The Peak of Lesbian Enterprise


An unprecedented number of Lesbian enterprises existed in Northampton in 1976-77, both old ones and new, that evolved out of the 1975-76 Separatist struggles. What particularly made this creative flowering different was that Lesbians were, for the first and only time, able to control, rent, and/or buy multiple spaces within downtown Northampton.

This was made possible in large part by the economic decay of the downtown. Its largest business, McCallums Department Store, had closed and many others followed as the city’s population sprawled and shopping malls were built further and further down King St.

When I moved to Green St. in 1970,  everything I needed was within walking distance. Over the next decade, much of that disappeared except for a changing cast of banks, bars, and restaurants. One by one, all but two of the neighborhood markets folded as well as the A&P on Bridge St. and the supermarket on Conz St. The working population that lived downtown in rooming houses or over just about every business aged and declined, too. Two downtown schools – Hawley Junior High and St. Michaels – closed. The working people’s businesses I relied on began to close their doors: Fine’s Clothing, Woolworth’s Five and Dime, Tepper’s General Store, Foster and Farrar Hardware, Whalen’s Office Supply. For a brief time, before real estate speculation and gentrification took hold and turned Hamp into Noho (competing nicknames), space affordable to women became available.

Below is a map of current downtown that I’ve amended with the location of the major 1970s Lesbian enterprises, which peaked in 1976-77. Following it is a brief description of the activity that took place at each address. All of this will be detailed in future posts if I haven’t already.bst 70s map_edited-2

#1. 200 Main St. Lesbian Gardens. Third floor space that was originally rented along with half the second floor by the Valley Women’s Center/Union. 1974-77. Currently Harlow Luggage building.

#2. 66 Green St. Green St.Top two floors, rooming house that started to be lesbian in 1972 and continued to be all or mostly lesbian at least until 1991. Building bought and demolished by Smith College. Currently grass.

#3. 1 Bridge St. Gala Café.  Lesbian backroom 1975-1979. Torn down, part of Spoleto’s currently in that space.

#4. 25 Main St. Nutcracker Suite. One large room on a back corridor as I recall, I believe on the fourth floor, 1976-77. This address also was used by the Grand Jury Information Project, Ceres Inc., and later, I believe, by Chrysalis Theatre. It was in what is now known as the Fitzwilly’s (Masonic) building.

#5. 19 Hawley St. The Egg and Marigolths. 1976-77 (estimated). Originally rented in 1973 by Mother Jones Press which in 1976 became Megaera Press and joined with Old Lady Bluejeans distributing and the Women’s Film Coop to form the Women’s Image Takeover WIT. Additional space in the building was rented to accommodate several craftswomyn and Greasy Gorgon Garage auto repair. These formed a collective of businesses with the self-chosen odd name. Sweet Coming bookstore moved there in 1977.

#6.  78 Masonic St. Common Womon Club. 1976-82. Private dining club for feminist vegetarians owned by the non-profit Ceres Inc. Later bought by Bill Streeter for his book bindery. Currently it is the Mosaic Café.

#7.  68 Masonic St. Nutcracker Suite: Women’s Self Defense and Karate Dojo. Moved from Main St. 1977-78. Womonfyre Books. 1978-82. Owned by Ceres Inc. Later bought by Bart’s Ice Cream as their bakery. Currently it is lesbian owned Bela Vegetarian Restaurant.

Bars and the Violent Backlash


Being a small town may have spared Northampton the particularly virulent backlash that began to be experienced in the 1970s by feminist, lesbian and gay organizations in large cities. Bars, conferences, centers, publications and presses across the country had begun to be subjected to sniping, break-ins, vandalizing and arson.  The nearest incident was the Springfield firebombing of the Arch bar in 1973, which may have been Mafia related, but the Boston offices of Gay Community News were burglarized in the 70s before being destroyed by arson in 1982. Northampton, however, wasn’t totally spared a violent reaction to the new lesbian visibility.

One response of the growing number of lesbians that began to come out in 1975 was to find local bar space rather than travel to Springfield or Chicopee. Jeanie, owner of the Gala Cafe on Bridge Street, was amenable to hosting women in the bar’s backroom once a week and discouraging men from intruding there. The bar with blinking neon lights was a small, squat pink stucco building between the railroad overpass and Jack August’s restaurant. The backroom, which may have once been for family dining, held a jukebox and booths squeezed round a dance floor.

 

jean gala
“Jean at the Gala.” 24”x36” etching by Barbara Johnson. Used by permission of the artist.

 

When the first lesbian disc jockeys began to spin records there, the place soon became packed, attracting many more gay women than just those who were politically active in town. This custom was to continue through 1979. Because the Gala was so small, in the summer of 1975, the larger backroom of Packards on Masonic Street was rented for “Wednesday Nights at Zelda’s.”

 

gala cafe_edited-1
“Remember When?” Handtinted photo by Sandra Leigh Russell. Used by permission of the photographer.

 

Over the summer of 1975, there was greatly increased visibility of lesbians on Northampton streets several nights a week. Women leaving these neighborhood bars began to be taunted by men. Rumor had it that several weeks of harassment culminated in a lesbian being attacked outside the Gala by several men armed with a shovel and a machete. The rape of a lesbian who was walking home from the bar was also rumored. (I am still seeking substantiation. Without it, I can’t verify these incidents.)

Responding to the increasing frequency of such incidents, Lesbians formed a Community Education and Self-defense Group in August of 1975 that organized small groups of women which became known as the Dyke Patrol. They established a physical presence outside the two bars, Lesbian Gardens and the occasional Wimmin’s dance, and also escorted women to their parked cars. This seems to have worked as an immediate deterrent, for the Patrol was disbanded six months later. It was, however the beginning of a violent male pushback on the streets of Northampton that would escalate over the next decade as Lesbians, and then Gay men, insisted on a new visibility in the City.

The Gala Café was razed in 1983 along with Jack August’s, the restaurant next door, to make way for a sports bar.

 

SOURCES:

  __[Raymond], Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. the Valley Women’s Movement: A Herstorical Chronology 1968-1978. Ceres Inc. Northampton. 1978. Valley Women's History Collaborative

__Old South St. Study Group. “Analysis of a Lesbian Community-Part One.” Lesbian Connection. Jul 1977. P7-8.

__Potter, Clare. The lesbian periodicals index. Naiad Press. Tallahassee FL. 1986.               Listed, between 1973-1979: Sniper shot at women convening in Seattle; Gay Community News (Boston) and Majority Report (NY) offices burglarized; A NYC women’s center vandalized; St. Louis Women’s Center and Iowa Clinic firebombed; Fires also set at the Los Angeles MCC Church, Seattle Gay Community Center and a St. Louis bar.

__Mitchell, Phoebe. “Last Call for a Bar Ahead of Its Time.” Daily Hampshire Gazette. July 07, 2004. Northampton MA.