The history of New York's legendary Mafia-owned leather bar The Mineshaft

The Mineshaft operated in New York City's Meatpacking district from 1976 until it was shut down by the Dept of Health in 1985.

Image: Shutterstock

Before the HIV/AIDS epidemic emerged in the 1980’s, gay nightlife in New York City was beyond iconic. Unfortunately, much of this changed when the onset of the HIV epidemic led to widespread gentrification throughout the city, including the closure of the legendary, Mafia-owner gay leather bar, the Mineshaft. 

Queer historian Jack Fritscher revived the previously well-known gay bar following its 1985 closure when he interviewed Wally Wallace, the founder and manager of the Mineshaft. Owned and operated in NYC’s Meatpacking District, the Mineshaft was a hot spot in the NYC gay scene from 1976 to 1985. Fritscher’s interview with Wallace was featured in his recently-released book Profiles in Gay Courage: Leatherfolk, Arts, and Ideas. 

In the interview, Wallace admitted that the Mafia-owned gay bar was originally an unsuccessful endeavour, competing with two other local leather bars; The Eagle and the Spike. As a result, Wallace reported that the Mineshaft was often filled with underage clientele. 

Wallace reported that his dream was for the Mineshaft to become a private club for leathermen. Playing a mix of jazz, new wave, and space music, the Mineshaft primarily sold beer and had an later closing time than more New York City bars – at 10am. While most bars in the city were required to close their doors at 4am, the Mineshaft was able to skirt these restrictions as it was a private venue. 

Featuring a bathtub for water sports, sex swings, and a backroom for sexually adventurous visitors, Wallace reported that “before AIDS, there were a good four or five years when people were pretty wild and abandoned. They did almost anything they wanted” at the Mineshaft. 

Soon after Wallace opened the bar in 1976, he reportedly turned away Camille O’Grady, a punk artist and the then-partner of transgressive queer photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. 

After Wallace realised who she was, O’Grady became the only woman allowed at the Mineshaft and later became the venue’s official photographer.  

Despite the venue’s prominence at a leather bar, Wallace reported that his clients eventually decided against a leather dress code, claiming that the young patrons often couldn’t afford full leather outfits. As a result, patrons were only required to wear shoes, in line with New York City’s fire code, and were forbidden from wearing cologne to maintain a more natural, musky smell in the bar. 

“We would allow jockstraps, raunch wear, torn T-shirts, that sort of thing — anything that would make a guy look or feel sexy,” Wallace told Fritscher. “We would not allow dress shirts and ties, suits, dress pants, sweaters. That was a big thing. People should not wear sweaters in leather bars, even though there is a hot military sweater. In the early days, in time, as the uniform clubs evolved, there were things like military tights and sweaters we could allow.”

Throughout its tenure, The Mineshaft often held no-sex fundraisers for a series of causes, including a benefit night raising money for the nine men who died in a fire in 1977 at the local Everard Baths. The bar similarly was renowned for hosting its annual “Criscomas Party,” a bodypainting contest that ended in men having a design burned into their skin with a hot iron. 

According to Wallace, the bar gained significant notoriety after being featured in the controversial 1980’s slasher flick Cruising. When the film’s production crew approached Wallace asking to use the bar’s likeness in their film, he refused, saying that only Mapplethorpe was allowed to photograph the venue. 

To get around his refusal, Wallace claims that the filmmakers abused a preexisting relationship between the film’s security agents and the New York Police Department to arrange for the NYPD to illegally arrest Wallace. 

While Wallace was detained over allegedly trumped up charges relating to a liquor license violation, Wallace claims that “a crew from the movie company went into the Mineshaft and photographed everything.”

Speaking on how The Mineshaft attracted new customers over the years, Wallace said: “We didn’t advertise because we were supposed to be a private club and the members were supposed to introduce us to new members.

 “Of course, word of mouth was our best source. We got the people we wanted that way.”

A number of well-known leather groups at the time helped the bar gain its notoriety over the years, including the Fist F—ers of America, the Total Ass Involvement League, the Interchange, and the Gay Men’s S&M Association. 

At its peak, the bar became so successful that it overtook the entire building, later installing a rooftop bar. Expansion and renovations allowed the Mineshaft to host as many as 1,000 patrons on any given night. 

“Our guys had generally grown to a point in life where they were old enough to know what they wanted,” Wallace added. “They knew what kink was. They were single guys. They weren’t out to blind date, nor to emulate the straight world in terms of sexuality, lovers, dogs, and family.”

On November 7, 1985, the Mineshaft was shut down by the New York City Department of Health. Wallace claims the bar was shut down despite its cooperation with the department when it came to handing out condoms and HIV-prevention literature. 

While Wallace suspects that the shutdown was brought on by a group of self-policing gay men working in the city’s government, he admits that shady tax dealings behind the Mafia-owned bar likely didn’t aid in preventing the end of the Mineshaft. 

© 2023 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

Support GCN

GCN has been a vital, free-of-charge information service for Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community since 1988.

During this global COVID pandemic, we like many other organisations have been impacted greatly in the way we can do business and produce. This means a temporary pause to our print publication and live events and so now more than ever we need your help to continue providing this community resource digitally.

GCN is a registered charity with a not-for-profit business model and we need your support. If you value having an independent LGBTQ+ media in Ireland, you can help from as little as €1.99 per month. Support Ireland’s free, independent LGBTQ+ media.

0 comments. Please sign in to comment.