Project has led in preserving L.G.B.T. sites

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BY GABE HERMAN | The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project is a young organization, headed by veteran preservationists, that is having a big impact in protecting local L.G.B.T. sites, plus increasing awareness of the community’s importance to the city and country.

The Project was founded in 2015 by Andrew Dolkart, Ken Lustbader and Jay Shockley, who have been L.G.B.T. preservation advocates for more than 25 years. Many of their efforts have focused on Greenwich Village, where both Lustbader and Shockley live.

The project’s three co-directors work pro bono on it. There is one paid staffer, manager Amanda Davis.

Members of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, from left, Jay Shockley, Andrew Dolkart, Amanda Davis and Ken Lustbader. (Courtesy Jay Shockley)

The Project’s Web site has mapped 175 historical and cultural sites in the five boroughs that are associated with the L.G.B.T. community. Shockley said they plan to increase that soon to 200, and are working on documenting every Broadway theater with connections to the community.

“Our project virtually is the history of New York City, but done through an L.G.B.T. lens,” Shockley said. Sites date back to the 17th century, and go up to as recent as 2000. In keeping with the preservationist spirit, only sites still in existence are mapped.

Shockley said the L.G.B.T. community has had an outsized impact on American history and culture, but that some friends and colleagues of the project’s founders didn’t understand their mission at first.

“Even within the gay community, there was this self-imposed myth that there was no history prior to Stonewall,” Shockley said.

Some people they knew also questioned whether there were important sites beyond gay bars.

“We had to destroy those two myths,” he said.

The Project launched with the first-ever L.G.B.T. grant from the National Park Service, for $50,000, from the agency’s Underrepresented Community Grant Program.

Some of the categories of sites that the Project maps include performance venues, medical facilities, residences, public spaces and cultural and educational institutions.

And the Project was instrumental in recently getting six L.G.B.T. historic sites calendared by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The hearing is set for June, which is also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

Those six sites include Caffe Cino and the L.G.B.T. Community Center in the Village, the Women’s Liberation Center in Chelsea, and the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse in Soho.

“We are thrilled that our research was a catalyst for the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s review of cultural landmarks, which highlight the rich L.G.B.T. history of New York City,” said Dolkart in a statement when the six sites were calendared. “We met with the commission’s chairperson, Sarah Carroll, and her staff to discuss how important L.G.B.T.-related sites are to the history of New York, and are pleased that these cultural sites may soon be designated alongside the city’s architectural landmarks, adding to the diversity of places officially recognized by the city.”

The Stonewall Inn, which was designated a national monument in 2016. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

The roots of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project go back to the early 1990s, according to Shockley. The group’s founders were involved in 1993 in a mapping project with the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects and Designers, or OLGAD. A networking group, it was one of the first efforts by gay people to connect professionally, Shockley said.

The map was the first L.G.B.T. site-based history project in America, and half of the sites were in the Village.

“We were the first people in the Unites States to connect the fact that the L.G.B.T. community had history,” Shockley said.

Shockley worked at L.P.C. for more than 35 years, where he started to incorporate L.G.B.T history into designation reports, many of them concerning Village locations.

In 1994, there was a push to landmark the Stonewall Inn on the riots’ 25th anniversary. But the attempt didn’t succeed until five years later, when Shockley and Dolkart were lead authors in the Stonewall nomination.

The Stonewall Inn was declared a national monument in 2016.

“Everything from Stonewall came from people in our project,” Shockley said. “Obama didn’t wave a magic wand when it became a national monument. We did the groundwork.”

And the Project’s work continues, as it has been recognized with preservation awards. The organization was given the New York State Historic Preservation Award last November, and in 2019 the Excellence in Historic Preservation Award from the Preservation League of New York State.

Shockley acknowledged the magnitude of the Project trying to map so many sites related to the L.G.B.T. community, especially because there isn’t just a single topic on which to focus.

“Our community has impacted everything that has ever happened in this city,” he said.