I love the banality of this image, which perfectly captures the casual embeddedness of the Little Theatre in Newark’s urban landscape: here we have a bank, there two churches, and next door a diner. Then, at 562 Broad Street, the longest running movie theater in New Jersey’s largest city (opened in 1930), which has been showing pornography for half a century. There’s even a charter school across the street—quite likely the only porn theater within a single block of a school in all the United States, I’d wager!
In contrast to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other major cities, almost no scholar (with the exception of the brilliant anthropologist Ana Ramos-Zayas) has attributed to Newark any sort of erotics whatsoever (the same can be said of most postindustrial, Black and Latino-majority cities, largely written out of the US historiography of sexuality). Yet the Little Theatre’s persistence, as all but two other adult theaters in the entire NYC metro area have fallen to the forces of gentrification, home video/internet, and sex apps, shows how pornography can point to urban sexual histories yet unrecorded.
The fall of Times Square often marks the death of public sex cultures in dominant narratives, but at the Queer Newark Oral History Project, we’ve documented a robust history of public sex in Newark, dating from the 1950s through the present and taking place in parks, train stations, and elsewhere. As a central site of this, the Little Theatre, whose multiracial, cross-class (but resolutely masculinist) mode of sociality includes open sexual display, embodies some of the democratic values Samuel Delany famously outlined in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.
That it’s on the wane (currently for lease) points toward the ways neoliberalism and redevelopment, with their relentless privatizing imperatives, snuff out public and sexual cultures. But that it persisted so long suggests the unwieldly but irrepressible nexus of urban desire etched across one of the nation’s pioneering cities of Black Power politics, a story that gets lost when we reduce Newark to memories of riots, the unsexy parts of Philip Roth novels, and Cory Booker’s twitter account, while locating urban eros only in such affluent, media-anointed hubs as the Castro, Greenwich Village, or West Hollywood.