Viva Henrietta! Long Live This Lesbian Bar
Henrietta Hudson is one of New York City’s last lesbian bars, and continues to thrive.
Minnie Rivera and Lisa Cannistraci
While lesbian bars all around the world close their doors, one neighborhood bar in New York’s West Village has discovered a recipe for keeping its doors open.
Minnie Rivera had been running lesbian enterprises since the late 1970s, and one day in 1990 she was having a drink at a lesbian watering hole called Crazy Nanny’s (since closed). The bartender was “funny and witty and she knew how to mix a good drink,” recalls Rivera. That bartender was Lisa Cannistraci, and they hit it off. Rivera later went to Cannistraci with a plan to open a lesbian bar, and when she changed her mind, the charismatic Cannistraci pushed her into it.
In 1991, Henrietta Hudson was born—the name came from a feminizing of the famous river, which was named after Henry Hudson and lies two blocks West of Hudson Street. Unlike other dyke bars with joke names inspired by lesbian sex or gendered behaviors, Henrietta’s was intended to evoke a long-lived lesbian bar. “I wanted something that was timeless, that could have been from a hundred years ago, or a hundred years in the future,” explains Cannistraci. Still, the women are frequently asked, ‘Which one of you two is Henrietta?’
Since opening, there have been numerous challenges, one of which was the rise of lesbian chic and upward of a dozen Manhattan bars that it spawned. “We opened in 1991 when the Clit Club was on fire,” remembers Cannistraci. Instead of resenting the competition or trying to copy it, Cannistraci and Rivera became more creative, more engaged with the business, and tapped into what people wanted.
They reinvented the bar a number of times to keep up with the times. “Like Lady Gaga. Or Madonna,” says Rivera. “We’re known as the Madonna of lesbian bars,” adds Cannistraci. “There were lean times and then there were very lean times. But we always paid our rent and we always paid our staff. That always came first and after that, then we get paid.”
The biggest change has been marriage equality. “Lesbians can now go make out at an Applebee’s and stay local,” notes Cannistraci. “So you have to give them a reason to come into the West Village and go to Henrietta Hudson.”
Who, really, wants to make out in Applebee’s—or in a grocery store in Hawaii in front of a homophobic law enforcement officer? “I like to be around women,” says Rivera, who is in her late 60s. “Even if times change and we can get married and go to straight places and hang out, being amongst women is a special thing for me and Henrietta Hudson provides that.”
As well as safety, a lesbian bar provides community. Cannastraci reveals that Henrietta Hudson gets behind local causes such as elections, social services, sports leagues, at risk, LGBTQ youth, not-for-profits, and animal rescue. “We are a bar with a conscience,” says Cannistraci.“We really are about community. Our reach is much further than our little corner of the West Village.”
As for those hard to pin down millennials: they are the backbone of Henrietta Hudson’s current clientele. “28 years of age, educated, out to their families, confident, got their act together,” says Cannistracci. “They want excitement.” And she delivers: decent drinks, good DJs, good music, karaoke, clever hosts, burlesque, drag kings, speed dating parties, bachelor(ette) parties, The L Word trivia…“We create an experience that’s interactive, where you don’t just go order a drink and stand around,” says Cannistraci. “We provide a stage,” adds Rivera.
About five years ago, Rivera and Cannistraci reinvented the bar again. “We were a legendary, iconic, bar, but the nature of it was hurting us. So we started this new marketing campaign, reinventing the space, the nights, a new website, some new staff, and we called it the All New Henrietta Hudson. It took about a year but now it’s just really magnificent, like it was when it first opened. It’s that exciting again. It’s electric. I love it. I love young people.”
Rivera and Cannistraci collaborate with the young women behind popular lesbian nights Hot Rabbit, Miss Mugshot, and Siren. “They’re a lot of fun,” says Rivera. “It’s really nice because they are young and have their own style, but we have the experience,” says Cannistraci. “They teach us, we teach them. It’s really based on mutual respect. If I don’t have what you want, and there’s a really good party that night, I’ll send you to that party. We don’t hold our customer’s hostage.”
They recently signed a lease for 15 more years, with the blessing of the property’s managing agent, co-op board, and shareholders. “It wasn’t even an option or a choice. This is just something that is in our blood,” says Cannistracci.“Being here another 15 years will make it 39 years being a lesbian bar. So many of them have closed and I’m so sad about that. I have tried everything possible to make sure that doesn’t happen to us,” says Rivera.
Upcoming plans? A Valentine’s Weekend party you won’t want to miss.And a complete refresh, which will be ready in time for Pride.
I love busting lesbian stereotypes. Lesbians don’t spend money or tip? Not at Henrietta’s. “We make a good living,” says Cannistracci. Gentrification is killing lesbian bars? “The neighborhood loves us,” says Rivera. “We keep the neighborhood safe.” There’s an unbridgeable lesbian generation gap? Not at Henrietta’s. “I see a lot of camaraderie between older and younger lesbians at the bar. They go to dinner together, they go to the movies together, they totally hang out together,” says Cannistracci.It all comes down to something quite simple. “It’s really about building relationships and maintaining them.”
Coming Up At Henrietta’s:
August 5: Turnt Up Friday
Special Guest from Oakland DJ Lady Ryan 10pm-4am
Catch DJ Lady Ryan at Henrietta Hudson as she brings her Oakland style to NYC for
Turnt Up Fridays. She is on of the Bay areas finest with her eclectic taste in tunes and her spellbinding voice.She does weekly parties in Oakland and has headlined San Francisco and Oakland Pride!
August 12: Turnt Up Fridays
Rox Republic, shows at midnight and 2am Premiere burlesque troupe Rox Republic headed by the incomparable Lola Von Roxreturn to Henrietta Hudson for their monthly residency! The steamy, sultry and sexy girls of Rox Republic 'bring it' big time as they wow us with their interactive performance engaging the crowd with their sophisticated dance style! They bring crowd pleasing to a whole new level!
August 30: L Word Trivia
Tuesday 8/30 6pm-10pm, Join Minnie and Lily for their monthly event celebrating The L Wordwith DJ Liz, scene reenactments and overall silliness engaging folks to test their L Word Trivia skillzzz!
September 2: Turnt Up Fridays
As part of our international DJ series we welcome DJ Kamikace straight outta Vienna
bringing her signature Euro sound to NYC! She has played lesbian events all over Vienna (PiNKED events), Hamburg and Stockholm Pride 2016!
September 4: White Party
Join us for the 11th annual Labor Day Weekend White Party with DJ Tikka Masala and the entire Henrietta Crew as we bring the summer to a close in style! Join hundreds of women for this crowd pleasing annual event as dance away until the wee hours.
September 18: Rock Hudson
Join us at Henrietta Hudson for our monthly rock and roll event showcasing
NYC's hottest queer (mostly female) original singers and bands. It's a wonderful event with happy Hour all day long!