Winding south from Waverly Place, north to Christopher Street, Gay Street is one of the shortest stretches of road in New York. But its mythology runs long. Let’s begin with the question “Why is it called Gay Street?’” There is no conclusive answer but plenty of postured certainty.
It is called Gay Street because it is in the middle of Greenwich Village, once the center of gay life in the city. It is called Gay Street to commemorate the abolitionist Sydney Howard Gay. It is called Gay Street because the Village had always been a “gay” place in the cordials-and-parlor-games sense of the term.
For the time being — and perhaps forever — Gay Street is now called by many names. In commemoration of World Pride in June, the street sign appearing on the north end of the block was accompanied by ten others. They appeared in a rainbow of colors and read (in descending order): Lesbian Street, Bisexual Street, Trans Street, Queer Street, Intersex Street, Asexual Street, Nonbinary Street, Pansexual Street, Two Spirit Street and + Street, with the plus sign designating any group that might feel excluded.
In contrast to so much of Greenwich Village, which can feel like a satellite campus of Hedge Fund University, Gay Street still retains the character of an old, bohemian left. When the signs initially went up, they were meant to be temporary. No one on Gay Street complained. This is not Jordan Peterson country. But more recently, as it has become clear that they were likely to remain, objections have been raised.
This week, Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist and curator emeritus at the Museum of Natural History, sent an email to the president of his community board. He wished to “vigorously oppose” permanent status, he wrote, “because the effect of this verbal extravagance is to trivialize the very significant history of Gay Street.”
Mr. Tattersall has lived on Gay Street for 42 years, roughly half of them with his wife, Jeanne Kelly. The street, in fact, holds a prominent place in the city’s African-American history and, like the rest of the Village, in its broader cultural narrative as a home to writers, artists and musicians of different races and ethnicities.
The couple’s next-door neighbor, until he died in 1995, was William Kunstler, the civil-rights lawyer who represented Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders, the Chicago Seven, the Black Panthers and many other activists who were vital to the social transformations of the 1960s. Decades earlier, in the 1920s, Ms. Kelly told me, two African-American artists lived in their house and ran a gallery on the first floor. A renovation many years ago turned up tiny replicas of black Civil War soldiers.
Will this past be honored if the street has 10 different names — all of them referring to gender and sexual identity and none of them to race? Ms. Kelly worried that it would not. In any event, the new signage bothered her in a way that was painful, given that she is a committed liberal and views herself as a lifelong supporter of L.G.B.T.Q. rights.
“It is an advertisement, not a celebration,” she told me as we sat in her living room on a recent morning, where she and her husband still kept a turntable and cassette deck.
The signage is, in fact, an advertisement of a kind. The idea was generated not from social justice warriors who campaigned before City Hall but rather from Mastercard. It was Mastercard that took the concept to the city’s Commission on Human Rights. Even though there is no logo announcing itself on the installation, word of the lineage has gotten around and triggered an uneasiness in a part of the world already fatigued by corporate interference in gay life.
It was Mastercard, with the expressed support of various L.G.B.T.Q. groups, that sent a letter to the city’s transportation commissioner in July, advocating for the signs to remain. The city’s transportation department installs street signs, but it has virtually nothing to do with what they are named, decisions that fall under the purview of community boards and ultimately the City Council.
Historians assume Gay Street was given its name in the 1820s; it appears officially in city records for the first time in 1827. During the turn of the 19th century, many African-Americans who were domestic workers for the wealthy families living on and around Washington Square made their homes there. It is because of these associations that people who have lived on the block liked to think about the street in relation to Sydney Howard Gay, the editor of The National Anti-Slavery Standard and a key operative in the Underground Railroad, which some believe might have included stops on the block.
It seems unlikely the street honors him: Sydney Howard Gay would have been 13 years old in 1827. Still, people might think about his antislavery crusade when they see the sign; they might think about the lives of African-Americans in New York in the decades after the Civil War. Alternatively, they might have no idea who Sydney Howard Gay actually was and be thinking only about how much they can comfortably put on their Mastercard around the corner at Leffot, the home of the $775 Dearborn ankle boot. In this case, it might serve the greater good to move past street signs and mount a plaque outlining the street’s history.
It seems clear that Gay Street was named for a man named Gay — someone, according to property records, living on the Bowery in the late 1700s, someone whose distinctions have been lost to the past.
Gay Street is also just around the corner from the Stonewall Inn, a landmark to the movement for L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and Christopher Park, formerly Sheridan Square, a national park dedicated to celebrating those rights. Ms. Kelly would like to see the new signage moved there. Her friend Margaret Kunstler, who no longer lives on Gay Street but still owns the house that she shared with her husband there, would simply prefer to see the Gay Street sign reprinted as a rainbow. The new signs make a mockery of the word ‘“gay,” she wrote to Ms. Kelly in an email, “something bigots did and still do.”