Political Notes: Black Cat Tavern, 1st California LGBTQ state landmark, receives its plaque

  • Monday October 9, 2023
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The Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles, a former gay bar that police raided in 1967, was officially designated a state historic landmark on October 1, the beginning of LGBTQ History Month. Photo: Screengrab via ABC 7-TV
The Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles, a former gay bar that police raided in 1967, was officially designated a state historic landmark on October 1, the beginning of LGBTQ History Month. Photo: Screengrab via ABC 7-TV

Across California are hundreds of sites designated as official state historical landmarks, from the homes of prominent individuals and locations of important businesses to religious structures and arts institutions. In addition to having bronze plaques explaining their importance at the property where the landmarks stand or once stood, brown directional signage featuring a Grizzly bear and the name of a landmark can be found on highways and roadways alerting drivers that a historic site is 500 feet away.

Until this month, none of the markers for a California Historical Landmark had to do with LGBTQ history. That changed when the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles was officially dedicated as landmark #1063 on October 1 to mark the start of LGBTQ History Month.

The former gay bar at 3909 W. Sunset Boulevard in the city's Silver Lake district was where police conducted a raid at midnight on January 1, 1967. They arrested 14 male patrons, charging six with lewd conduct for same-sex kissing.

Community outrage over the incident led hundreds of people to protest outside the bar against police entrapment and arbitrary arrest. The peaceful demonstration held on February 11, 1967, is considered to be Southern California's first public protest for gay rights.

Coming two years before the better known Stonewall riots in New York City, long considered the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement, the protest outside the Black Cat was the first large LGBTQ civil rights demonstration to be documented in the U.S.

The bronze marker designating the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles as a state historic landmark was unveiled October 1, the beginning of LGBTQ History Month. Photo: Screengrab via ABC 7-TV  

The site was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 2008. Since 2012, a gastropub called The Black Cat has operated at the location.

The California State Historical Resources Commission approved its becoming a state historic landmark in January 2022. But it wasn't until this month that the bronze plaque denoting it as such was unveiled.

"It is important to teach an inclusive history of California because everyone deserves to have their history told, '' stated Ray Najera, executive director of the California Landmark Foundation, in a Facebook post last month announcing the dedication ceremony for the Black Cat landmark. "The state landmark system has been in place for almost 100 years and this is the first and only registered California Historical Landmark that recognizes LGBTQ+ history; this is a step in the right direction."

Attending the ceremony was 87-year-old Alexei Romanoff, who 56 years ago helped organize the demonstration against the police raid of the bar.

"I wish you all to have as good of a life as I have had because our community created it for us," said Romanoff at the unveiling, as the local ABC-TV affiliate reported.

Speaking to the Bay Area Reporter by phone October 6, Najera said the Black Cat's plaque is the first new one the foundation he launched three years ago had helped install. It has replaced three bronze plaques that went missing at the sites of other landmarks in the state.

"It is a fun process. I know we are going to create more plaques for landmarks in the future," said Najera, who quit his job with the Internal Revenue Service earlier this year to focus fulltime on the foundation.

The Fresno resident works on it as a volunteer and isn't compensated, while his wife serves on the board. A friend of his from San Francisco is another board member.

He launched the nonprofit after meeting Kyle Jarrett, a gay Los Angeles resident who had created the Bill Beaver Project. It is built around the escapades of a plush beaver that since 2011 has visited over 1,100 California Historical Landmarks and 230 national parks and monuments around the country.

Jarrett posts photos of Bill Beaver at each of the sites to his website and social media pages. Discovering the site inspired Najera to also visit landmarks around the state and to reach out to Jarrett.

In 2017, Jarrett launched a successful effort to install a historical landmark plaque at the Richmond Shipyards District in the East Bay city. No one had bothered to do so since it became a state landmark in 2000.

He mentioned wanting to have the Black Cat become a state landmark to Najera, but had been unable to get a response from the property owner. So Najera began working on it with Jarrett six years ago and was able to line up the support of the property owner, which is a requirement for a site being designated a state landmark.

They then submitted the necessary paperwork and documentation to the California Office of Historic Preservation, leading to the Black Cat receiving its state landmark status last year. Yet, unless a landmark is on state-owned property, there really isn't any other entity working to install the bronze plaques for the sites, Najera told the B.A.R. It was what prompted him to launch the California Landmark Foundation, on whose board Jarrett is also a member.

Najera had also learned that the state doesn't have a dedicated group working to replace the markers for state landmarks that get stolen. He had contacted the state historic office to inquire about a missing marker he had discovered when visiting a site in Kern County.

