Monday, January 2, 2017

Gay NYC - The Purple Onion

Gay NYC is inspired by this book:

The Mafia and the Gays by Phillip Crawford Jr.

It details the mob control over gay nightclubs in NYC when such establishments were technically illegal. My interest in these clubs stems from the fact that they catered to marginalized subcultures in the city. While they specifically catered to gays, these clubs became havens for all sorts of societal misfits and entertainment.

In particular, I have always been a rambler. As a rambler, it is plain to me that certain place are magical, they resonate, they are spectral. A dead giveaway that you have entered such a zone is that they are haunted by the outcasts, misfits, drunks and crazies. It is another reason why I am interested in these clubs as they are located in these epicenters.

Early in the last century, English writers started a literary genre devoted to this phenomenon rambling around special places called psychogeography or topographical rambling.

135 W 3rd Street NY NY

This post focuses on environs of the infamous Purple Onion that was located at 135 W 3rd Street in the Village near Washington Square. Sadly, this once infamous nightclub is now a Seven-Eleven Convenience Store:

The building in which the Purple Onion sat was originally built in 1907.

Primordial Topography - Devil's Water

In it's primordial state, the Purple Onion stood near at a transient meeting place of native peoples and seasonal fishing village near a river the Carnasee Indian named Minetta or Devil's Water.

One of the best ways to view the primordial topography of Manhattan is with the Viel Map of 1865 which shows the street grid of 1865 on top of the original geography of the island:

Viel Map 1865
The location of the Purple Onion was in a marshy section of the island where the Minetta Creek/Brook flowed out into the Hudson.

In the rush to develop Manhattan, the topography was leveled and the waterways were buried underground.

Untapped Cities - Minetta Brook: A Lost River Under the Streets of Manhattan

Scouting NY - The River Below Fifth Avenue


Early History


1797 to 1827 - Burial Ground

One block north of the Purple Onion lies Washington Square.

In 1797, the area now occupied by Washington Square Park was purchased by the city for use as a pauper's field for those who could not afford private burials. It is estimated that over 30 years approximately 20 thousand people were buried there and still remain there to this day. The burial ground was finally turned into a parade ground after it was literally filled up with bodies.

The area around Washington Square was deemed a good place for burial as it was then rural and there were many many churches in the area with their own private cemeteries whose bodies also lie there to this day.  It is not unusual for workers excavating the area turn up lost burial sites.

Pictured below a burial vault found just East of the Park between Waverly and Washington by city workers repairing an old water main. The vault contained approximately ten bodies and when they further examined the area they found a bigger vault next to it with over twenty intact coffins:

NY Post - Vault Full of Skeletons Found Under Washington Square Park

1820's Little Africa

Greenwich Village Historical Society - Slavery, Gentrification, and the Last Execution in Washington Square

1925 6th Avenue Elevated and Little China

If this hand drawn map is correct the building was wrapped by the 6th avenue elevated and bordered a large chinese shop, Peking, to the East:

Slate - A Hand-Drawn Map of Bohemian Greenwich Village, 1925

Late 1920's 6th Avenue Street Extension

During the late 1920's, a block down from the southwest corner of  building was impacted by sixth avenue extension:


Similarly, later, in the late 20s, Sixth Avenue, which started at Carmine Street and Minetta Street, was extended south to Church Street in Soho because of the new IND line (today’s A/C/E trains). Both extensions created odd plazas and intersections…and eliminated some streets 

1940's - 50's Mona's Lesbian Bar

Lost Womyns Space - Mona's

Mona's must be one of New York's more obscure lesbian drinking establishments. I have found exactly ONE reference to it--and that's at New York Songlines: 3rd Street.

1960's Go Go Bar

1966 - Jimmy Hendrix

1967 - Psychedelic Era

Here is an interesting anecdote from one of the bands that played there during the psychedelic era: - Staying Alive

I played at The Purple Onion in late 1967 with Bougalieu, from Albany. It was owned by Profaci family goon Crazy Joey Gallo. They made us play 6 sets a night, and we only had enough material for 4 sets, so we repeated a lot of tunes over the course of the night. The house booker was Fat Sal DeGrand, who had a pinky ring that had diamond chips reading "10%". He told us to stay in the kitchen between sets and not mingle with paying customers. Fat Sal sez " Youse guys lose the fuzztones. I'll Buy yez some suits, take a little out every week, ya won't even miss it

1975 - 1983 Murder at Arabella's Antiques

The Hawks Perch - Roberta Sari Kaplan

Early 80's - Mid 90's - Crazy Cat Lady

NYT 11/12/95 - NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: WEST VILLAGE;Mystery Ends But Its Traces Still Remain

1995 - Present, Gentrification

Japanese investors bought the building in the mid-1990's renovated it and sold the upstairs units as lofts:

Street Easy. com - Building: 135 West 3rd Street

The last recorded sale for a 2br 2bath loft of 2,250 Sq/Ft was for approximately $3 million.

Mob Connection - Crazy Joey Gallo

The purple onion was controlled by a mobster, Joey Gallo, with the Profaci crime family, forerunner of the Colombo family:

Mobsters Joe Crazy Gallo by flytime100

Bob Dylan Connection

As with anything Dylan, the Bob Dylan connection with the Purple Onion is confusing. Bob did play a song Joey about the Purple Onion's mob owner, "Crazy" Joey Gallo, on his 1976 Desire album but Dylan attributed the lyrics to his collaborator on the album Jacques Levy:

There is a poster floating around the internet purporting to by from a Dylan show at the NYC purple onion but it is apparently a fake:


This website does a good job of debunking it and other Dylan fakes:

Surrounded by Fakery

We get a Friday 24 February in 1961, 1967, 1978, 1984, 1989, 1995 and 2006. None fit a real possibility any better than the image on the poster does.

Bob Dylan did play at the Purple Onion Pizza Parlor in St Paul, no connection to the NYC club, before seeking fame in NYC.

Here is a good article on the subject:

St Paul Almanac - Dylan, Spider John and the Purple Onion

Bill wanted to attract the college crowd and hired young folk singers to come over when they weren’t singing in Dinkytown. Performers included Spider John Koerner and Bob Dylan.

San Francisco Connection

It would appear that the NYC nightclub borrowed two of its names/incarnations from famous clubs in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Mona's lesbian bar is purported to be the first lesbian bar in the country and predated the NYC Mona's by over a decade. The San Francisco location is currently occupied by a bar called the Cosmo:

440 Broadway, San Fransico

The NYC club also shared names with the famous Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco which was famed for putting on comedy acts from 1952 to 2012 at its Columbus Ave location. (Many sites list the address as 140 Columbus but it really appear to have been 129 Colmbus):

Former Purple Onion Location 129 Columbus Avenue, San Franciso, CA
During the early nineties, it was even a hot spot for the garage punk/surf revival scene in SF:

1 comment:

David Berger said...

I remember the Village Purple Onion well from when I was a student at NYU from '60 to '67. I don't remember that it was a gay club. It was a strip joint catering to tourists, who were just discovering the exoticism of the Village> Hence the hokey name. I was always to scared to go into the place as it had a reputation as a clip joint.

One more thing: I think the Onion was the location for the film "The Troublemaker," which was released in '64.