Leafy Blocks and Working Docks: Tracing Queer Community in pre-Stonewall Brooklyn

By Kate Uva 

On the (Queer) Waterfront, co-curated by Hugh Ryan and Avram Finkelstein, is a welcome accompaniment to Ryan’s new work When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History. The book is an engaging, wide-ranging, and scrupulously inclusive exploration of how Brooklyn supported queer communities and identity formation between the 1860s and the 1950s. The exhibition, on view at the Brooklyn Historical Society through August 4th, focuses more narrowly on Brooklyn’s waterfront. The wall text argues that the waterfront provided “plentiful jobs, urban anonymity, inexpensive housing, and cross-cultural intermingling,” all of which supported a distinctly urban queerness in the pre-Stonewall era.

In a regrettably small gallery, the exhibition bookends the period under examination with, first, the completion of the Erie Canal in the 1820s and, second, the decline of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the advent of urban renewal projects that destroyed specific queer gathering places along Sands Street in the 1950s. On the (Queer) Waterfront considers the appeal of Brooklyn’s waterfront to queer people grouped by vocation: there are respective sections for artists, performers, sex workers, sailors, and female factory workers.

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Perhaps because of the small gallery space, or perhaps because of the narrower focus than When Brooklyn Was Queer, the exhibit does suffer from a lack of context. In trying to represent a community that was so multifaceted, amorphous, and sometimes consciously hidden by its own participants, more interpretive material would have been welcome. For example, a map plotting the locations of bars, docks, and residences mentioned in the exhibition might have been included.

Despite some interpretive limitations, likely owing to institutional constraints rather than the curators’ choices, there are some real gems in the show. The highlights are the many rare, informative, and often poignant artifacts. In a case in the center of the gallery, there is an 1861 notebook featuring a sketch of a brawny dock worker, a private and clearly sensual tribute that is mirrored on the opposite wall by Edward P. Casey’s 1936 painting of naked swimmers. Seventy-five years separate these images: one was casual and meant for private use while the other was trained and public-facing. Yet both share a fascination with and appreciation for the male form and the opportunities the waterfront provided for admiring it.

Elsewhere, the sheer ordinariness of some objects proves quite moving. Shipyard worker Anne Moses’ 1940s-era scrapbook contains page after page of homosocial groups of women in pants enjoying each other’s company. There is something undeniably empowering about seeing these pre-Stonewall affirmations of queer life without any indicators of shame or fear. Indeed, one of the strengths of the show is that it emphasizes an archive (disparate and limited, to be sure) of queer people, by queer people. In other words, this exhibit displays a conscious move away from the traditional reliance on police records and the often pejorative press coverage that provides such an important but problematic trove of information about queer people of the period.

Uva2An interesting but somewhat underexplored theme in this show is the interplay between transience and permanence in Brooklyn. While the steady stream of sailors and the distance from Manhattan provided welcome anonymity to many, there are also several accounts in the gallery of people deliberately making homes in Brooklyn and seeking to put down roots. As author Carson McCullers observed in a 1941 magazine article, her block in Brooklyn Heights “has a quietness and sense of permanence that seem to belong to the nineteenth century.” In classic New York fashion, that stability would prove illusory; just four years later, the house she had lived in while writing that article would be demolished and her block reshaped to accommodate the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Ultimately, On the (Queer) Waterfront is a compelling collage that hints at the diversity of queer life in Brooklyn and helps undo the still-prevalent myth that queer people were all isolated, miserable, or even nonexistent before the 1960s. While there are some interpretive gaps, the opportunity to see rare queer artifacts collected in one place should not be missed. As one visitor noted in the exhibition’s guestbook, “I want to surround myself in queer debris!”

Katie Uva is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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