App brings self-guided LGBTQ history walking tours to NYC

A tennis club where several LGBTQ players competed in the U.S. Open prior to its 1978 relocation. The family home of Bronx native and transwoman Christine Jorgensen. Crazy Nanny’s, the lesbian bar that operated from 1991-2004 and attracted a racially-diverse crowd to its fundraisers fighting HIV and AIDS.

These sites are some of the roughly 85 New York City locations featured on travel app Vamonde in partnership with the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, an initiative that chronicles stories of historical and cultural LGBTQ locations across the five boroughs. The collaboration, which launched June 19, employs geolocation to take users on interactive walking tours through the city’s queer history dating back to the 17th century.

App users can take trips through LGBTQ history in neighborhoods including Brooklyn, Harlem, Jackson Heights and Greenwich Village — the landmark locale of Stonewall. A transgender history tour spanning several city areas is also available.

“Buildings and physical locations tell stories in a different way, so [people] can have a connection to the landscape that they’re walking in,” said Ken Lustbader, co-project director at NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. As thousands make their way to the city for WorldPride on June 30, the Project team is “hoping that people will come to New York and recognize that LGBT history is all around them and that New York City has this rich cultural landscape that can tell the history of LGBT New Yorkers and their influence on American culture and history.”

Each location on the app includes historically significant details, contemporary and archived photos, uploads of associated memorabilia and other multimedia elements.

The history-documenting project began in 2015. Its website highlights about 200 historical LGBTQ sites in New York City, and the initiative was the first in the city to document queer history, Lustbader said. About 350 additional locations are being researched by the team of three historic preservationists, who serve as co-directors, and Project Manager Amanda Davis.

The app launch coincides with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, making the city’s LGBTQ history easily accessible to visiting crowds, Davis said. But she hopes the project will show users that queer history extends beyond the famous riots.

“We’re hoping to broaden peoples’ understanding of [LGBTQ] history and that it goes back much further than they may think,” Davis added. “It is more all-encompassing than just an uprising, though the uprising was incredibly important.”

Due to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project’s efforts, on June 18, the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission gave official landmark designations to six sites — the James Baldwin Residence, Audre Lorde Residence, LGBT Community Center, Women’s Liberation Center, Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse and Caffe Cino, widely known as the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway theater. The commemorations were the first in the city since the Stonewall Inn received landmark status in 2015, Lustbader said.

Lustbader said the app can support those not yet out by offering access to history “at home…without having to feel threatened or at risk.”

“We’re hoping that it removes a sense of isolation or shame and fosters a sense of identity and community by understanding the past,” he added. “They are not alone and they are part of the continuum of history.”

This app also helps garner attention for meaningful LGBTQ sites that appear insignificant, Davis said.

“Many histories of marginalized groups often are in buildings that you wouldn’t look twice at,” she added. “You had to find something cheap or out of the way or indiscrete, and if you were an organization, you didn’t have the funds or the support — it just wasn’t possible at the time to have someone, an architect, create something for you.”

Davis said she hopes to continue documenting locations relevant to historically marginalized groups, like queer people of color and transpeople.

“History is always there to be reinterpreted and to be more fully documented,” Davis said, adding that the project can empower people by highlighting the histories and narratives of diverse groups.

For LGBTQ history buffs in Philadelphia, queer-owned Beyond the Bell Tours offers historical tours highlighting marginalized communities and runs a daily LGBTQ history tour in Center City.