Curbside in 1960s Greenwich Village: Queer Activism and a Children’s Workshop

In this, the third and final entry into the Fifth Annual Urban History Association/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest, Rachel Pitkin follows the story of activist Katy Van Deurs’s “Workshop of the Children” (1961-64) in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which some community members embraced and others protested, and examines how the experience led Van Deur to more fully embrace her queer identity.

When activist Kady (born Kathleen) Van Deurs moved into an abandoned store front on West 10th Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1961, she did not plan on organizing an official non-profit from its sidewalk—especially not one that functioned as a toy and craft-making studio space for children. Living with housing insecurity and on the edge of poverty, Van Deurs cautiously, though illegally, attempted to call the windowed shop home. Eventually, so too would many of her racially and ethnically diverse neighbors who also came from impoverished or working poor backgrounds. Though short-lived, hundreds of Greenwich Village children claimed “Workshop of the Children” (Workshop) as their neighborhood space at the height of its popularity from 1961-1964. For Van Deurs, a lesbian-identifying woman struggling to live and work within city and psychiatric systems hostile to queer people, the experience of running Workshop was crucial in shaping the trajectory of her humanitarian work, and in helping her embrace her LGBTQ+ identity. Despite the enthusiasm from prominent community advocates such as Jane Jacobs and practitioners at the Lower East Side Quaker Meeting House, the experimental sidewalk shop never found a permanent home. Still, its presence offers a glimpse into intergenerational race relations and a unique form of queer activism not popularly associated with the LGBTQ+ rights movement in twentieth-century New York City.

Van Deurs spent most of the years that preceded Workshop either displaced or relocating between various southern towns and New York neighborhoods. After being cast out of her childhood home in Poley, Alabama, by her homophobic father—a WWII veteran who associated her lesbianism with communism and bolshevism—she found support from underground networks of other queer women who eventually grew to be family. Van Deurs was one of many who maintained covert community connections, but attempted to keep them secret from employers, landlords, and authorities who used anti-LGBTQ+ laws to criminalize and disempower queer individuals. But despite housing support from friends, most of Van Deurs’s employment was marginal. Though a writer and artist at heart, she accepted work where she could find it: laboring in gig journalism, mimeographing books at various shops along Fourth Avenue’s “second hand book row,” and even setting type and doing odd jobs in Weiser Bookshop, the “supermarket of the occult” that stood on Broadway, just below 8th Street.[1] At worst, pay was nonexistent or was just enough to cover rent; at best, it was inconsistent and unreliable. Though she eventually found comradery in activism through the very ties of queer kinship that sustained her in the fifties and sixties, Van Deurs spent most of her life working in poor and housing insecure socioeconomic conditions, which were exacerbated by destructive practices she endured while cycling in and out of psychiatric institutions in the years prior to Workshop.  

Cover image of the self-published autobiography of Kady Van Deurs, “The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me: Autobiography of a Lesbian,” 1978. Photo taken by Diana Davies at the “Hold Hands” demonstration on May 6, 1973, in which over 600 members of the LGBTQ+ community representing various New York City area gay rights groups marched across the George Washington Bridge in a show of solidarity. Van Deurs is pictured on the bridge, holding a banner that reads “Lesbian Liberation Committee,” a sub-comittee of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), which was later renamed Lesbian Feminist Liberation after departing from the GAA.

In February of 1961, at the age of 33—just a few short months before the first group of children curiously watched as she built kitchen cabinets from the edge of her apartment sidewalk—Van Deurs gave away her dog, destroyed all of her writing, and visited Rockaway Beach “to walk out into the Atlantic Ocean.”[2] It was the second time in her life she remembered experiencing suicidal thoughts. The first resulted in her father throwing her out of their house in Alabama upon learning she was a lesbian. In one of their last, explosive fights, he told her to go to Russia. She went to New York City instead.[3] Though by leaving she was able to escape the proximity of her father’s emotional abuse, even from afar her relationship to and role within her family persisted as a constant struggle throughout her life. Early that morning, before heading to Rockaway, Van Deurs wrote to a friend named Llewelyn and explained that she was attempting to “conduct herself with dignity,” but that she mostly “felt and cared about nothing.” She added that she had not written to her family in quite some time, but asked that if Llewelyn had contact with them to explain that she was “looking well.” [4]

