Only days before the Stonewall uprising in Greenwich Village, a mob of some 20 local men descended on the southern edge of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Using power saws and axes, they leveled a grove of trees that was known as a gay cruising spot.
According to a New York Times report at the time, “15 dogwood trees, 11 London planes, a number of wild-cherry trees and other greenery” were felled. The parks department estimated the trees would cost $15,000 to replace — more than $100,000 today. All while police officers reportedly stood by.
By the morning of June 21, all that remained were heaps of severed trunks and tree stumps oozing sap.
A number of the “vigilantes,” as they were referred to in the press, lived in an apartment complex near the park. A few weeks earlier they had formed a committee and started harassing men who met among the trees. The locals patrolled the area nightly, using walkie-talkies to communicate with one another. When they would find a couple, they shined flashlights on them and rousted the men — who were often closeted, married or both — from the park. Eventually, they razed the site.
An eyewitness to the destruction of the trees, Joan Luxenburg, told The New York Times some days later that she had reported the vandalism to the police in the area and offered to identify at least one of the men, but that the officers ignored her. According to her, the police said that the men “were doing a job which the police were not able to do to the satisfaction of the community.”
Another man, who declined to give his name, said the police chatted with the men responsible and left without making an arrest. The police denied witnessing the crime.
One of the so-called vigilantes, a 26-year-old lawyer, told a reporter from The Times, “Admittedly it was against the law, but we had police consent,” adding that his group was “concerned for the safety of the women and children.”
A woman interviewed at the time, however, said: “They say they were protecting mothers and children? Nonsense. What mothers and children are out at 1 o’clock in the morning?”
A subsequent letter to the editor by a Brooklyn man named William J. Primavera argued: “The excuse of protecting their wives and children is absurd. Homosexuals are not in the park looking for wives and children. Besides, I’m sure that a woman would rather share a park with some homosexuals instead of 30 or 40 vigilantes, running around with walkie-talkies and flashlights, scaring people.”
One gay rights group that brought attention to the incident was the Mattachine Society, which started a fund to replant the trees. Randy Wicker, 81, who is one of its last surviving members, recalled what happened in a recent phone interview. “People were always trying to destroy these areas where men would gather and frolic,” he said. “But Queens was another world. There weren’t even any gay bars there yet. And this case was unusual because it was an organized vigilante incident with the approval of local people. I’m sure those men just wanted to cut the trees that night, but what if it had gotten worse?
“The story is just so suburban,” he added. “Chain saws? In Manhattan, you couldn’t go into Central Park with chain saws to chop down a cruising spot like the Ramble. We don’t do that here.”
Queens was known as a fiercely conservative borough at the time, said Brendan Fay, a longtime gay activist in Queens, and public parks served as vital meeting places for gay men. “People think of sex when they think of cruising, but these were places we went to hold hands, to touch, to embrace. These men were usually married and closeted, and this vigilante group taunted and shamed these men who were meeting to fulfill a basic human need.”
Today, the park is near a lonesome train yard near 78th Avenue and Grand Central Parkway. A sitting area near the site is dedicated to Ilse Metzger, an Austrian woman who escaped the Nazis in World War II and settled in Forest Hills. Last month, an Irish pub a couple of blocks away had hoisted a gay pride flag across its entrance, and a Black Lives Matter poster hung in the window of a nearby house. At the apartment building where members of the vigilante group lived, which is now known as the Forest Hills South complex, a doorman said he’d never heard of the incident. “I’ve been here for over 20 years and I talk to all the old-timers,” he said. “I don’t think anyone involved is still around anymore. Not once have I heard of anything like this.”
After Stonewall, the Village became even more of a haven for gay life, but change came slower to Queens. In 1990, the borough experienced a turning point when Julio Rivera, a gay bartender, was beaten to death by three men in Jackson Heights, resulting in public demonstrations. In 1993, Queens held its first pride parade, and in 2009, it elected Daniel Dromm, who helped organize the parade and is openly gay, to the City Council.
Dromm, 63, who has been an LGBTQ activist in Queens since the 1980s, was accustomed to getting calls from men about harassment in cruising areas across the borough. “I’d always have to say, ‘You need to get me somebody who is willing to let me use their real name.’ But I could never get names so there wasn’t much I could do,” he said. “This was typical of cruising areas because these men were usually married, and no one wanted to challenge the police. But those cruise areas aren’t really around anymore. Now everyone goes online or they cruise on Grindr or at the bar.”
Dromm was familiar with the case of the trees being cut down in Forest Hills, however, and he remembered that he still occasionally got calls about late-night activity in the park years later — despite the neighborhood vigilantes of 1969.
“Well,” he pointed out, “the trees grew back.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.