A Guide to Where L.A.'s Gays Came of Age

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a Sunday night at Le Barcito, a Silver Lake bar located next to a laundermat on an unglamorous stretch of Sunset Boulevard.

The crowd of about 200--mainly gay Latino men--was ending the weekend with some beer, a few games of pool and a raucous stage show by a Jennifer Lopez-wannabe of indeterminate gender. As the room swayed, the club was a place more for the chase of instant gratification than for the study of historic preservation. Or so it appeared to an outsider unaware of its past.

Thirty-four years ago, the spot was a gay bar too, but back then it was called The Black Cat and was the target of frequent police raids. Out of frustration, gay activists organized a protest there against the LAPD in 1967--a year and a half before the far more famous gay uprising against police harassment at the Stonewall bar in New York. Although more low key, the Black Cat demonstration is now considered a seminal event in a national social movement.

That protest is not much remembered at the club nowadays. "I wasn't even born in 1967," the bartender said with a shrug.

However, Jeffrey Samudio, a 34-year-old Los Angeles architect and historic preservationist who was an infant in 1967, thinks that everyone--gay and straight--should take note of what happened there and at 30 other sites around the Los Angeles area. That's why he and two collaborators compiled and recently published what is thought to be the first formal guide to gay and lesbian-oriented history in Los Angeles area.

The map, a single sheet that unfolds, offers a driving-and-walking tour, mainly through downtown L.A., Silver Lake, Hollywood and West Hollywood. It is not for the prudish or homophobic. And with some of the landmarks now demolished or altered, it is not an itinerary of architectural splendors, although it does include a few beautiful buildings.

"History isn't only made in cathedrals or Taj Mahals," said Samudio, at the wheel of his red '94 Camaro while taking a reporter on a tour of some of the guide's highlights. "Extraordinary courage occurred in a lot of ordinary spaces."

Raised in Mount Washington and educated at USC, Samudio acknowledged that his coming-out to gay life was eased by the struggles of older generations whose homes, offices, churches and gathering spots (including some locales known for sexual trysts) are part of the tour. "I think there is a debt of gratitude there and a curiosity about how difficult it really was, how oppressive it was and what it took to survive," said Samudio, who was the project coordinator.

Funded in part with a $1,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the "Gay and Lesbian L.A. History Map" grew out of Bill Adair's UCLA urban planning graduate school thesis that explored gay landmarks. The project's third partner, Moira Kenney, is a UC Berkeley urban planner and author of a forthcoming book on gay activism. Adair, Kenney and Samudio spent three years tracking down older gays and lesbians and visiting sites. Between conflicting memories and transient landscapes, the trio sought corroboration through, among other things, police records and the gay-oriented ONE Institute & Archives, a library affiliated with USC.

The map, on one hand, symbolizes how the history of minorities in America has entered the mainstream. But, as with African American or Jewish history tours of L.A., there also is a sense of the city as a pile of parallel universes. Where one person sees a dumpy bar, another sees a room radiating with significance. What can appear to be an unremarkable park bathroom becomes, on the gay map, a juncture of personal and sexual liberation.

"The thing I was interested in was ways of finding the places and spaces that are completely ignored and putting gay history back into those buildings," recalled Adair, who runs public education programs at a historic house in Philadelphia.

But which sites to include? The early gay liberation movement was splintered, and some of that echoes in criticism of the map's choices. Plus, in this demolition-happy city, there are ghosts of buildings. (And, because of AIDS, ghosts of people too.)

For example, the map directs sightseers to 1612-1614 Wilshire Blvd., where the first gay and lesbian community center in the U.S. was founded in 1970 in Victorian houses just west of downtown. The houses have since been demolished; the site is an empty lot today.

Anthony Veerkamp, a senior program officer at the western regional office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said his organization gave $1,000 for the gay map research because there didn't seem to be anything else quite like it. San Francisco and New York have gay history walking tours, and New York and Boston offer similar maps, but this one seemed based on the most detailed research, Veerkamp said.

Besides, he added, "Los Angeles seems an especially private city. Things aren't self-evident to the uninitiated. So there may be a greater need for this kind of resource than in places like New York, Boston or San Francisco, which have more public spaces for interaction."

The Stonewall bar in Manhattan was declared a national historic landmark last year. Of the 31 locations on the Los Angeles map, the one most likely to be considered for similar designation, Samudio said, is a beige and white two-story wood-frame house on Cove Avenue with spectacular hilltop views of the Silver Lake reservoir. It was the home of Harry Hay, who hosted the founding meetings of the Mattachine Society there in 1951. In an era of police harassment, the formation of that underground homosexual-rights group was a brave move, historians say. It came at a time, after World War II, when L.A. was becoming a gay mecca, especially for Pacific theater servicemen and servicewomen who did not want to return to Kansas.

