Located on Hudson Street in New York City’s West Village is Henrietta Hudson. Over the past 29 years, the bar has become an institution within the LBGTQ+ community and is also the longest continuously operating bar for queer women in the U.S. Opened in 1991, the bar helped to foster a space for lesbian-identified people and the queer community at large. The bar has not only served as a refuge for everyone who’s come through its doors, it’s also been vital in developing a deeper sense of community through countless live performances, drag shows, themed dance nights, and other programming. But, in 2020, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Greenwich Village stalwart has shut its doors, putting the bar in a precarious financial situation.
The bar survived 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and the 2008 recession. The queer bar empire that Lisa Cannistraci and her business partner Minnie Rivera built is no stranger to adversity. And they are ready to take this latest bump in the road head on. Despite this current setback, Henrietta Hudson’s staff is harnessing momentum to keep their doors open and stay positive in the process.
“It’s terrible that the pandemic happened, but it makes me feel more secure that we were truly at the top of our game when it happened, which puts us in a great position to reopen,” Cannistraci said.
Before closing their doors in March, Cannistraci noted that it had been the busiest three years in Henrietta Hudson’s history. While the bar has seen many changes over the years, Cannistraci and her staff made changes to remain relevant and be an inviting and inclusive space for everyone from the queer community.
“When we started really reinventing the space for the third time, it was 2012,” Cannistraci said. “I would talk to young queer kids, and I would say, ’cause I go to so many events, ‘Would you go to Henrietta’s?’ And they would say to me, honestly but respectfully, ‘No, that place is so old.’ So, the iconic status was turning the business … then. Now it’s helping it. So we rebranded, modernized the logo, we upped the staff and [added] more events that represented the whole gender binary spectrum including trans folks and young queer kids—and it was a game changer. It was a slow uptick, like a match that was ignited slowly ... it’s like Henrietta’s just got, like, supercharged,” Cannistraci said.
For many of its staff and regular customers, it has become more than a bar. It’s a safe space that has helped to foster new relationships while bringing the queer community closer together. Franny Scott first found Henrietta Hudson during Pride in 2015. She had originally gone there to celebrate with friends, but in the five years that have followed, she has found a second home in the bar and its staff.
“A lot of times at Henrietta Hudson I have met new people, and it eventually became a safe place to go and dance. I never really have to even go there to party and drink. It just became a place where I can go dance and escape and not have to worry about being groped 24/7 like I would at other places if I wanted to go dance alone,” said Scott.
In March, with the looming order of businesses being shut down, Cannistraci called a staff meeting and informed them of what she saw coming. She knew they would be closing sooner than later, so the few extra days helped prepare them for what was about to occur and also allowed them to file for unemployment and get ahead of the millions of others who would have to follow suit in the weeks to come. In the two months since then, Henrietta Hudson’s staff has had to make the transition from serving their customers and hosting a number of weekly events to socially isolating and participating in events online.
“I’ve been missing interaction,” said staff member Vic Cruz. “Hens is home for a lot of us queer womxn. I’ve suffered a bit of sensory deprivation because of it. It feels like a relief every time, walking in there. Knowing every person that walks through that door is someone you can connect and relate to. That’s such an amazing feeling. Our customers come in to feel that atmosphere we have set—which is an atmosphere of respect and acceptance.”
Although states across the country are slowly starting to reopen, bars and restaurants are adjusting to this new normal. At the end of March, the National Restaurant Association reported that 3% of restaurants in the U.S. had already permanently closed, and another 11% expected to close in April. Henrietta Hudson is no different. They are trying to find their footing in a situation that is constantly evolving.
While the bar remains physically closed, they have continued to be active through their social media channels, hosting a number of zoom events, including live DJ sets, karaoke, comedy events, and more. This pivot to online programming is a new reality many places are facing—and with the larger number of events that the bar has already hosted, they are well ahead of this emerging curve.
In addition to being the bar’s owner, Cannistraci has also been involved in many social justice causes directly related to the LGBTQ+ community. She served on the West Village Community Board and the board of directors of Marriage Equality New York, as well as serving as the vice president of Marriage Equality USA, among other positions. These experiences have helped position her as both an advocate for the LBGTQ+ community as well as her own business. Cannistraci has launched a number of online fundraisers to help the staff and to assist the bar when they are able to reopen. Through crowdsourcing efforts on Facebook, Venmo (@Henrietta-Hudson), GoFundMe, PayPal, and Instagram, they have raised over $37,000 of their $40,000 goal. They also recently launched an online store with merchandise people can purchase, featuring items such as drinking glasses, T-shirts, flasks, mugs, greeting cards, and more.
With Pride in full swing this month, the bar has also planned a number of online events so that people are still able to engage with their community in a digital way. They have recently done a number of online collaborations with publications such as Curve magazine, one of the oldest publications geared towards queer women in the U.S., as well as kicking off Pride this past Friday with Leilah Vision, a queer femme entertainer. All the proceeds they made from their Pride event on Friday were donated to the Audre Lorde Project. Through this month, they will continue to host their regular events such as Turnt Up Fridays and Snatch Saturdays, in addition to doing more collaborations with a number of organizations and entertainers from across the globe.
While Henrietta Hudson still remains closed and are fundraising for their own cause, they are still managing to help those within their community. This is an inherent part of the bar that Cannistraci and Rivera helped to revitalize and make an inclusive space for everyone. Although the future of New York City’s bar and restaurant scene is still unknown, Henrietta Hudson plans to reopen and will continue to be a place where people can come together and celebrate who they are.
Be sure to check out Henrietta Hudson’s social media to stay up to date on their events for Pride as well as their larger fundraising efforts.