National Park Units of Lower Manhattan: Stonewall National Monument

Early afternoon on February 28 Sean and I wandered over to the West Village to our second National Park unit of the day: Stonewall National Monument, which was established by President Barack Obama in 2016 as the first LGBTQ+ National Park site. The National Monument honors a key catalyzing event in the burgeoning gay rights movement of the late 1960s, the June 28, 1969 raid by New York City police of The Stonewall Inn, a mafia-owned gay bar, and the six nights of riots that followed as LGBTQ+ New Yorkers fought back, led by homeless gay youth and transexuals, many of whom were people of color. While not the start of the gay rights movement, nor even the first riot, Stonewall led to an explosion of gay rights organizing across the country as gay people embraced a stance of being out and proud about their sexual orientation.

A National Monument that celebrates the advancement of civil rights that came in the wake of a riot against the police—that, yes, included some looting—led by Black and Brown young people? How resonant 51 years later in 2020.

Sean and I had both been to the site before—in fact, I’d come out to my friend Jay years before right there in Christopher Park—but neither Sean nor I had been to the Stonewall since it had become a National Monument.

The bar itself is privately owned, so the transfer of land to the National Park Service that allowed the creation of the National Monument came in the form of Christopher Park across the street from the Stonewall, which was a gathering place for the demonstrations in the summer of 1969 and a launch point for early gay pride parades in the ensuing years.

Christopher Park

Image: Sean M. Santos

According to the signage, there would be some sort of tour in about an hour, so Sean and I went down the block to The Spaniard to have a drink and a tuna melt while we waited.

Cheers!

Back at Christopher Park an hour later, there wan’t any sort of gathering happening. Sean noticed a clutch of elderly tourists gathered around a young woman talking about Stonewall and the National Monument. She waved us over to hear. She was leading a walking tour of Greenwich Village, and so after a brief talk about Stonewall she and her group moved on.

I had checked out the NPS website to learn where we could get a stamp for our passports. It turned out that there was a stamp available at the bar of The Stonewall Inn itself. We were delighted.

Inside, after ordering a round, we asked loquacious 81-year-old bartender Tree about the NPS stamp. He reached behind the bar and produced a small zippered pouch with the stamp and an ink pad. He joked with us that he should be an honorary Park Ranger. “Is there a Smoky Bear hat for me?”

Image: Sean M. Santos

We chatted with him a bit more about his experiences and his being a Stonewall celebrity with reminiscences of 1969.

Although the interior is nothing like it was during the riots (the buildings having been various businesses including a bakery and a Chinese restaurant in the intervening decades) it was still cool to have a drink at The Stonewall Inn.

Image: Sean M. Santos

It was also very moving for both of us, in the midst of our long exploration of America through the National Parks, to see our story honored as an integral part of the American experience.

Image: Sean M. Santos

After Stonewall, we decided to head downtown, ostensibly toward Federal Hall. After walking for a bit, we realized that it was likely too late in the day for that. We considered the Whitney Museum of American Art (I would love to see its new building), but that too was going to close relatively soon.

Instead we went into McNally Jackson bookstore in Little Italy and browsed for a while. While we were in there, an older gay man chatted me up with observations about people who wear jackets indoors, his family in Chicago, and tales of Old St. Pat’s, the Archdiocese of New York, and Rockefeller Center. It was sort of charming, and reminded me in no small part of conversations with older Christian Brothers from twenty-plus years before.

Back at the hotel, we rested and showered before heading out to our early dinner reservation.

Sean had reserved us a table at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, a place he’d wanted to go for years. It was top notch.

On the way back to the hotel afterward, we grabbed a bottle of wine from a little shop and some dessert from Insomnia Cookies to take back to our room. There we capped off a great day with a new episode of Star Trek: Picard before going to sleep early like the middle-aged married gay couple we are, made possible in part by those young people and drag queens who fought back at the Stonewall.

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