The house was purchased about a year ago by a television writer who is gay but did not know about Hay at the time. Now, he says, he is delighted: "I thought it was cool it was so important." (Hay, 89, lives in San Francisco. Although he was interviewed for the map and was glad to hear of its publication, he has yet to see it.)

The former West 4th Street home of another pioneer of gay rights, Morris Kight, is represented on the tour. Today, the white hillside bungalow on a graffiti-sprayed Westlake-area block is not much to look at.

Kight, an energetic 81, has complaints about the map, including addresses, deletions of what he considered other significant sites and details about the 1969 founding of the L.A. Gay Liberation Front at the 4th Street house. He said he hopes for fixes in any future edition. "I compliment anyone who attempts to give a historicity to an exciting gay and lesbian liberation movement," said Kight, "but I just wish they spent another day on it."

The map's authors seemed stunned by Kight's criticism and stressed that he was one of its main sources and reviewed it before publication. The authors' self-criticism is that the map is too heavily weighted toward gay white men. Oral histories about black, Latino and Asian men and lesbians were more difficult to corroborate, they said.

"The truth was that the lesbian community in the '30s, '40s and '50s was so much more ephemeral than the gay community was. Bars lasted for short times, and women who had been to the bars couldn't remember all the locations," explained Kenney, whose book about gay and lesbian activism in the last three decades, "Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Place and Politics" (Temple University Press), is to be published in August.

But enough remains to give a sense of alternative history. For example, Pershing Square and MacArthur Park, both fabled sexual cruising spots, are noted, as are the regular police busts that took place there.

Other highlights of the tour include the Pico-Union site of the first building owned by the Metropolitan Community Church, destroyed in a suspicious fire in 1972; the area around Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue, which became a lesbian neighborhood after World War II; the Griffith Park Carousel, scene of a 1970 "kiss-in" protest; a Crenshaw Boulevard church building where the Mattachine Society met in the '50s and gay youth groups met during the '60s; Plummer Park, where radical AIDS activists of ACT-UP held meetings; and West Hollywood City Hall, a physical incarnation of gay political power.

There is a reminder of old anti-gay sentiment at Barney's Beanery, the famous restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. For two decades, it bore an infamous, albeit misspelled, sign proclaiming "Fagots Stay Out." Even though the owners claimed the sign was a joke, one of the first acts of the West Hollywood City Council after the city was incorporated in 1984 was to pass an antidiscrimination ordinance that led to the sign's removal.

Even though such relatively recent events can seem like ancient history to gays in their 20s, the map's authors hope to attract a young audience.

Some of the map points are connected to the movie industry, which has employed many gays, and just as famously kept some in the closet. For example, stop No. 19, on Valley Oak Drive in the hills just west of Griffith Park, is the astonishingly beautiful Art Deco house designed in 1926 by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was the home of silent film star Ramon Navarro, portrayed by studio publicity machines as a macho Romeo, even though he was living a discreetly gay life. The citation ends on a sad note: In 1968, Navarro was beaten to death there by hustlers.

Stop No. 20 is the Cordell Drive home of director George Cukor, prized for its exquisite decor as well as for being a center of social life for Hollywood royalty, straight and gay. And No. 26, on Melrose Avenue, is the old RKO Studios, where secretary Lisa Ben in 1947 secretly published Vice Versa, which, the map says, was the first known lesbian periodical in the country.

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Walter L. Williams, a USC professor of anthropology and gender studies, who is also a director of the Center for Advanced Studies at ONE Institute, generally praised the map but had a few quibbles.

"Overall, it's quite good, definitely a step in the right direction. I just wish we could tweak it a bit," Williams said. The worst omission, he said, is the former Studio One disco in West Hollywood, which influenced gay culture nationally and was one of the first places where same-sex couples could dance.

Such increased freedoms are embedded in the architecture seen on the tour, according to Samudio. The earliest gay spots, such as the old Crown Jewel at 9th and Hill, were bunker-like, usually with no windows open to the street. That became more relaxed as gay life shifted from downtown to Hollywood and then into unincorporated West Hollywood, partly to escape the LAPD raids for the more lenient county sheriff's deputies.

West Hollywood clubs today spill onto the sidewalks, and their big picture windows attract busloads of Japanese tourists seeking a peek at the go-go boys who dance inside. "You now have that self-assuredness that comes with any maturing community," Samudio explained.

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The "Gay and Lesbian L.A. History Map" ($4.95) is available at Skylight Books in Los Feliz and Book Soup in West Hollywood and can be ordered through the Center for Preservation Education and Planning, 6404 Hollywood Blvd., Suite 414, Hollywood, CA 90028, or (323) 962-4585.

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