Though it was a fixture of downtown Richmond from the 1940s through the late-1970s, you’re not likely to find the Block on any map of the era.
Also termed “the meat rack” by some, the Block was a late-night outdoor gay cruising spot that shifted its location over the years in an attempt to avoid police interference. This “out in the open” pick-up site complemented various other meeting places that catered to LGBTQ+ nightlife at the time, including bars like Eton’s, Marroni’s and Renee’s.
This is some of the seldom documented LGBTQ+ history that the Richmond’s Pride Ride hopes to highlight this year. Unlike last year’s Pride Ride, which featured a group cycling tour around the city that culminated in a cookout, the second annual event is a DIY affair in light of the pandemic.
Through maps that can be found online or in a zine format, cyclists can tour the city independently to learn about Richmond’s LGBTQ+ history. A limited number of maps will be distributed at 10 Little Free Libraries around town in a zine format.
Cosponsored by Women Trans Femme Ride RVA, Rag & Bones Bicycle Co-op and cycling initiative VCU RamBikes, the map was researched and created by Alexa Santisteban, Sera Erickson and Elise Ketch. The idea for a map of historical sites came about as a way to celebrate Richmond’s LGBTQ+ community while still practicing social distancing during the pandemic.
“We thought, ‘How can we still send people on a Pride Ride by themselves?’ and thought that it would be cool to investigate some of the history surrounding the LGBTQ movement in Richmond,” says Erickson, a longtime mechanic and organizer with Rag & Bones and bicycle program coordinator for VCU RamBikes. “This kind of starts in 1969, the same year as the Stonewall riots.”
Through research pulled from Beth Marschak and Alex Lorch’s 2008 book “Lesbian and Gay Richmond,” the website OutHistory.org and other sources, Santisteban chose 20 locations to highlight north of the James River.
“[There were] a lot of interesting sites that I didn’t expect to find, because it’s not as accessible,” says Santisteban, a mechanic who helps with programming with VCU RamBikes. “There’s not a lot of written history about the community here in Richmond, and so it was really interesting to go through and find some of these locations.”
In March of 1969, months before the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village that would foment the gay liberation movement, Richmond experienced a crackdown of its LGBTQ+-friendly bars, with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control revoking the beer and wine licenses of Renee’s at the Capitol Hotel and the Rathskeller in Carytown for serving gays, according to Marschak and Lorch’s book. These closures led to the first open protest of anti-gay action in Richmond.
Later organizing efforts, such as the formation of groups like Lesbian Womyn of Color, Richmond Lesbian Feminists, Richmond Black Pride and the Gay Alliance of Students are also included on the map. Other points of interest include cultural sites like Diversity Richmond, Richmond Triangle Players and the now-defunct early lesbian bookstore Labrys Books on North Allen Avenue.
Santisteban says it was enlightening to see where events from Richmond’s LGBTQ+ past had taken place around the city.
“I didn’t know that I was walking by buildings where history had happened so many years ago,” they say.
As a queer transgender person of color, Santisteban was especially intrigued to learn about the formation of Lesbian Womyn of Color in 1993. The group began as a social, political and cultural organization to address the needs of lesbians of color.
“Knowing that they existed was a really cool piece of history that I wasn’t expecting to find,” they say. “That’s one of the spots that I was really excited to put on the map.”
More than anything, Santisteban hopes the map and the Pride Ride get people interested in the city’s often neglected LGBTQ+ past.
“Hopefully this can lead to more efforts to have more written history about what has happened here in Richmond,” they say. “We hope that people document their rides and share it with us, because we definitely want to see people enjoying it.”
The map for Richmond’s 2020 Pride Ride can be found at tinyurl.com/rvaprideride.