Explore the 'Disappearing Queer Spaces' of the Harlem Renaissance

Disappearing Queer Spaces explores the history and significance of since-demolished queer landmarks such as the Savoy Ballroom.

Maggie Barrows
June 21, 2022

This Pride Month, we're delving into the LGBTQ+ history of Harlem, which is the subject of a new book by students at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP).

Started in 2015 by a group of queer-identifying friends, Queer Students of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (QSAPP) helps queer students from around the school connect across disciplines and interests. The group includes queer and allied students and alumni and is one of the longest-running student groups at the graduate school.

Every year, the organization and its members work on a project that isn't directly in the academic setting but is connected to it. This year, the members have worked on a book exploring the history of queer spaces from the Harlem Renaissance that have since disappeared. 

Abriannah Aiken (GSAPP’22) and Brian Turner (GSAPP’22) were the co-chairs of QSAPP during the 2021-22 academic year. They spoke to Neighbors about their multidisciplinary project Disappearing Queer Spaces.

What was the inspiration for the book? What led you to this topic and then to these spaces in particular? 

Aiken: During COVID, in 2020, QSAPP had just finished the book on homelessness and queer youth in New York. They were looking to talk about diversity, about New York, and to focus on the next book. That's where they started to come up with these ideas. Andrew Dolkart is a professor here and helped them connect with the LGBT Historic Sites Project.There's an amazing library on their website of these spaces that currently exist in New York that have been queer spaces throughout time.

QSAPP asked: "Do you have a list of these spaces that no longer exist?" They were able to give us some of that data. We started to look at the similarities and the differences between those spaces. We found that a lot of them were from Harlem, specifically during the Harlem Renaissance, which was this beautiful, amazing time, but also a very important moment for the queer community in Harlem. We said, "why don't we just focus on those projects?"

Turner: At the time we wanted to do something that had an impact on people that weren't cisgender white males. We were trying to think of a project that would focus on queer spaces that were outside of the traditional places that people think of, such as Fire Island or the West Village. The original idea came from a guy in the group named Sebastian Andersson. We were trying to look at places in Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. 

What role did these physical spaces have in shaping the Harlem Renaissance?

Aiken: These spaces were integral to the queer community during the Harlem Renaissance. These were safe spaces that the queer community felt comfortable utilizing and having drag balls. Without these safe spaces, the queer community would not have existed in the way that it did in the Harlem Renaissance. 

Turner: I'm not sure how directly they are correlated, but a lot of queer-identifying people or just people in general in a more conservative Lower Manhattan in the 1920s and 1910s would come to Harlem to racially intermix because it was more accepted. Having those spaces was kind of liberating for not just Black people, not just queer people, but for everyone.

A collage of black and white photographs relating to the Savoy Ballroom

Did you encounter queer spaces from the Harlem Renaissance that still exist? Are there any still being used in that way?

Aiken: There are some spaces that still exist. The Apollo Theater, for instance, hosted drag balls. What we've identified through the book is that there's many reasons for these spaces disappearing and it's not just because they were queer spaces: it's the gentrification and the racialized rent pricing and everything that happened in Harlem that has impacted specifically the Black community. 

Turner: The macro and micro factors that got rid of them weren't specifically because of them. I guess there's not many that stuck around, but there have been rebirths. I know there's Harlem Pride.

Aiken: There's a bunch of clubs that have been popping up within the last 10 years. There's an organization trying to create a Harlem Renaissance 2.0. There are a lot of organizations that are still working for the queer community in Harlem.

But these spaces that were super tangible and important to the Harlem Renaissance and the queer community at that time, those have been lost to time. That's why we wrote this book, to identify those spaces and make sure that they stay in our collective memory.

What are a couple of things you learned doing this research that you think are particularly interesting or important?

Aiken: We remember the Savoy Ballroom as being this interracial space, but we didn't know that it also hosted drag balls. After everyone else would go home, there'd be a drag ball that night. These spaces, these architectures are important, but what's equally important are the people and the activities that happened there. It's the stories and the memories that are embedded within the architecture that make these queer spaces places that we need to remember collectively.

It's the stories and the memories that are embedded within the architecture that make these queer spaces places that we need to remember collectively.

Abriannah Aiken

Turner: It was striking to see how many queer-identifying people there were back in that time and how connected they were. There's an analysis in the book that shows how people knew each other, who was a fan of whom, who was friends with whom, who was lovers with whom. 

Are there any Columbia connections to any of these spaces?

Turner:  Zora Neale Hurston graduated from Barnard in 1928. She stayed at the Manor [one of the buildings featured in QSAPP's book], I think, from 1926 to 1928. 

Aiken: Which means she probably brought folks when they would have parties. She probably brought people from the school. Oh my God, I’m so excited.

Turner: Add that to the book!

What do you hope that people will take away from the book?

Turner: I hope they just remember when they're walking around, "oh, that used to be a queer space 100 years ago," and just take pride in that. 

Aiken: The very last line of the book is: “Sustain and celebrate your queer presence of today; protect it from becoming the disappearing queer space of tomorrow.” Looking at the spaces that are popping up now, how do we make sure that those spaces stay? Not only in collective memory but as tangible spaces for the queer community to continue to use.

If you could go back in time to one of the spaces, which would it be?

Aiken: That's hard because I want to go experience all of them. I'm obsessed with Gladys Bentley. I would love to go to the Clam House and just see her in her white tux, just hanging out, being her best self. That would be my favorite thing to do, or just go to the Savoy Ballroom or any of the balls. I would love to see one of the drag balls.

Turner: I'd love to see Gladys. I’d probably do one of the rent parties. Or one that didn't make it in the book was A’Lelia Walker's apartment. She was the daughter of Madam CJ Walker, the mogul. She apparently threw great parties with 3,000 to 4,000 people trying to show up at their townhouse.

QSAPP will be at Harlem Pride, 12-6 pm on June 25, with Disappearing Queer Spaces. Reach out via email if you're interested in walking with them and Build Out Alliance (an LGBTQIA+ Professional Architecture Organization) at NYC Pride on June 26. They also have a mailing list for anyone who wants to up to date with the organization.

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