Julius’ ‘Sip-In’ Lives On

Since a fire destroyed his apartment more than three years ago, Landon Davenport has been vigorously searching for a new place to live. On a warm Thursday night, he sits at the hardwood table he calls his own — the third-farthest from Julius’ tavern’s entrance — flipping through the newspaper classifieds and circling options with a red pen as he eats a burger and fries. The bar, located where Waverly Place and West 10th Street meet, has been his second home since 1973.

Julius’ bartender Trace O’Neill and bouncer Terry Chau wait for lunchtime customers. (Stephany Chung)

“They were the days of platform shoes, Mott the Hoople, and sweet, luscious hair,” said Davenport, an “over 40” former literary agent. “It is home to wonderful conversations with gorgeous people.”

But since then, many of the young men and women who came seeking the freedoms of the West Village — and who comprised the core of the American gay rights movement — have left for good. The area was once the home of folk musicians and anti-war demonstrations. Today, wealthy residents of magnificent townhouses predominate. And while millions of tourists step into Magnolia Bakery and Washington Square Park each year, Julius’ remains a hidden relic. With its rustic carriage wheel chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, its decor resembles the western saloons of the 19th century, safe from gentrification for now, but not immortalized like its neighbor, the Stonewall Inn.

“If somebody were to come up to me and ask where the gay life in New York City is, I would have no clue where else to direct them,” Davenport added. “Gentrification is forcing a long goodbye to the independent businesses of Chelsea and Greenwich Village.”

Every third Thursday of the month, over a hundred gay men gather inside the bar for Mattachine Night. DJs play records on their turntables. Patrons stand in circles with drinks in hand, chatting about the sounds of Miles Davis and the textures of sourdough bread.

Together, they commemorate the Mattachine Society, the second-ever homophile organization in the United States, and its 1966 “sip-in” at Julius’, inspired by the civil rights sit-ins staged earlier that decade.

On April 26 of that year, three gay men — Mattachine Society president Dick Leitsch, along with members John Timmons and Craig Rodwell — and five reporters walked up to the tattered bar’s counter and challenged the New York State Liquor Authority’s law prohibiting openly identifying homosexuals from ordering alcoholic drinks in bars.

We are homosexuals,” the note read. “We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.”

The bartender began making the men drinks, but after noticing the reporters, understood that they were looking for a photo-op. He played along and denied them service. An April 27, 1966 headline in The New York Times read “3 Deviants Invite Exclusion by Bars.”

“Homosexuals couldn’t get anything before the sip-in,” Leitsch told the Free Press. “At bars, we were often stopped at the doors. And any place that dared to serve us got raided or shut down.”

The “sip-in” at Julius did not overturn any government rulings. But it would later prove a catalyst for the birth of the gay rights movement, most frequently remembered by the Stonewall riots three years later at the West Village bar two blocks away. But Julius’ longtime patrons say that without the 1966 event, other popular gay establishments like the Stonewall Inn would never exist.

Although the tavern opened in 1864, Julius’ did not attract a gay clientele until the 1950s, when openly homosexual men and women were banned from government employment and same sex couples could be institutionalized or castrated for having intercourse. And in 1953, President Eisenhower signed an order deeming “sexual perversion” — including homosexuality — grounds for employment termination.

Los Angeles-based gay rights activist Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society in 1950. Seven years later, in 1957, members of the organization formed a New York City branch. Fewer than a hundred New Yorkers joined the regional group in its first year. But with the formation of rally cries like “gay is good” and “gay power” in the 1960s, activists began to emerge, and events like the Julius’ sit-in and the Stonewall riots soon defined Greenwich Village’s role in the movement.

“The monster of repression haunted us for so long, and the riots were a turning point for us,” recalled Tom Bernardin, a self-proclaimed historian of Julius’. “Sure, we have gone through a lot of heartache since then — homophobia and HIV/AIDS are still way too present — but the spirit of what happened there should always remain.”

Bernardin often spends his early mornings sweeping the gutter outside the bar. He started frequenting Julius’ in 1974, when the clientele was mostly college students.

“We were kids with sweaters draped against our shoulders,” he said. “But we knew a community when we saw one.”

The original promotional poster for an event sponsored by the Mattachine Society. A photo from the sip-in is featured, showing the bartender refusing to serve three of the organization’s representatives, John Timmons, Dick Leitsch and Craig Rodwell. (Stephany Chung)

With a pint of beer in his hand, Bernardin recalled one of the West Village’s darkest times. “Most of my peer group is wiped out. AIDS took care of that,” he said. “But patronizing this place during a time when we needed them, and they needed us, was one of the best things that happened to me.”

In the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Julius’ stood just two blocks away from St. Vincent’s Hospital, which treated more AIDS patients than any other city hospital. Like many Greenwich Village establishments, St. Vincent’s has fallen prey to the high value of the local real estate. The hospital, which opened in 1849, is now being redeveloped as elite condominiums.

But while much of the village has faltered in recent years, Julius’ brings together members of the gay community — young and old — around one of the neighborhood’s longest-standing displays of their culture. Longtime bar-goers claim that business has nearly quadrupled over the past three years, as a new generation of patrons appears.

“Even though I’m young now, I would feel just as happy coming here as an 80-year-old,” said Patrick Emmanuel, 30, who has been visiting Julius’ for a year. “You live in New York to experience all of life’s permutations. I feel part of a community. It is not something that happens often for homosexuals.”

Davenport claims that his luck has not always been ideal. He has been struck by lightning on the Matterhorn and was bitten twice by black widow spiders. But even as new patrons begin frequenting the bar, events like Mattachine Night help retain his confidence in the landmark’s future.

“Independent businesses give our community flavor,” he said. “Here, as long as the kitchen is open, I will always have a place to sit.”