But instead of walking into the ocean, she trudged in her winter gear and boots to the Far Rockaway stop of the C train and rode it to a city hospital in Queens where she disclosed to the doctors there that, without help, she feared she might take her own life. Without room for more patients—“too many people going crazy,” as Van Deurs put it—she was discharged with a prescription for Marplan, a drug that was regularly used to treat severe depression throughout the sixties. It came in the form of small, orange pills, the effects of which Van Deurs described as a “sort of chemical lobotomy.”[5] It would take over a decade before the American Psychiatric Association (APA) would remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, and after witnessing fellow patients endure the effects of electroshock therapy and experimental methods for treating same-sex desire and gender variance in a previous institution, Van Deurs feared what being permanently recommitted to an “asylum” might mean for her—physically and mentally, but also for her ability to find work and housing. She left the hospital with the Marplan and, though sometimes begrudgingly, continued taking it on and off for the next decade.

It was then that she moved into the abandoned storefront on West Tenth Street with a friend named Carol, a period in Van Deurs’s life that would intersect with some of the most powerful names in twentieth-century New York City housing activism and prompt her to apply skills of carpentry in the space that eventually became the first iteration of Workshop. The two attempted to sell baby poodle puppies that they placed into the picture window, but the dogs’ primary purpose was to serve as a front for their illegal housing plans. The arrangement was not unique to Greenwich Village at the time; the Committee to Save the West Village, originally established in 1955 and led by preservationist Jane Jacobs, formed an experimental housing sub-committee with the goal of “looking into all types of new housing,” which involved identifying vacant lots, artists’ lofts, and opportunities for housing cooperatives within the neighborhood and beyond its borders.[6] The small shops along West Tenth Street that flourished within the post-WWII economy were abandoned by the sixties, and, so long as Van Deurs paid to rent the storefront, the owner ignored the squatting. The two friends painted, secured a wash tub for bathing, and hid a small stove behind the counter near the picture window. They were gifted a used couch from another friend in the neighborhood, but Van Deurs took to building and repairing whatever housewares she could by hand, curbside: cabinetry, shelving, even fixing replacement floor boards. As she continued the work, neighborhood children began to notice.

At first the children watched from safe distances as Van Deurs built objects. A group of friends whom she referred to as “The Jane Gang” stood on top of garbage bins, whispering and pointing as Van Deurs painted, before eventually working up the courage to join in with a few other neighbors. Gradually, other children began stopping by on their way home from school. In October of 1961, reporter Martin Tolchin from the New York Times also took notice: “Sidewalk is Converted into a Carpentry Shop,” read the headline.[7] The “informal arts and crafts workshop,” as he referred to it, gave children the opportunity to repurpose disposed materials and objects. From abandoned buggies, roller skates, and discarded wood planks, the children built scooters, bookshelves, and learned how to paint and make clay. A sign that hung in the window where Van Deurs had originally made a home for the poodle puppies read:

“Children come here to paint and make things out of clay and whatever we have. They wanted a place to work and this just grew. There is no charge. They come and go as they like. And so do we. The children can thank good neighbors who are giving paints, paper, and clay.”[8]

Though Workshop already held a prominent place amongst residents of Greenwich Village, initial coverage helped amplify its reputation. Reporters visited the sidewalk space regularly to write about Van Deurs and the children to the point where she “got famous.”[9] Despite its popularity, the project was largely supported by neighbors’ donations, community organizations like the Quaker Church, and benefactors who helped with overhead costs, albeit inconsistently. It became so important it was even prioritized as an action item by the Committee to Save the West Village, which sought to channel “neighborhood support for the Workshop, and manpower assistance to Kay Van Deurs, and help in procuring materials.”[10]

