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Lifestyles

You Could Be in a Gay Bar Right Now and Not Even Know It

Posted June 20, 2018 2:02 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — “This was Andy Warhol’s Factory, Studio 54 and the Algonquin Round Table all rolled into one,” said Brad Vogel.

The 70 or so people gathered on Broadway just north of Bleecker Street looked confused and a little skeptical about the empty storefront. “This was ‘the place.’ Not in this building here, but under your feet,” Vogel said.

He was explaining the history of Pfaff’s, a German beer cellar that opened in 1859 at 647 Broadway and counted Walt Whitman among its bohemian regulars who sought the company of other men. While Vogel — a lanky, 34-year-old attorney and poet with a commanding voice who serves as the executive director of The New York Preservation Archive Project — spun tales of this forgotten nightspot, a young man in a pink tank top and navy shorts stenciled the words “Gay Bar Was Here” with blue chalk on the sidewalk.

This guerilla-landmarked site was one of nine stops on Gay Bars That Are Gone, a free tour offered as part of Jane’s Walk, which celebrates urban activist Jane Jacobs each May. Other stops on the two-hour tour included a demolished disco (Palladium, 140 E. 14th St.), a 1970s hustler bar (the Ninth Circle, 139 W. 10th St.), a hedonistic dance club (The Saint, 105 Second Ave.), a steamy bath house (the New St. Marks Baths, 6 St. Marks Pl.) and a silenced piano bar (Bon Soir, 40 W. 8th St.) where Barbra Streisand made her Manhattan debut in 1960.

This unusual tour of the city’s LGBT past was conceived by Michael Ryan, 26, an amateur historian, who spends his day managing partnerships for TEDx, a community-driven branch of TED Talks. Raised in Augusta, Georgia, Ryan was always something of an urban history buff. “I always thought going downtown was cool and I liked all the old buildings,” he said.

In his teens, he helped organize a benefit concert to restore the Miller Theater, an art deco movie house built in 1940 in downtown Augusta that reopened this year as a performing arts venue. As a freshman at New York University in 2010, he began to explore the city’s gay club scene, though he was often told that Grindr had dampened night life.

“I had been at one too many bars or a dinner parties where people were like, um, New York was better in the 80s. You missed it, it’s dead,” he said. “At first I would just write it off and be like, they’re just older, bitter New Yorkers who like complaining. But then I was like, wait a second. They just mentioned all these places in the Village.”

With his curiosity piqued, he pored over books including “Gay New York” by George Chauncey and “The Gay Metropolis” by Charles Kaiser that documented New York’s forgotten gay landmarks and illuminated a lost gay subculture. So after college, when he started working as an events manager for the Municipal Art Society of New York, which sponsors Jane’s Walk, he decided to turn his hobby into a tour.

He organized the first gay bar walk in 2015, starting at the Roxy (515 W. 18th St.), a dance club in the 1990s, then heading east to the Limelight (47 W. 20th St.), a former church that was the epicenter of the ‘90s club kid universe, before heading south to the Anvil (500 W. 14th St.), an after-hours sex club from the 1970s. His first walk attracted a modest crowd of about 20, which doubled by the following spring. (The next tour is not scheduled till next May, but Ryan hopes to organize one sooner.)

To make up for his relative youth, he joined forces with Kyle Supley, 37, a fellow gay history buff and performer, to co-host the walk in 2016. Appropriately enough, they met at Mattachine, a monthly party held at Julius’ (159 W. 10th St.), considered the city’s oldest continuously operating gay bar. Supley even brought some firsthand knowledge to the enterprise, having danced at clubs like Twilo and the Tunnel in their late ‘90s heyday when he was an undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

They also sought out experts to join the walks. This year, Lisa E. Davis, 76, an author on LGBT history, recounted stories of celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland attending late night drag shows at Club 82 (82 E. 4th St.), a subterranean nightclub which operated from 1952-1973. “Straight people came because gay people were so much fun,” she said.

The space is currently home to the Bijou, an adult movie theater. “One day I was walking by with my partner and I was telling him this used to be Club 82. I pushed on the door and it just opened and the smell was like 1974,” Supley said during the tour in May. “We walked downstairs and it’s still a porn theater.”

Other guest speakers included Gregory Young, co-host of the Bowery Boys podcast on New York history, who shared stories about the Slide (157 Bleecker St.), a so-called “fairy den” from the 1890s.

Amanda Davis, a historian for the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, offered a history lesson in front of the former Eve Addams’ Tearoom (129 MacDougal St.), a lesbian hot spot from the mid-1920s run by a Polish-Jewish émigré named Eva Kotchever. A sign on the door, she said, once warned: “Men are admitted, but not welcome.”

Nora Burns, a downtown performer who is part of the comedy trio Unitard, recalled her hazy nights partying with drag queens at Boy Bar (15 St. Marks Pl.), a sweatbox of a club featured in the novel “The Lost Language of Cranes” by David Leavitt.

“On a Thursday night, the shows wouldn’t get started until 1 or 2 in the morning,” said Burns, regaling a crowd gathered around a stoop on St. Marks Place. “The cover was maybe five dollars, but I don’t think anyone paid.”

“It was an amazing night and there’s not anything like that now,” she added, comically imitating a New Yorker lamenting the good old days while, at the same time, winding up for her own punch line. “You missed it!”