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

Map pinpoints some significant, though maybe forgotten, places of historical value.

July 08, 2001|LARRY GORDON | 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.

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