A year ago, the streets of the West Village were resplendent with rainbow flags sporting the number 50 to mark the bicentennial of the Stonewall Riots and New York’s first time hosting World Pride. Throngs of people from across the globe spilled out of the neighborhood’s iconic LGBTQ drinking establishments, swapping sweat and saliva.
Today, with Pride weekend set to begin June 26th, Christopher Street is silent at night, with signs on boarded-up windows optimistically claiming “We’ll be back soon.” In April, it was announced that for the first time in nearly half a century, the New York City Pride March and festivities would be cancelled due to Covid-19.
The festival’s absence will be felt sharply by LGBTQ bars in the Village, for whom June always brought a steep revenue spike that carried the weight of other, less buzzing months. Many of them have a modest square footage and spend the majority of their year hosting loyal regulars. Pride month, however, brought in a full slice of humanity, from European tourists to longtime New Yorkers.
“June was our Christmas,” said Helen Buford, owner of renowned LGBTQ bar Julius’. “It was tremendous, and it just went from 100 to nothing.”
While Pride won’t pack the bars like it usually does, the eagerness to commemorate the occasion make the weekend of June 28 vulnerable to the sort of sidewalk gathering that recently caused Governor Andrew Cuomo to threaten a second lockdown. The result is a double-edged sword for LGBTQ bar owners who need the revenue but don’t want to risk another shutdown.
Widely believed to be the oldest gay bar in the city, Julius’ has been a staple of West Village nightlife since the fifties. It was a witness to the Stonewall Riots and even earlier, the site of the 1966 “sip in, in which LGBTQ activists contested the archaic drinking laws that prohibited bars from “serving homosexuals.” More than just a bar, Julius’ is written into the fabric of New York’s fight for equality. Its longtime regulars and loyal staff formed a community, carrying with them the weight of the neighborhood’s justice battles. This year’s abysmal economy and the lack of Pride revenue threaten establishments that are not just beloved drinking hubs but also historical landmarks.
It’s been months since Helen and her staff members have seen most of their regulars, and the cancellation of Pride only intensifies these pains. To remain afloat, Julius’ launched a GoFundMe campaign for friends and customers. The quantity of donations– totaling over $21,000 as of today– is a testament to its prolific presence in the community.
While the Pride parade was cancelled, NYC Pride, like many event organizers, found a way to move much of their celebrations online, with virtual drag shows, queer town halls and rallies over Zoom. Internet Pride’s diverse lineup defies expectations of what festivals are capable of doing online, and yet its very nature unintentionally leaves out some of the movement’s most local and loyal beneficiaries: the Village’s LGBTQ bars.
Just a few blocks from Julius’ on 12th Street, another iconic locale launched a similar GoFundMe campaign. Cubbyhole is regarded by many as the best-known lesbian bar in NYC. Despite its classification as a dive, it’s been frequented by the likes of Andy Cohen and the cast of Orange is the New Black. One of a select few lesbian bars left in New York, Cubbyhole is known as both a community staple and vibrant safe-haven for queer women.
“It’s devastating on so multiple levels,” said Lisa Menichino, Cubbyhole’s owner of many years, when asked about the impact of Pride’s cancellation. The financial level alone is a punch in the gut. “Pride day usually brings in a week’s worth of income for us.”
That’s not even accounting for the other days in June during which people publicly rejoice. In the early days of Covid-19, many New Yorkers naively mistook the virus for something finite, requiring them to briefly press the pause button on the economy until business could resume as usual over the summer. Even in mid-March, Village bar owners held out hope that Pride would take place. It would salve the financial wounds caused by the pandemic.
That possibility was extinguished almost overnight, leaving Cubbyhole to fight for basic survival. “There are so few places where you can find that kind of connectedness,” said Menichino. “The response we got on the campaign was overwhelming. People commented so many stories about meeting their future wife or future husband there.”
While financial burdens have been eased by a movingly successful GoFundMe, they can’t possibly fill the social void left by a cancelled Pride. As one of the last lesbian bars in New York, its absence in the community it was created to celebrate will be sorely missed this year.
To compound the problem, recent concerns have surfaced about the quantity of people gathering outside bars in Manhattan without masks. Closed streets combined with lenient to-go protocols and warm weather have led to large gatherings outside of many favorite bars and restaurants.
“I think Cuomo has a point,” said Menichino, referring to the governor’s threat of a second lockdown should New Yorkers continue to assemble en masse. “With the warm weather, and cabin fever, people are tired of distancing, and the result could be disastrous in terms of spreading the virus. As for the Cubbyhole, I’ve struggled with opening for to-go orders, even on Pride, for just that reason.”
Also intensifying the urge to celebrate is the June 15th Supreme Court victory for LGBTQ workplace rights. “People want to celebrate, and rightly so, but it has to be balanced with concern for the health of our community, if we are to get over this scourge.”
For both the Cubbyhole and Julius’, there’s a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon. The second phase of New York City’s reopening will permit outdoor dining on June 22, meaning that regulars of the many LGBTQ nightlife staples could have the chance to legally come together once again, albeit outside. The third phase of reopening, likely to come later in the summer, would allow in-house dining and drinking, just at half capacity.
The caveat is that bars like Cubbyhole are in old buildings that don’t possess the same seating capacity as larger bars and clubs in neighborhoods like midtown. True to its name, Cubbyhole would only have room for a few people, which is not nearly enough to remain financially afloat. On top of that, outdoor dining would be tricky considering that their location on West 4th Street, sandwiched between Jane and 12th Streets, hasn’t been closed off to car traffic. Nearby bars and restaurants on closed-down streets, like the Blind Tiger on Bleecker and Jones Streets, have a leg up in the initial phases of reopening.
For Menichino, the ultimate Pride miracle would be if enough of her bar’s supporters could write to the mayor’s office requesting that her little slice of West 4th be shut down to traffic, as outdoor dining capabilities could make or break businesses like hers.
In spite of the adversities, Menichino and Buford remain determined to show as much solidarity with Pride 2020 as possible. Cubbyhole will be rolling out some virtual programming with notable drag queens and Julius’ has extended their takeout hours during Pride weekend.
Buford stresses the need for caution in the coming weeks. In a heartfelt gratitude letter on Julius’ website, she addresses her customers. “Stay strong friends, this too shall pass. We look forward to seeing you, even for just a quick hello.”