The never-before-told story of Brooklyn’s vibrant and forgotten queer history, from the mid-1850s up to the present day.
***NAMED ONE OF THE BEST LGBTQ BOOKS OF 2019 by Harper's Bazaar***
"A romantic, exquisite history of gay culture." —Kirkus Reviews, starred
“[A] boisterous, motley new history...entertaining and insightful.” —The New York Times Book Review
Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer is a groundbreaking exploration of the LGBT history of Brooklyn, from the early days of Walt Whitman in the 1850s up through the queer women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, and beyond. No other book, movie, or exhibition has ever told this sweeping story. Not only has Brooklyn always lived in the shadow of queer Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Harlem, but there has also been a systematic erasure of its queer history—a great forgetting.
Ryan is here to unearth that history for the first time. In intimate, evocative, moving prose he discusses in new light the fundamental questions of what history is, who tells it, and how we can only make sense of ourselves through its retelling; and shows how the formation of the Brooklyn we know today is inextricably linked to the stories of the incredible people who created its diverse neighborhoods and cultures. Through them, When Brooklyn Was Queer brings Brooklyn’s queer past to life, and claims its place as a modern classic.
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About the Author
Hugh Ryan is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn. He is the Founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, and sits on the Boards of QED: A Journal in LGBTQ Worldmaking, and the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Buzzfeed, the LA Review of Books, Out, and many other venues. The author of When Brooklyn Was Queer, he is the recipient of the 2016-2017 Martin Duberman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a 2017 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, and a 2018 residency at The Watermill Center.
Read an Excerpt
From Leaves of Grass to the Brooklyn Bridge: The Rise of the Queer Waterfront, 1855–83
On the afternoon of July 4, 1855, Walter Whitman was a lithe but graying thirty-six-year-old hurrying through the busy streets of Brooklyn on his way to immortality. Most days he strolled leisurely through the hurly-burly crowds, stopping to chat with any strapping stevedore or intriguing young clerk who caught his eye, but today he moved with purpose. Nothing would put him off, not the flat gray sky of an incipient summer storm, nor the slippery surface of Brooklyn's cobblestoned streets, nor even the pleasure of raising a glass to America's birthday with some handsome man in a ramshackle sailor saloon. Whitman's destination? A two-story, redbrick printer's shop at the corner of Cranberry and Fulton Streets, run by the Rome brothers. He was picking up the very first printing of his first book of poetry, Leaves of Grass. All spring he'd worked in the convivial atmosphere of the shop, assembling the text, choosing the fonts, and even typesetting some of the pages himself. Now the book was done, and with it, he would etch two names on the ledger of history, forever linking their fame to each other: Whitman and Brooklyn.
Whitman was not yet known as a poet, or, really, as much of anything. The engraved frontispiece of Leaves of Grass shows a sturdy man with a trim graying beard. He wears a black hat but no belt; his gaze is direct; and his right fist sits jauntily on his hip. His demeanor has the air of a provocateur, as though he were about to cock an eyebrow and ask, "Well?" In an anonymous review of Leaves of Grass (almost certainly written by Whitman himself), he was described as being
of pure American breed, large and lusty — age thirty-six years, (1855,) — never once using medicine — never dressed in black, always dressed freely and clean in strong clothes neck open, shirt-collar flat and broad, countenance tawny transparent red, beard well-mottled with white, hair like hay after it has been mowed in the field and lies tossed and streaked — his physiology corroborating a rugged phrenology — a spirit that mixes cheerfully with the world — a person singularly beloved and looked toward, especially by young men and the illiterate.
And that love, according to Leaves of Grass, was amply returned.
Born on Long Island in 1819, Whitman was raised in Brooklyn and returned there at the age of twenty-six. As an adult, he bounced from job to job, including schoolteacher, journalist, publisher of an abolitionist paper, keeper of a print shop, and house builder. He liked long walks on the city's teeming streets and in Brooklyn's rural countryside and had a particular fondness for swimming naked in the streams, ponds, and beaches that dotted its landscape. He loved the opera, the ocean, and the ruddy young men who flooded the city looking for work. In the evenings, he liked to carouse at Pfaff's, a basement bar in Manhattan that was a candlelit version of CBGB — the hottest hangout for the city's most outré artists. But Whitman's early writings consisted mostly of dry editorials and the occasional stilted story. Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, which Whitman published in serial form in 1853, is fairly typical of his early output. It begins:
Punctually at half past 12, the noon-day sun shining flat on the pavement of Wall street, a youth with the pious name of Nathaniel, clapt upon his closely cropt head, a straw hat, for which he had that very morning given the sum of twenty-five cents, and announced his intention of going to his dinner.
Despite its having some pleasing rhythm — "clapt upon his closely cropt head" — no one would ever mistake Whitman for a novelist. His stories were too moralizing and fussy, and they dealt timidly with things of little importance. When that first copy of Leaves of Grass was printed, it would be as dissimilar to Whitman's other writings as it was to nearly all other writing at the time. It was new, brashly and brazenly so — a "barbaric yawp," as its creator termed it, written in free verse. At the time, most American poets wrote with formal meter and rhyme. By breaking with this tradition, Whitman rendered Leaves of Grass more conversational and accessible to a wide range of readers. With it, he answered a challenge from one of the foremost American writers of his day, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist author of "Self- Reliance." More than a decade earlier, Emerson had written an essay entitled "The Poet," which declared that America had produced no great poets as of yet. What defined this new genius according to Emerson?