"I could tell it had not been there for a long time," recalled Najera. "I got curious as to why has the state not replaced the plaque."

Working to restore monuments
Through its Historical Preservation Foundation established in 2000, the nonprofit Native Sons of the Golden West has worked to restore monuments. The Mountain Charlie Chapter of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, a fraternal organization, has also worked on installing plaques at monuments throughout the West.

In the case of the Black Cat plaque, Jarrett paid $5,000 for the first one created. But a mistake was found in the text, so the owners of the restaurant paid for a new one with updated text to be created; the property owner covered the $6,000 cost for the concrete base the plaque sits on.

"It was just riveting. I was so excited," Jarrett, reached in Boston last week where he was on vacation, told the B.A.R. about seeing it be publicly unveiled.

Not many people pay close attention to the state landmark program, said Jarrett, who noted sites must be at least 50 years old in order to be eligible for such recognition.

"Yes, people are very surprised that in 2023, we are just now getting to LGBTQ history," said Jarrett, "but the reality is a lot of big events in LGBTQ history have only just now crossed that 50-year threshold to become eligible to be a California Historic Landmark."

As to what may be the second LGBTQ state landmark, Najera told the B.A.R. he isn't sure. For now, his foundation is focused on replacing more markers that have gone missing at already created state landmarks.

"We haven't thought about the second," he said.

Compton's site in SF
Jarrett told the B.A.R. he would like to see the next LGBTQ state landmark be the Compton's Cafeteria site in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. It is where a transgender uprising against police harassment of patrons of the now-defunct eatery took place sometime during the summer of 1966, though the exact date has been lost to history.

As the B.A.R. reported in September, officials overseeing the National Register of Historic Places requested the applicant for the Compton's site at 101 Taylor Street make some revisions before a final decision is made on adding it to the federal register. It received city recognition as a local landmark last November.

"Technically, the Compton's Cafeteria picketing came first, so that is going to have to be next," said Jarrett.

While there are several sites in San Francisco that have been recognized by the state for their historical significance to LGBTQ history, such as the birthplace of lesbian writer Alice B. Toklas at 922 O'Farrell Street and the Japanese YWCA/Issei Women's Building at 1830 Sutter Street, none have been submitted to be designated a California landmark. The city's planning department has no plans to do so, according to Chief of Staff Daniel A. Sider.

"Regarding LGBTQ landmarks, we *do* have a number of local LGBTQ landmarks; we also have LGBTQ listings on the California Register of Historical Places. The State Landmarks Program is a different animal, and we have no listings on it," wrote Sider in an emailed reply to the B.A.R. "We're much more focused on our local programs."

Shayne Watson, a lesbian who owns Watson Heritage Consulting and has been involved in documenting San Francisco's LGBTQ history and recognizing local LGBTQ historic sites, told the B.A.R. she was surprised to hear the news about the Black Cat becoming a state landmark. She hadn't been aware it was the first such LGBTQ site to achieve that level of recognition.

"This is all new to me. This is fascinating," she said. "I first heard about this when the LA Conservancy posted about it on Instagram and I shared it."

As for the list of state landmarks, Watson told the B.A.R. that "in my experience, everyone thinks of it as an antiquated list and it is never worth the effort to go through the designation process to get something on there."

One reason for that is under today's preservation laws, merely having a property be deemed eligible for listing on the state or national registers for historic sites offers the structures some protection from being demolished, explained Watson. And getting properties local historic designations provides even more protections, she noted.

Nonetheless, "this is another level of memorialization for LGBTQ history," said Watson. "It is the highest level of designation for California, so it's a big deal for me."

Jay Correia, a supervisor for cultural resources programs, registration and project review units at the state historic office, told the B.A.R. it has yet to receive an application for more LGBTQ sites to become California Historical Landmarks. It would welcome receiving such proposals, he added.

"We are all passionate about state history and the history of all people. It is so important to tell the whole story about our history," said Correia.

While the state office doesn't assign more importance to the properties that become state landmarks, as opposed to those listed on the California Register of Historical Resources or designated a California Point of Historical Interest, Correia acknowledged that they receive more attention from the public, especially by those like Jarrett and Najera who aim to visit all of the landmarks in the state.

"Yes, these landmarks are much beloved," said Correia.

As for seeing the brown directional sign for the Black Cat be installed, Correia told the B.A.R. that those interested in having it be produced usually must contact the jurisdiction in charge of the street, highway, or freeway — so the city, county, or state respectively — where it will be hung and request that the sign be placed there.

"There is actually a provision in California Public Resources Code that requires the sign to be placed, and everyone is always cooperative in doing so," he noted.

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