains of their legacy as it’s razed and replaced by chain shops, bank branches and drug stores?
Artist Gwen Shockey engages with these questions in her current show Addresses at Amos Eno Gallery. An exhibition of her expansive and extensive ongoing project started in 2015, Shockey, through photography, archival research and oral history, traces the locational lineage of lesbian bars throughout New York City. Traveling through the boroughs, Shockey documents the current and former sites of lesbian bars, clubs and one-night parties through stark photographs of buildings facades, illuminating the hidden histories with extended captions culled from local press, personal letters from bar owners and selections from literary accounts.
Perhaps the most immediately noticeable aspect of Addresses is the contrast in the sheer amount of shuttered lesbian bars and clubs and the measly four lesbian bars still in operation–Ginger’s, Cubbyhole, Henrietta Hudson and Bum-Bum Bar in Woodside, Queens. While a small handful of girl parties still occur, the lesbian bar and club appears like a dying breed.
And it’s not the only one. Shockey hangs her photographs on top of a collaged installation of pages from The Village Voice, which stopped its print publication earlier this year. As the Voice often highlighted these bars and parties in their listing sections, it’s an ode to another endangered artifact–the local paper.
Like the local news sources, the choice to highlight the disappearance of lesbian bars and clubs is a significant one since the closure of lesbian bars and clubs far outweighs other gay and queer-centric establishments. Just Google “What happened to the lesbian bar” and you’ll get a plethora of articles decrying, eulogizing and attempting to explain the vanishing of lady-centric nightlife. And this isn’t just a New York story. In 2015, the last remaining lesbian bar in San Francisco–the storied Lexington Club–closed and similarly, in 2013, West Hollywood’s The Palms left L.A. with a dearth of lesbian nightlife.
All this has led many to seek an explanation for lesbian bar death. If you go by the armchair blogger analysis, it seems to be a complex combination of gentrification, the popularity of dating apps and the evolution of queer identities, which has left the lesbian bar as an anachronism in 2017. Rather than theorize on the lack of lesbian bars, however, Shockey, instead, focuses on methods of preserving these spaces and the memories of the same-sex desire and dynamic communal experiences that occurred within them.
This artistic focus isn’t exactly new for Shockey, who has explored the materiality of lesbian nightlife previously as seen in her recent exhibition (which I was sad to miss) No Man’s Land at Leslie-Lohman’s Prince Street Project Space. In that installation, Shockey investigated the four remaining lesbian bars, while here, Shockey represents absence.
Arranged almost like a timeline, the exhibition traces a history from Eve Addams Tea Room, which opened in 1925 on MacDougal Street, to more recently shuttered bars like the short-lived but promising The Dalloway. Not only selecting lesbian establishments, Shockey also includes locations that held or currently hold girl nights like “Hot Rabbit,” which circulated from The Monster to Nowhere Bar to Boots and Saddle. Each photograph’s caption provides a more descriptive and personal glimpse into these bars and clubs, as well as occasionally sheds light on the reason for their closing. For example, below an image of El Canterino, a Mexican restaurant on University Place, Shockey quotes a passage from Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name setting the scene in Bagatelle: “If you asked the wrong woman to dance, you could get your nose broken in the alley down the street by her butch, who had followed you out of the Bag for that exact purpose.” It almost feels like you’re there.
These captions also narrate the continual crackdown on queer spaces by the city, which traverses decades and mayoral administrations. While Rudy Giuliani is often singularly associated with the destruction of New York’s nightlife, Shockey’s historical research reveals that queer nightlife was a target long before. For example, Ariel’s, located at 53 West 19th Street, which is now a CVS (of course), was closed in 1984 after the court ruled they could not play music–not even a jukebox–after 11PM. Similarly, The Dutchess’s inclusion in Addresses (now a vacant building still campily sporting the signage of “Holey Donuts!”) mentions a bar raid by the City’s Morals Division in the 1980s: “Within minutes seven policemen moved into the bar and seized all remaining liquor, the cash register and petty cash, according to employees of the Duchess. Bartender Flo Mitchell and doorperson Diane Radenacher were subsequentially handcuffed, taken downtown for ‘mug shots’ and issued desk appearances for selling alcohol without a license.”
From the storied The Clit Club’s radical mix of performance art, sex positivity, art and activism in the then-terrifying Meatpacking District to Meow Mix’s late 90s/early 2000s rise echoing the increasing popularity of the Lower East Side, Addresses not only tells the story of lesbian nightlife, but it also explores the changes in the city. Overall, Addresses is a study in gentrification, as the photographs document luxury apartment buildings, boutique shops, Starbucks and perhaps most depressingly, vacant storefronts where bars and clubs could still possibly be if not for predatory landlords and city policy. When faced with what remains, the photographs are startling, illustrating as Sarah Schulman observes in The Gentrification of the Mind, “Key to the gentrification mentality is the replacement of complex realities with simplistic ones. Mixed neighborhoods become homogenous.”
In many ways, the show is reminiscent of another address-based project–Ira Sachs‘s Last Address, which cinematically captured lingering, melancholy shots outside the last known addresses of artists, performers, and other influential creators who died from complications from HIV/AIDS. While Last Address deals with loss of life, Shockey’s work engages with a potentially less appreciated loss. But, the loss of these bars, clubs and other nightlife spaces is also something to be grieved. As Heather Dockray writes in “New York’s Lesbian Bars Are Disappearing: Here’s Why Their Survival Matters” for Brooklyn Based, “Grief is commonly considered a negative emotion, but psychologists know the feeling is more nuanced. When we grieve for someone we’ve lost, we remember not only what it was like to lose it, but what it felt like to have it. We remember what it was like to be in a crowded room full of people who might actually like you, and people you call friends. We remember what it was like to be accepted, or to be rejected, and try again. Loss and community in a room with six barstools, three taps, no toilet paper. It’s hard for me to claim this grief, but these bars mattered to me, too.”
In Addresses, this sense of grief and loss is both seen and felt, confronting the viewer with the void left in these bygone lesbian bars’ wake. In an interview with NewNowNext, Shockey stated, “Queer bars provide a stable location for community-forming in an otherwise unstable world–for women, lesbians, trans people and queer people in general. As wonderful as dating apps may be for a lot of people they exacerbate [that] lack of community.” With Addresses, she makes this lack of community clear, while at the same time, providing a reminder for how important these spaces continue to be. While it may be impossible to stop that steamroller of New York gentrification, there are, as Shockey proves, means of archiving, honoring and representing the communities constructed within these nightlife spaces where, as Fiona Buckland details in her nightlife study Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making, “Dancers made interventions in their self-fashioning through movement, sometimes kicking against normativity, sometimes not, and sometimes writing new rules” (158).