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A woman leads a tour group in front of a red brick building.
Photograph: By Hyosil Yang

Explore LGBTQ+ history on these new Queer Harlem Renaissance walking tours

The buildings were demolished, but the stories live on.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

Step back in time to remember and celebrate the Queer Harlem Renaissance on these new walking tours. The experience traverses Harlem to witness the people, places and histories of the 1920s-1930s, spotlighting drag balls, rent parties, musical performances and daily life.

To take the adventure to the next level, a phone app with augmented reality couples with the tour for even more historical context, imagery and even audio. While exploring the neighborhood's history, the tours focus on the influence of gay social networks on the development of the Harlem Renaissance and on the importance of sexual identity. Tours are coming up on Wednesday, October 18 and Thursday, November 9; register here.

RECOMMENDED: A groundbreaking Harlem Renaissance exhibition is coming to the Met this winter

From roughly 1919 to 1935, the Harlem Renaissance heralded works by Black artists and writers. 

"Queer history, especially Black queer history, is often marginalized or fully erased from collective consciousness," the tour's creators told Time Out New York. "By digitally re-creating, sharing, and amplifying these landmarks, we are ensuring that a crucial history is not forgotten."

Abri Aiken, an architectural designer at DLR Group, and Terry Valery II, a UX consultant, created the application. Aiken hosts the tour with Brian Turner, a co-author of the book Disappearing Queer Spaces, which formed the basis of the app.

A man holds up an ipad showing how the app works.
Photograph: By Hyosil Yang

On the first tour this summer, guests got a chance to truly be truly immersed in history while visualizing the era through the app.

"Many Harlem-based individuals noted that they walked past these locations almost daily and never knew of the exciting queer history in the heart of Harlem," Aiken said. 

The free-to-download app features now-demolished locations such as Lafayette Theater, which was a major performance venue; The Hotel Olga known as the "premier hotel for African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance"; and Clam House, a popular nightclub for LGBTQ+ people during the era. A map pinpoints the venues' exact locations.

The app also showcases several notable people in the movement, including Bessie Smith, the iconic bisexual "Empress of Blues," Wallace Thurman who edited several Black magazines, and, of course, poet and activist Langston Hughes. 

Many Harlem-based individuals noted that they walked past these locations almost daily and never knew of the exciting queer history in the heart of Harlem. 

"It allows users to step into the past, walk through the digitally created ballrooms, hear queer performers on stage, watch drag performances, and truly visualize and learn about the queer Harlem Renaissance," Aiken said about the app.

The concept for the tour began in 2022 when Columbia University students created the Disappearing Queer Spaces book to spotlight places that were significant to the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. The published the book digitally, printed 200 copies and sought to share the story even more widely.

"In a time when drag balls are being banned and queer and Black hate crimes are rampant throughout the country and the world," Aiken said, "it is important to remember the origins of this beautiful community and bring about awareness." 

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