Reporting by Miles Kohrman & Stephany Chung


ACIR Desperately Seeking Students

When over 100 New School students occupied the old 65 Fifth Ave. building in December 2008, they asked for input into university investment practices. Students feared that with a board of trustees closely tied to one of the nation’s largest defense contractors and without a committee overseeing school investments, The New School’s progressive roots could very well be compromised.

Nine people listen to Dan Apfel explain The New School’s new approach to investment in 2011 (Sarah Bures)

Eleven months after the 30-hour protest, the board of trustees established the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. The committee has reviewed the university’s finances each year since its creation. When members feel that an investment is inconsistent with the school’s social, environmental, or corporate governance values, they send suggestions to the board, which ultimately decides whether or not to revise its policies.

But two and a half years after its inception, the ACIR continues to suffer from waning interest and a lack of student participation. Every current ACIR member – two faculty, two staff, one trustee, and one student – has served on the committee since it was founded in November 2009. The second student representative graduated last year, and despite ongoing efforts to find a replacement, the position remains vacant.

“Whether the ACIR gets a fresh breeze in its sails depends on whether students actually care about where their money is invested,” NSSR student Chris Crews, the committee’s sole student representative, told the Free Press in an email. “That is a question I cannot answer.”
This is not the program’s first case of low student involvement. In October 2010, only about a dozen people attended an ACIR-sponsored open forum in Wollman Hall.

Initial concern for university investment practices developed after faculty and students learned that now-former board of trustees member Robert Millard had also served on the board of L3 Communications, the nation’s sixth-largest defense contractor. Students and faculty suggested that The New School cut ties with Millard and companies like L3, and invest more heavily on human rights-based ventures.

The ACIR is part of the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a nationwide council comprising 40 university committees promoting socially conscious investment practices.

“Universities have a lot of money,” Dan Apfel, executive director of the REC, said at a national conference at Wollman Hall in February 2011. “If [they] take their mission and their values into account when making investment decisions, they can be better corporate citizens.”

As the academic year draws to a close, ACIR members said that the body will continue its efforts to boost student participation. New School professor and ACIR co-chair Terra Lawson-Remer told the Free Press that students do care about the university’s investments, but have been distracted in a year filled with protests and occupations.

Impasse Over Labor Deal at Strand Books

In an age when online retail has killed the storefront marketplace, the city’s literary-inclined still find refuge inside the Strand Book Store’s vast collection of new and used volumes. On a recent afternoon inside the landmark at 12th Street and Broadway, Fred Bass was standing in a corner of the ground floor, dressed in his trademark suspenders, a solid green shirt, and a smart navy blue tie. While most patrons might only know him as a friendly clerk and address him by his first name — as printed in simple white letters on a large red plastic nametag — Bass is also the owner of the Strand.

In recent days, the 55,000-square-foot store has become a battleground of labor discontent. On April 5, a majority of the store’s 140 unionized employees rejected a contract aimed at freezing wages and slicing benefits. Fearing that the landmark’s storied bond with its employees could soon disappear, workers continue to negotiate with supervisors.

But Bass, 83, believes that his store faces a larger financial challenge. With the rise of e-readers and paperless literature, the book industry has reached a crossroads, and Bass yearns to keep the Strand an entrenched part of the cityscape.

“Anyone can just stop on by, buy physical copies of hard-to-find readings, and talk to people who share their interest in books,” he said. “This is truly a one-of-a-kind place.”

With store sales down seven percent since 2009, however, Bass admits that his business is struggling and he must cut costs in order to remain viable. “Our expenses have skyrocketed,” he said, “and there is economic pressure that we just can’t avoid.”

Since 1927, when Bass’s father, Benjamin, opened the Strand, the store’s reputation with labor activists has been positive. Bass claims that he has never laid off a single employee. And while other retailers do not allow unionization, United Auto Workers Local 2179 has supported much of the store’s non-management staff for over 35 years.

“Strand has such a strong bond with the community,” said Chris McCallion, who began working at the bookstore in September 2010. “But for many of the people in this city, debt is not payable. We are struggling just to pay our rent every month.”

McCallion, 22, spent a year at The New School for Jazz before dropping out in 2008. Upon working at Strand, his starting wage was $9. Every six months, he and his fellow workers got raises that ranged from 25 to 50 cents an hour. But last September without explanation, the pay increases stopped.

“When you work 40 hours a week, you don’t have time to read, write or express yourself,” McCallion added. “You’re just poor and exploited. Unless people gather at the workplaces where they spend most of their time, there is no way out.”

Strand employees’ wages have been stagnant since their most recent union contract expired last August. The recently rejected three-year deal would have frozen employee wages for 18 additional months, while raising health insurance premiums from $10 per week to $15. It would have also cut the yearly personal and sick day limit from nine days to five during its first two years.

In addition, workers hired during or after September 2011 would have been subject to a different, less inclusive contract from those hired beforehand. Employees argue that such an agreement would have developed tensions between newer hires and veteran staff.

“I have never seen such a hard-lined proposal,” said Will Bobrowski, 31, who has worked at the bookstore for nearly a decade. “The simple fact that management wants to freeze our wages shows that Strand is facing difficult times, and this is our wake-up call to keep negotiating.”

Although employees hope to reach a solution without resorting to a strike, McCallion believes that picket lines and demonstrations are never beyond consideration.

“We can take a stand by staying together,” he added. “Workers have power when they self-organize.”

Bass insists that the Strand will continue its normal operations while both sides seek a compromise. He will fly to London next week, hoping to add more used and rare books to the store’s world-famous collection.

“Employees have handled the situation professionally so far,” Bass said.  ”I just wish circumstances were different and we could do more to compensate them.”