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It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A

In celebration of the annual St. Louis PrideFest this weekend I thought it would be interesting to talk about the connection between gays and the revitalization of rundown urban neighborhoods.

In watching Before Stonewall again recently one point stood out to me: gay men would open bars in run down neighborhoods because the buildings or rent was cheap and the level of scrutiny was potentially less than in other areas.

This is the story of one such place, a collection of businesses on 20th Street across from Union Station:

ABOVE: 1976 ad for multiple establishments in one historic building. Source: St. Louis Gay History Project (click to view)

The area around Union Station was as run down as they come:

As railroad passenger services declined in the 1950s and 1960s, the massive station became obsolete and too expensive to maintain for its original purpose. With the takeover of national rail passenger service by Amtrak in 1971, passenger train service to St. Louis was reduced to only three trains a day. Amtrak stopped using Union Station on October 31, 1978; the six trains daily did not justify such a large facility. (Wikipedia)

Of course Union Station was famous for being in Escape from New York, helping solve problems for the film’s producers on where to film:

[Associate Producer] Bernardi suggested East St. Louis, Illinois, because it was filled with old buildings “that exist in New York now, and [that] have that seedy run-down quality” that the team was looking for. East St. Louis, sitting across the Mississippi River from the more prosperous St. Louis, Missouri, had entire neighborhoods burned out in 1976 during a massive urban fire. Hill said in an interview, “block after block was burnt-out rubble. In some places there was absolutely nothing, so that you could see three and four blocks away.” As well, Alves found an old bridge to double for the “69th St. Bridge”. The filmmaker purchased the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge for one dollar from the government and then gave it back to them for a dollar, “so that they wouldn’t have any liability,” Hill remembers. Locations across the river in St. Louis, Missouri were also used, including Union Station and the Fox Theater, both of which have since been renovated. (Wikipedia)

Union Station was, of course, reopened as a festival marketplace in 1985.  On 20th Street just across the street to the west stood a former YMCA building built in 1907. In the 1970s it contained the places shown on the above ad from 1976.

ABOVE: Railroad YMCA building contained gay bars in the 1970s

Today the building continues to serve travelers with a Drury Inn and Lombardo’s Trattoria.  Remember, “It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A.” Learn more at www.stlouisgayhistory.com

– Steve Patterson

 

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