The signage is, in fact, an advertisement of a kind. The idea was generated not from social justice warriors who campaigned before City Hall but rather from Mastercard. It was Mastercard that took the concept to the city’s Commission on Human Rights. Even though there is no logo announcing itself on the installation, word of the lineage has gotten around and triggered an uneasiness in a part of the world already fatigued by corporate interference in gay life.
It was Mastercard, with the expressed support of various L.G.B.T.Q. groups, that sent a letter to the city’s transportation commissioner in July, advocating for the signs to remain. The city’s transportation department installs street signs, but it has virtually nothing to do with what they are named, decisions that fall under the purview of community boards and ultimately the City Council.
Historians assume Gay Street was given its name in the 1820s; it appears officially in city records for the first time in 1827. During the turn of the 19th century, many African-Americans who were domestic workers for the wealthy families living on and around Washington Square made their homes there. It is because of these associations that people who have lived on the block liked to think about the street in relation to Sydney Howard Gay, the editor of The National Anti-Slavery Standard and a key operative in the Underground Railroad, which some believe might have included stops on the block.
It seems unlikely the street honors him: Sydney Howard Gay would have been 13 years old in 1827. Still, people might think about his antislavery crusade when they see the sign; they might think about the lives of African-Americans in New York in the decades after the Civil War. Alternatively, they might have no idea who Sydney Howard Gay actually was and be thinking only about how much they can comfortably put on their Mastercard around the corner at Leffot, the home of the $775 Dearborn ankle boot. In this case, it might serve the greater good to move past street signs and mount a plaque outlining the street’s history.
It seems clear that Gay Street was named for a man named Gay — someone, according to property records, living on the Bowery in the late 1700s, someone whose distinctions have been lost to the past.
Gay Street is also just around the corner from the Stonewall Inn, a landmark to the movement for L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and Christopher Park, formerly Sheridan Square, a national park dedicated to celebrating those rights. Ms. Kelly would like to see the new signage moved there. Her friend Margaret Kunstler, who no longer lives on Gay Street but still owns the house that she shared with her husband there, would simply prefer to see the Gay Street sign reprinted as a rainbow. The new signs make a mockery of the word ‘“gay,” she wrote to Ms. Kelly in an email, “something bigots did and still do.”