Commemoration is an act of deliberate remembering. We place markers, we assign designations, we erect statues (and sometimes take them down) to show what we find important to collectively remember.
This week, Americans of every gender and sexuality head to visit National Parks and National Monuments for the Fourth of July. The famed Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 uprising that helped spark a new wave of mass activism known as Gay Liberation, became one such National Monument in 2014.
That same year, the National Park Service launched its LGBTQ Heritage Initiative, inviting suggestions for historically significant queer places that deserve to be recognized. Metro Detroit has its share.
The Palmer Park Apartment Building Historic District has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983. The Indian Village and Boston-Edison neighborhoods are both on the register as well. These areas are remembered for their architectural gems or because auto barons lived there. Their gay history, however, is not part of the recognition. At least not yet.
Dave Wait, who heads up the annual Motor City Pride celebration, has been interested in securing a Michigan Historical Marker for some local LGBTQ site for several years and hopes to move forward with a proposal soon.
Michigan Historical Markers are expensive to have placed, however. The application fee runs $250, with the marker itself ranging in cost from $1,900 for a small wall-mounted plaque to $3,900 for a stand-alone marker with different text on each side.
Some business boosters tend to tie commemoration to economic revitalization, which too often equates to gentrification and displacement. The collective project of commemoration is also viewed in terms of historic preservation, which ideally measures the need to save historic sites by more than their real estate value.
Too many of Detroit’s notable queer sites have already been lost.
One is the house at 2846 17th Street in Detroit, address of the Pink Palace, where writer and activist Brian McNaught held the first meetings of the Catholic group Dignity/Detroit in 1974. The sturdy Gothic Revival can be seen, much of its Pepto Bismo color still on gleaming display, in Google Street View captures from September 2007, June 2009, and June 2011. By the time the Google camera car drove by again in September 2013, all that was left of the structure was a pile of burnt lumber.
Other local places of LGBTQ significance that have perished include 42½ Monroe Street in Detroit, site of the Club Frontenac, which hosted pansy and drag performances from the late 1930s until city officials forced it to close down in 1943; 96 Geneva Street in Highland Park, home of Geneva House, a lesbian commune and key center of lesbian activism in Detroit in the 1970s; and, perhaps most famously, 10337 Oakland in Detroit, location of Ruth Ellis’s print shop and residence where she and her partner Babe Franklin hosted house parties for lesbian and gay African American Detroiters in the 1950s.
It’s not too late to preserve other local queer sites still standing, and perhaps even slap them with historical designation and markers. Here are a dozen worthy candidates:
From 1949 to 1980, the home bar for the toughest of blue-collar lesbians in Detroit was the Palais, affectionately known as The Pit, just a few blocks down from police headquarters.
The Woodward Lounge is the longest continuously run gay bar in the state, opened by William Karagas and his brothers two doors down in 1954 and re-located to its present address in 1957.
Popular religious leader James F. Jones, better known as Prophet Jones, lived in this lush mansion until financial difficulties following his 1956 morals arrests forced him to see Philadelphia’s Daddy Grace.
The first ever meeting of Michigan’s first ever organization for homosexual people, the Detroit chapter of the Mattachine Society, was held at the Fort-Shelby Hotel on August 26, 1958.
Long before the White Stripes got their start at the Gold Dollar, the bar hosted some of the city’s most notable drag performances of the 1960s and ‘70s, though mainly for a tourist crowd.
W. Hawkins Ferry, longtime Detroit Institute of Arts benefactor, had this home specially built in 1963 to showcase his art and throw some of the area’s most exclusive parties.
The first meetings of the Detroit Gay Liberation Front were held at St. Joseph Episcopal Church until Bishop Richard Emerich had the group kicked out in the summer of 1970.
Gay Whiteside opened her home in the early 1970s for meetings of the Detroit Daughters of Bilitis, the earliest lesbian-specific organization in Michigan.
This stately home was the location of the Green Carnation Community Center, Metro Detroit’s first gay community center, from June to December 1972.
First as the Interchange and later as the Detroit Eagle, this landmark bar served as a nucleus of Detroit-area leather culture and socializing for more than three decades.
Her Shelf Bookstore opened in 1976 with an emphasis on feminist and lesbian literature and music and for six years served as an oasis for women in Metro Detroit.
Since 1989, Full Truth Unity Fellowship Church has been a spiritual center for the Motor City’s African American LGBTQ community.
The idea that all of these sites might be designated with a historic marker might be sheer gayboy historian fantasy. Even so, whether or not designation is ever made official, they should be remembered. LGBTQ people and allies should visit them, because of what took place there and especially because the place taking was queer.
The original version of this blog post mistakenly showed an earlier Prophet Jones home on E. Ferry Street, not the more famous “French Castle” on Arden Park, where he lived at the time of his 1956 arrest. My thanks to William Colburn for bringing this error to my attention. [Updated April 25, 2018.]