It’s Pride Week and as the rainbow flags of the LGBT community go up, we’ve found most of the early remnants of this movement have come down.
Initially centered around Washington and Chippewa Streets, Buffalo’s gay pride community started much earlier than most cities, some say as early as the 1930’s. Many of the Buffalo locations were social clubs or bars. In the 1950’s, Buffalo had one of the first gay centers in the country at Main & Utica, a building which has since been demolished. Here are some other locations that shine a light on the LGBT community’s history in Buffalo and shape our neighborhoods even today.
The oldest of the bars was Ralph Martin’s at 58 Ellicott Street. It opened in 1934 and closed after Ralph died in 1951. It was located on what is now the pitchers mound of Coca-Cola Field (see below photo). Another early gay- friendly bar, Downs’ at 684-86 Michigan at Genesee, operated from 1935 until 1938. The building was demolished in the 60’s to make way for the Kensington Expressway.
Block of current Coca- Cola Field (Old Statler), Courtesy: wikipedia
Some of the oldest commercial buildings in the City of Buffalo are located on the blocks bordering Genesee, Chippewa, Washington and Ellicott Streets. Due in part to the Washington Market (pictured below), these mixed-use buildings housed small shops, commercial markets, boarding houses and saloons and thrived in the late 1800 and early 1900’s. By the time the highways were built and the Washington Market was razed in the 1960’s, the neighborhood had fallen out of favor and business suffered due to population decline. This meant cheaper rents for businesses and bars that catered to a “less favorable” clientele. Three clubs were located in what is now a parking lot just east of the old Gold Dome Bank. Carousel 1 at 33 E. Chippewa operated from 1950-55, The Oasis at 60 E. Genesee from 1957-60 and Johnny’s Club 68 at 68 E. Genesee from 1953-60. Carousel moved to 457 Ellicott Street and was there until 1965 when it was closed by the vice squad and liquor authority. The building was demolished soon after and there is a vacant front lot with a machine shop located in the rear of the property now. Closures and demolitions in this part of the City eventually led to the counter-culture moving into the Allentown neighborhood.
Washington Market, Courtesy: ForgottenBuffalo
The first gay and lesbian civil rights organization in Western New York started in Buffalo in 1950. The Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, formed after the Stonewall Riots in 1969, had their headquarters in The Avenue in Townsend Hall, below. The bar closed when the building was demolished in 1972, and it is the current site of the City Court Building. It is rumored that the power was shut off in the building and early meetings were conducted by candlelight.
Townsend Hall, Courtesy: Western New York Heritage Press
Eight eighty four (884) Main Street has been home to many different bars catering to the LGBT community starting in 1986 and most recently Roxys, but was originally a brick Italianate mansion built for Edwin Gilbert, a maltster and commercial merchant, in 1880. The property was is now being turned into a mixed-use residential and commercial building.
884 Main St., Courtesy: bar-history.org
There are many more examples of early LGBT hangouts, seen in historic neighborhoods and buildings. Since most were not so welcoming of this specific community, older homes, businesses and neighborhoods were all these business owners could afford in a time when many residents were fleeing to the suburbs. Because of that, this early subculture is the reason a lot of our historic resources exist and thrive today.
Excerpts from the Preservation Buffalo Niagara May 30, 2014 Newsletter.