Workshop coverage, though, also revealed the complicated nature of race relations and issues that plagued the success of the project, especially when compared to Van Deurs’s personal notes on its dismantling in 1964. In her autobiography she estimated over 500 children frequented the project at one point or another through its three-year existence. About a third of the children were Black, a third Puerto Rican, and a third white, mostly of recently immigrated Irish and Italian families. When the New York Daily News reported on its closure, it lamented the “high rents” that closed “the kid project which taught racial harmony.”[11] A romanticized view, for even if the project fostered aspects of interracial cooperation amongst the children, some of the adults unaffiliated with the project felt otherwise. In 1963 neighborhood residents took her to court, Van Deurs suspected because they “began to hate having all those children—so many of them Black and Puerto Rican—on the block.”[12] As a result, Workshop was driven from building to building and struggled to find a permanent home.

In the spring of 1964, Van Deurs received a letter from the New York City mayoral office of Robert F. Wagner, which acknowledged the receipt of a petition signed by the parents whose children came to rely on Workshop and lamented its closing. “It is unfortunate,” Wagner wrote, “that a project which has helped so many children and has had such favorable publicity must be terminated because private contributions and grants were not sufficient to maintain the project without public funds.”[13] Wagner also directed her toward the Department of Welfare to appeal for possible funds, but added that they would be contingent on “staff certifications and licensing.”[14]

The contents of Wagner’s note were unsurprising to Van Deurs. She felt that she had failed to raise the funds to hire necessary staff and especially recognized the need for a social worker, a role she was unable to fulfill. But she also expressed deeper worries as the strength of the project waned. Again, in a letter to Llewelyn, she explained:

“There is always a fear gnawing that some angry heiress or rabid Republican will leap out and smash us with some lurid account of my disreputable past. Fund raising and the desireability (sic) of approval by all kinds of government and civic organizations make me feel I’m supposed to be some kind of angel on top of a Christmas tree. And I have tried, but the desire to try reminds me that I am trapped and phony. I feel certain I want to be free to be disreputable if I feel like it. I don’t want to want approval. I just want to do things because they seem worth doing- because I feel like trying.”[15]

Van Deurs’s sentiments mirrored many others in New York’s queer community who likewise feared criminalization and targeting by the NYPD and distrusted city services that were often inaccessible, and sometimes life-threatening, to them. She added that she was “burned out” and “used up,” and that she actually collapsed, though she offers little detail surrounding the circumstances of the event. At the urging of her mother (her father’s perspective is left out of her recollections at this point), she traveled back to Poley for a month’s rest with her parents before returning back to New York, at which point Workshop was dismantled after the two volunteers who supervised in Van Deurs’s absence could no longer work for free.

Cover image of “Panhandling Papers,” written and self-published by Kady Van Deurs in 1989. The work is a compilation of select pieces of Van Deurs’ writing, chronicling her activism throughout the late seventies and eighties. The portrait, by Paula Gottlieb (1981), highlights Van Deurs’ work as a silversmith by prominently featuring multiple labrys-inspired necklaces – objects that earned her the nickname “Axemaker to the Queen.” The labrys was a double-sided battle axe depicted in portrayals of the Mother Goddess of the ancient Minoan Civilization that flourished in the Aegean world until 1450 B.C., and claimed by many lesbian feminists in the Gay and Women’s Liberation Movements.

The story of queer activism in twentieth century New York City is usually associated with the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the subsequent period of Gay Liberation that followed. And though Van Deurs eventually became a dedicated member of gay rights groups such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), she was not associated with the altercations between police and queer patrons that occurred throughout the course of the riots. When violence broke out in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, Van Deurs was two blocks away in an apartment on Bleecker Street. She had just gotten home from a 5th Avenue Peace Parade Committee meeting (an anti-Vietnam War activist group) when her lover ran into her apartment at 3 a.m. to tell her about the situation at the Stonewall Inn. At the time, she explained that she just “didn’t understand.”[16] A week later, when she heard that gay activists were meeting in Washington Square Park, she decided not to attend out of fear of attending a “gay meeting,” still reluctant to publicly identify as a lesbian. Just two years later, though, she felt differently about openly affiliating herself with Gay Liberation. At the urging of friend and photographer Diana Davies, Van Deurs went to Albany on a chartered bus to “change the state laws against homosexuals.” Davies, in broad daylight, captured her image on the steps of the state capitol building, holding a sign that read “REPEAL SODOMY STATUTES.”[17]

