Q: What’s going to be the tour’s focus?
A: I’m trying to make it half-and-half, a mix of the familiar with the long-, long-, long-gone, the places that most people wouldn’t know about.
Q: Can you give me an example of a lost landmark?
A: One of the most exciting places is at 3rd and Hennepin, it’s now the site of the Central Library. But it used to be the location of the Onyx Bar.
I know about it because Chuck Rowland — who was later a founder of the Mattachine Society [arguably the country’s first gay rights organization] — talked about it in an early oral history interview.
He said that it was around in the 1930s, and it was a place where men could meet other men. They would wear suits — electric green suits — and lots of jewelry, all of these coded references. I would have loved to have seen that.
I kind of doubt that the Onyx was called a gay bar at the time. That’s a mystery. It showed that people had a lot of dignity, even though they were relegated to these substandard places. It was apparently a total dump, like most of the places in the Gateway. But they were the only places that would knowingly and willingly accept this clientele, because they had nothing else to lose.
Q: Why the emphasis on the Gateway District?
A: The Gateway had this general atmosphere of permissiveness. It was run down and worn out, there was tons of alcohol sold, it had this carnivalesque atmosphere. It was difficult to tell who was straight and who was gay, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Gateway made respectable people uncomfortable, and why they were embarrassed by it. The lines were blurred there, the rules didn’t apply.
It’s fascinating, because the city changes so dramatically all the time, it’s always willfully shedding its old self. When the Gateway was demolished, all the gay bars — places like the Gay 90’s, and the Brass Rail — remained as close to the border of the old neighborhood as possible.
I was also looking at the slums because the police paid more attention to the slums, and the police kept good records. Crime is a more tangible way to find queer history, through arrest records. That’s why the Gateway is so helpful, because there are so many arrest records.
Q: This is a walking tour, right?
A: Yes. We’ll start at the flagpole in Gateway Park, and we’ll weave down Nicollet and Hennepin and 1st Avenue through the old Gateway District, and point out these places that are long gone, more than 60 years. Basically it’s places that no one knows about, places that took me years to find. Then we’ll walk down 4th Street to City Hall.