Queer community’s role in Brooklyn waterfront development focus of new exhibit

March 4, 2019 By Sara Bosworth Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Hugh Ryan, co-curator of "On the (Queer) Waterfront" and author of "When Brooklyn Was Queer." Photo by M. Sharkey.
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A new exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society explores a 150-year history of queer communities on Brooklyn’s waterfront through old art and ephemera — and a few stories from the Brooklyn Eagle’s archives.

“On the (Queer) Waterfront,” which opens March 5, will tell the story of the lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender figures that defined Brooklyn’s urbanizing shoreline during the 19th and 20th centuries.

“The waterfront provided jobs that queer people could have,” Hugh Ryan, co-curator of the exhibit, told the Eagle. Ryan pointed to five fields in particular that were more accepting: Entertainment, art, sailing, factories and sex work were all industries that cropped up along the river.

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Anne Moses, the first woman hired to work as a welder by the Todd Shipyards in Red Hook during World War II, saved these images and many more in a scrapbook featured in the exhibition. Images from scrapbook compiled by Anne Moses, 1960s. Courtesy of the Collection of Michael Levine.


“That urban density and that economic opportunity is a big part of what enables queer community to grow,” Ryan said. “Queer desires exist everywhere at all times, but in order to see them historically, you need to see a density. You need to have them show up in the records. And that’s what the waterfront provided.”

Those records are the center of the new show at BHS, from former Eagle editor Walt Whitman’s queer-centered poems to 19th century drag kings in Coney Island theaters to the working-class lesbian women who found employment as factory hands in the Navy Yard during WWII.

The exhibit comes a year after the opening of “Waterfront,” an immersive, multimedia exhibition at BHS curated by Julie Golia that explored 12 different facets of waterfront life, from oral histories to dress-up components to archaeological artifacts excavated from the landfill beneath DUMBO’s Empire Stores.

Edward Casey, "Stevedores Bathing Under Brooklyn Bridge," 1939. Image courtesy of the Green-Wood Historic Fund
Although married to a woman, painter Edward Casey painted large groups of naked men in and around Brooklyn’s East River, including this 1939 panorama of dock workers swimming under the Brooklyn Bridge. Edward Casey, “Stevedores Bathing Under Brooklyn Bridge,” 1939. Image courtesy of the Green-Wood Historic Fund


Ryan, whose book “When Brooklyn Was Queer” will be released the same day as the exhibit opens, met Golia around five years ago while she was doing research for the “Waterfront” show.

He had been part of a collective putting on pop-up museums around the country, working with local communities to create exhibits about queer history related to their respective areas.

“We were doing that for a couple of years when we realized that we started in Brooklyn, but had never done a Brooklyn show,” Ryan said. “We very quickly discovered that there was a very big problem: local people in Brooklyn didn’t know anything about Brooklyn’s queer history.” The collective ended up doing a small-scale, one-day show — and soon after, Ryan met Golia, who was fascinated by the idea of expanding that show into something bigger.

“She’s been instrumental in bringing the show [to BHS],” Ryan said.

Madam Tirza was a reportedly queer burlesque dancer who worked on and off at Coney Island from 1940 to 1953. Madam Tirza publicity still, circa 1940. Image courtesy of the Collection of David Denholtz
Madam Tirza was a reportedly queer burlesque dancer who worked on and off in Coney Island from 1940 to 1953. Madam Tirza publicity still, circa 1940. Image courtesy of the Collection of David Denholtz


Both Ryan’s book and the upcoming exhibit, a collaborative effort between Ryan and artist Avram Finkelstein, draws from the Eagle’s own archives. “They were some of the best resources to talk about some of these things,” said Ryan.

“I grew up in the ’80s, and definitely I was taught this idea that queer life — the further back you went — was dirty and limited and sad,” he added. “And that’s just not what you see when you go back historically. You see it as rich and diverse — and as different from the way we live now as we can possibly imagine.”

“On the (Queer) Waterfront” will be on display at Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont St.) from March 5 until July 7, 2019, Wed-Sun; 12-5 pm. $10 suggested donation ($6 seniors, students free).  

Opening reception March 5; 6:30–8:30 pm. Free. 

Follow reporter Sara Bosworth on Twitter.

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