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  • When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan
  • Gregory Samantha Rosenthal (bio)
When Brooklyn Was Queer By Hugh Ryan. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2019. 320 pages, 6" x 9". $29.99 cloth, $17.99 ebook.

When Brooklyn Was Queer By Hugh Ryan. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2019. 320 pages, 6" x 9". $29.99 cloth, $17.99 ebook.

Seven years ago, I came out as queer in Brooklyn, New York. From a second-floor sublet in Kensington, just blocks from Green-Wood Cemetery, my first queer lover shared a bed with me to the tune of the D train careening over its elevated track. Brooklyn felt like a good place to be queer. I went on dates that summer with men and women in Prospect Park, and to this day there are park benches, like mnemonics in the landscape, that hold memories of cuddles or awkward kisses with queer cuties.

Hugh Ryan's When Brooklyn Was Queer is about queer Brooklyn—but of a different era. For over a century from the 1850s through the early 1960s, Ryan shows that queer and trans Brooklynites made spaces of belonging in the crevices of the industrial "second city," spaces now all but forgotten by queer New Yorkers today. Ryan offers a bold thesis about the intersection of queer life and cities. He argues that changes in gender and sexuality and belonging over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were linked with the processes of industrialization and deindustrialization. This meant that the waterfront and its dirty, rowdy workspaces—those same spaces that Walt Whitman once saw teeming with handsome men ("I go with fishermen and seamen and love them" [22])—were queer. [End Page 221]

Ryan follows the life stories of many fascinating Brooklynites as their labor and leisure intersected with the waterfront. We learn about Walt Whitman's attachment to the ferry and the throngs of humanity bustling to and fro. Ryan writes of queer women who found spaces of gender transgression in local theaters. Moreover, he makes great efforts to resurrect the stories of even more marginalized people such as trans women and sex workers and queer people of color. Of all the waterfront spaces, three stand out as particularly important in Ryan's telling: Coney Island, the Sands Street area adjoining the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights.

As a Brooklyn child, my mom used to hang out at Coney Island in the 1950s and 1960s. But the Coney Island in this book is rich and bawdy in ways that she would not have known. Ryan writes lovingly of the interstitial spaces of Black queer and intersex belonging on the boardwalk, of bathhouses where gay men cruised, and ultimately—tragically—of Robert Moses's role (as well as Donald Trump's father) in destroying Coney Island's seedy subculture. At Sands Street, we learn of the bars, dating back to the 1910s, that catered to sailors and the men who loved them. Ryan charts histories of policing and criminalization that emerged in the early twentieth century, as gay bars were raided and shut down—especially if the men inside were too feminine, or not white enough. Finally, massive public housing projects meant to provide uplift to poor Brooklynites were built on top of the ruins of once-queer Sands Street just as the Navy Yard deindustrialized at midcentury. Brooklyn Heights, with its long history of queer artists and writers shacked up in houses known for their parties, love fests, and interpersonal drama, also fell victim to mid-twentieth-century modernist dreams. Ryan does an excellent job showing how Moses's inner-city highways, suburbanization, and the processes of white flight and racist housing policies worked to decimate Brooklyn Height's gay subculture by the time a new generation of queer people rose up, across the East River, in the summer of 1969.

When Brooklyn Was Queer is the result of both an extensive research project and a personal quest that the author unpacks, all too briefly, in the book's epilogue. Ryan came into his own queerness in Brooklyn, just as I did. He found himself haunted by...


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pp. 221-223
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