Historically, queer identity has been one of discrimination and limitation throughout history; yet, certain spaces throughout time allowed for self-expression. The Harlem Renaissance was one such place; it was “surely as gay as it was Black,” notes prominent historian Henry Louis Gates. Widely acknowledged for liberating opportunities to express identity in the Black community, the Harlem Renaissance was unequivocally important for the queer community, as well. The movement included racial acceptance but also extended further to encapsulate a welcoming exploration of gender and sexuality.

Within the Harlem Renaissance, theatres, hotels, lodgings, and bars comprised the physical context: places where individuals could “be free, not merely to express anything they feel, but to feel the pulsations and rhythms of their own life.” These buildings gave space to the queer community and welcomed populations that found solace amongst individuals of shared marginalized identities. Despite their importance throughout history, however, these spaces are invisibilized and have since been forgotten, destroyed, and disappeared. The loss of these places is not just a spatial transformation of the predominantly marginalized African American community, but a disappearance of historic safe spaces and queer memory within Harlem and the rest of New York City as a whole.

We, the authors, have chosen the disappearing queer spaces within Harlem as our topic of discussion. Places that identify an entangled history of queer people of color; a group that has been marginalized throughout time, and deserves to have their stories told and spaces memorialized. Acknowledging this reality, our research documents seven key queer spaces from the peak of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. Spaces that disappeared over time due to processes of urban renewal, ownership changes, and gentrification. The seven sites will serve as case studies for our analysis. Each place will be cataloged individually in order to recreate a panorama of demolished and dilapidated buildings, which once activated and housed queer life in Harlem. The analytical focus will be on (1) the contextual situation of the place, (2) each space’s significant characteristics and function during the era, and (3) their discontinuation and decay. At the very core of this study, we hope to identify the reasons behind the demolition of these queer spaces and understand how queer erasure, gentrification, and marginalization played a role in the transformation of these sites.

Our analysis and findings will hopefully help prevent the future destruction of historic queer and cultural sites. Through this particular effort, we aim to begin a conversation about queer spaces that have disappeared and invoke an urgency to take action, think, remember, memorialize, and preserve future queer spaces at risk of similar fates.

Spring 2022 Publication  |  Columbia GSAPP
QSAPP: Queer Students of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

|  Abriannah Aiken, Rourke Brakeville, Leon Duval, Adrianna Fransz, Ruben Gomez, Kelvin Lee, Jerry Schmit, Brian Turner, Josh Westerman, Daniel Wexler

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© 2024 Kelvin Cho-Wen Lee