The poet has a new thought: he has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune. For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet. ...
The poet is the Namer, or Language-maker, naming things sometimes after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another's. ...
I look in vain for the poet whom I describe. We do not, with sufficient plainness, or sufficient profoundness, address ourselves to life, nor dare we chaunt our own times and social circumstance. If we filled the day with bravery, we should not shrink from celebrating it. Time and nature yield us many gifts, but not yet the timely man, the new religion, the reconciler, whom all things await.
Before 1855, no one would have guessed that the unprepossessing Walter Whitman from Huntington, Long Island, would be the poet for whom Emerson waited. Within just weeks of publication, however, Emerson would proclaim Leaves of Grass "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed," full of "incomparable things said incomparably well." Many critics agreed, with the magazine Life Illustrated raving, "It is like no other book that ever was written." But some saw a moral darkness in Whitman's work, "a degrading, beastly sensuality," as a reviewer in The Criterion called it. Its poems celebrated the wondrous diversity of life in Brooklyn, the technological marvels of the nineteenth century, the natural beauty of America, and (for those in the know) love between men. It was so popular that Whitman printed a new version in 1856 — and in 1860, '67, '71, '76, '81, '88, and '92.
Perhaps just as surprising as the sudden emergence of Whitman as a great poet was that he lived in Brooklyn. Although it was still a city in its own right — not yet a satellite borough to Manhattan — Brooklyn, like Whitman, had only just begun to come into its own. Originally spelled Breukelen, it was one of the six Dutch settlements created on the western edge of Long Island in the mid-1600s. At the turn of the nineteenth century, it was a farming hamlet of just six thousand residents, but by 1855, it had incorporated the nearby towns of Williamsburg and Bushwick to become an urban enclave of some two hundred thousand souls. According to Mayor George Hall, by annexing the other two towns, Brooklyn had become "the second city of the Empire," after Manhattan. Mayor Hall numbered among Brooklyn's virtues some nineteen thousand buildings, five hundred streets, thirty-seven hundred public lamps (twenty-six hundred of which used gas!), and eight and a half miles of industrious waterfront. Brooklyn possessed such incredible resources, wrote Mayor Hall, that no one could "set bounds on [its] future greatness." After the publication of Leaves of Grass, the same could be said for Walt Whitman.
The pulsing heart of this new American city was the Fulton Ferry landing, just a few blocks from the Rome brothers' print shop, where dozens of steamboats hauled passengers and supplies in an endless loop between the sister cities, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Here, the sounds of lapping water and hungry gulls provided a constant backdrop to the polyglot shouts of sailors, the creaking of carriage wheels, and the heavy thuds of an endless stream of cargo being unloaded. Anyone looking for passage across the East River had to take the ferry, which made for unparalleled people-watching. Within just a few minutes, you could encounter wealthy Quaker women heading to Manhattan in horse-drawn carriages, Filipino cooks buying provisions for ships docked down in Red Hook, boisterous young sailors on leave from the navy, and tweed-suited titans of industry investigating their goods with monocled eyes. These variegated multitudes provided Whitman with an "impalpable sustenance," an endless chance to marvel at the greatness of the world. Perhaps just as important, the ferry provided an endless chance to marvel at the greatness of young men.
Whitman immortalized the vitality of the Fulton Ferry landing in his poem "Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry," which contains perhaps the first description of cruising in American literature. Whitman wrote of loving those "who look back on me because I look'd forward to them" — a poetic invocation of the backward glance that is often the first step in the delicate business of expressing clandestine desire. Later in the poem, the object of that glance is made clear, as Whitman recalls the "loud voices of young men" hailing him in the streets, and how he
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word
As surely as Leaves of Grass linked Whitman and Brooklyn for eternity, lines such as these indelibly connected Whitman to the generations of queer people who would come after him, people for whom urban life — Brooklyn life — provided the opportunity to express desires that were largely incompatible with the agrarian, family-based culture that predominated in America before the mid-nineteenth century. For the next hundred years, the development of Brooklyn would neatly track with the development of our modern ideas of sexuality. Whitman stands like a beacon at the beginning of both — a beacon located squarely on the waterfront, the economic engine that powered Brooklyn. To understand queer Brooklyn, or Brooklyn at all, you have to start with the water.
Brooklyn's sudden transformation from farm town to "second city of the Empire" can be traced to one waterway in particular: the Erie Canal, which connected the upper Hudson River to Lake Erie, the gateway to the West. When the canal opened in 1825, it immediately redefined trade in America. According to The Erie Canal: A Brief History, "within 15 years of the Canal's opening, New York was the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined." The canal also redrew the map of the state: nearly every major modern city in New York today is along the route of the canal. As the terminus of this great trade, New York City was perhaps the single most important shipping location in the world. In just the year after the canal opened, five hundred new mercantile companies were launched in the city.