            That event, the first ever “Gay Rights March on Albany” in March of 1971, proved consequential to the future of Van Deurs’s activism. From that point forward, she devoted her activity to the Gay and Women’s Liberation Movements, the Women’s Peace Movement, and the Anti-War Movement. Many of the fears she experienced while running the Workshop of the Children seemed to dissipate as she formed relationships with like-minded activists who also had the courage or means to openly identify as queer in the post-Stonewall years, challenging the very same state statutes that kept many closeted and fearful, even aiding in the collapse of Workshop. Still, for all the joy in activism that she eventually found, Van Deurs remembered separation from the children she grew to know on a daily basis through Workshop as “one of the great disasters” of her life.[18]

Kady Van Deurs’s experience in organizing Workshop of the Children provides unique insight into community advocacy, race relations, and even aspects of childhood within forces of urbanization in post-WWII Greenwich Village. Contextualized within an antagonistic relationship to city systems that forced many in the LGBTQ+ community to the margins of society, it complicates our understandings of queer activism in New York City, decentral to the Stonewall Riots. It also portrays—albeit very briefly—shared, intergenerational agency, experienced by some of the most neglected individuals in narratives of twentieth-century activism. Years after its dismantling, while traversing the meandering Greenwich Village grid and fighting for Women’s and Gay Liberation with comrades in the seventies, Van Deurs continued to run into children of Workshop from time-to-time. Regulars like Wendy, Carlos, and members of “The Jane Gang,” who first observed her handiwork outside of the abandoned store front on West 10th Street, would excitedly update Van Deurs with the news of their lives and those of other children—reminders of the optimism they sparked within her as she struggled to survive, and perhaps a mutually shared nostalgia for their quirky sidewalk community, as transient and temporary as it was.

Rachel Pitkin (she/her) is a graduate student in the joint New York Historical Society/CUNY SPS Museum Studies program, with a focus on Public and Queer History/Interpretation. She holds a BA in History from SUNY Geneseo and an MA in History from CUNY Queens College where her thesis projects centered on women, gender, and conservative field formations in twentieth-century United States. She is a member of the volunteer archival team at The LGBT Community Center National History Archive, and teaches International Baccalaureate History in New York City. Her current curatorial project, “Homoscopes: Queer Spirituality in 1970s Lesbian Print,” explores the connections between alternative belief systems and Gay/Women’s Liberation Movement activism within the Women in Print Movement of the seventies and will be installed at the Interference Archive in Brooklyn, New York, in the spring of 2022. A Buffalonian at heart who calls Queens home, she can be reached via email and @RaePitkin on Twitter.

Featured image (at top): “Fantasies Billow by Shy Lesbian Fantasies” (ca. 1973), Women’s Graphic Collective, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] “Inside Occult New York,” New York Times, 29 October 1976.

[2] Kady Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, (Youngsville, NY: Kady Van Deurs, 1978), 35.

[3] Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, 9.

[4] Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, 34.

[5] Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, 34.

[6] West Village Committee, Newsletter, vol. 2, no. 1, 10 March 1962,

[7] Martin Tolchin, “Sidewalk is Converted into a Carpentry Shop,” New York Times, 23 October 1961.

[8] Tolchin, “Sidewalk is Converted into a Carpentry Shop.”

[9] Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, 43.

[10] West Village Committee, Newsletter.

[11] Otto Penzler, “High Rent Closes Kid Project Which Taught Racial Harmony,” Daily News (New York), 26 April 1964.

[12] Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, 44.

[13] Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, 53.

[14] Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, 53.

[15] Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, 52.

[16] Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, 91.

[17] Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, 93.

[18] Van Deurs, The Notebooks That Emma Gave Me, 55.

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