There was just one problem: By the mid-1830s, the city's harbor was maxed out. Dense lower Manhattan simply had no room for the docks, warehouses, and other attendant industries that all of this new trade needed. Moreover, many of the piers were in poor condition, having gone unmaintained for years. Land speculators in Brooklyn rushed to fill this gap, starting in Red Hook (a neighborhood entirely along the waterfront, which is today mostly known for having NYC's only IKEA). According to Joseph Alexiou's Gowanus: Brooklyn's Curious Canal, one of the first groups to try to capitalize on the need for more shipping space was the Red Hook Building Company. In an internal memo from 1838, they wrote that the new shipping businesses coming to the city
cannot, with convenience, intermix with the shipping at the crowded docks of New York ... they require space. They must have coal yards and warehouses in the immediate vicinity of their docks. Where shall they go? Where can they go but Brooklyn?
Unfortunately, their plan went nowhere, but soon the Atlantic Dock Company succeeded where the Red Hook Building Company had failed. In 1846, they turned forty-two acres of marshy Red Hook coastland into the Atlantic Docks, which included dozens of piers, bulkheads, docks, warehouses, and one of the first steam-powered grain elevators in America. The basin they created could house one hundred ships at a time, turning Brooklyn into an "international center of commerce." The growth in trade created a bevy of new jobs, ranging from unskilled hauling to highly specialized shipbuilding. By the mid-1800s, Brooklyn was one of the leading manufacturers in the country for a wide range of products, from sugar, to rope, to white lead, to whiskey.
This new industrial waterfront created the conditions that allowed queer lives to flourish in Brooklyn. As America transitioned away from a primarily farming economy, the extended family — once the main economic unit in the country — began to lose importance. New urban jobs allowed (some) people in Brooklyn to carve out separate space for themselves, far from their parents or anyone who knew them. Victorian culture mandated strict separations between men and women, meaning that most of these jobs were either all-male or all-female. Huge numbers of immigrants, mostly unaccompanied men, came to New York to meet this demand for laborers, creating large working-class bachelor subcultures where heterosexual sex (outside of prostitution) could be hard to find. The trading routes that created these jobs didn't just move goods, however; they also moved people and ideas — meaning that the average Brooklyn laborer had much greater exposure to other cultures (and their sexual mores) than did most other Americans. Many of these new Brooklyn residents were transient, living in the city only seasonally or for a few years at a time, enabling them to settle in these raucous neighborhoods with relative anonymity. Finally, since shipping and manufacturing were dirty endeavors, waterfront neighborhoods were often undesirable, inexpensive, and only lightly policed. One of the few drawbacks to Brooklyn cited by Mayor Hall in 1855 was that its police lacked the "qualifications and fitness for office." Thus, Brooklyn's waterfront offered the density, privacy, diversity, and economic possibility that would allow queer people to find one another in ever-increasing numbers (though these freedoms would not be enjoyed equally by all queer people). The waterfront was no monolith, however, and different parts of it offered different opportunities, to different communities, in different eras. But by the time Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass, the areas that offered the most support to the earliest queer communities in Brooklyn were already established neighborhoods drawing new residents from around the world.
A visitor to Brooklyn in 1855 would step off the ferry onto Old Fulton Street, which roughly bisected the city. To the east was low-lying Vinegar Hill, a working-class, dockside neighborhood with a large Irish population. The area was a warren of poorly constructed, tightly packed row houses and dirty businesses, filled with the sharp smells of varnish being manufactured and iron being smelted. Bootlegging was a major business in Vinegar Hill, from small-scale home distilleries making poteen, or Irish moonshine, to industrial-size whiskey and rum operations. These illegal establishments were so prominent that when the federal government tried to clamp down on them for tax purposes in 1870, it had to flood the neighborhood with more than two thousand soldiers, in a series of pitched battles known as the Whiskey Wars.
Vinegar Hill was bordered to the south by Sands Street, an important thoroughfare that connected Old Fulton Street with the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which sat on the western edge of Vinegar Hill. The yard was the city's most important military base and the largest navy yard in the country, a sprawling complex that was home to innumerable sailors. Inaugurated in 1801 by President John Adams, the yard was a center for early American shipbuilding, military education, and technological innovation. In 1815, the first steam-powered warship, the USS Fulton, was built here, and the Naval Lyceum (the precursor to the US Naval Academy) was founded here in 1833. By Whitman's time, some six thousand men were employed in the Navy Yard's nearly two-hundred-acre campus.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "When Brooklyn Was Queer"
Copyright © 2019 Hugh Ryan.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface: Brooklyn, Thanksgiving, 1940
Chapter 1: From Leaves of Grass to the Brooklyn Bridge: The Rise of the Queer Waterfront, 1855-1883
Chapter 2: Becoming Visible, 1883-1910
Chapter 3: Criminal Perverts, 1910-1920
Chapter 4: A Growing World, 1920-1930
Chapter 5: “The Beginning of the End,” 1930-1940
Chapter 6: Brooklyn at War, 1940-1945
Chapter 7: The Great Erasure, 1945-1969