Recurring Re-Queering: From and Towards a Queer Urbanism
Our visions begin with our desires.
– Audre Lorde
Text and images here are based on a presentation made by the author at Qpenn Pecha Kucha (short format presentations: 20 slides for 20 seconds each) at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design in March 2011, and is excerpted from an article forthcoming in Progressive Planning magazine.
1. In 2008, a group of parents and children, parks advocates, and LGBT youth rallied to protest the proposal for a large-scale retail and entertainment development at Pier 40, on Manhattan’s Hudson River Park. The LGBT youth, led by community organizing group FIERCE, had been working since 2000 to keep the park and piers safe and accessible…
2. … organizing in response to harassment and arrests of youth and insisting on the right to inhabit city streets. Carrying signs that read “Save the Village” and “LGBT Youth and Little Leaguers UNITE!,” youth and residents formed an unlikely alliance in opposition to large-scale privatized development.
3. Memorialized in the documentary Paris Is Burning, the piers at the end of Christopher Street have long been an epicenter of queer congregation. Like the bodies that inhabit them, the piers epitomize a wary comfort on the edge. The crumbling infrastructure offered an in-between space for those looking simultaneously for escape and belonging.
4. In recent years the piers and adjacent Hudson River Park have reflected the demographic and economic changes in the West Village – piers and park are now smartly landscaped with popular jogging and biking paths. Nearby residential towers are home to some of the priciest square footage in the world. Many streets in the Village barely hold on to their bohemian, counter-cultural history.
5. But still the youth come to the piers, motivated by accounts they’ve read, watched, heard about, or something more intangible: shared history, cultural memory, of those places of possibility.
6. Queer space, as defined by architectural historian Aaron Betsky, is: “not built, only implied, and usually invisible,” “useless, amoral, and sensual space that lives only in and for experience.” Queers, mostly gay men, “queered” spaces using actions, signs and symbols, particularly interstitial spaces of the city: discos and clubs, bathhouses, bars, sections of parks at night.
7. Queers invented ephemeral spaces of display and experience, new spatial and cultural permeabilities. Early queer spaces were necessarily interior, where darkness allowed for remaking both the spaces between and the bodies themselves. Stonewall proved a decisive breakout moment – the spilling out of queerness into public streets.
8. Through the 80s and 90s queers increasingly occupied and queered public space and public imaginations. Gay pride parades grew and multiplied, going from protest to celebration. Groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation stormed streets at the height of the AIDS epidemic, making demands for acknowledgement of gay bodies in a time of crisis.
9. And gays created distinctly gay neighborhoods in large cities across the country. From the West Village, to Dupont Circle and the Castro, gays proved incredibly adept at revitalizing urban spaces. Emblazoning the exteriors in ways that reflected past splendorous interiors, such gay facades time and time again indicated when neighborhoods were safe for further exploration by less brave and foolhardy groups.
10. Recent mainstream gay activism has steered far from its spatial repercussions. Both the gay marriage and gays-in-the-military movements constitute desires for stamps of approval. From interiority, to parades and protests, to, now, to do just like everyone else… The mainstream gay agenda has been largely an assimilative one.
11. Is there still the possibility of a Queer Urbanism? Do queer actions still have the ability to reformat urban space? Clearly, the demarcation of queer public space has not ceased. The increasing prominence of dyke marches across the country and the Trans Day of Action march in New York City attest to a renewed queer claim on public space.
12. The recent queering of ethnic pride parades as well show a fascinating confluence of complex issues of identity, visibility, and representation. In Manhattan’s Chinatown, local organizers led by the group Q-Wave successfully petitioned for and organized a LGBT contingent in the annual Lunar New Year Parade.
13. Beyond parades and marches, we can also observe what could be called a conscious re-queering of spaces. FIERCE’s work on the piers is a primary example. Not content simply to ensure access to public space, FIERCE has held numerous organized events on the piers, including film nights and mini-balls, revisiting the heyday of vogueing balls.
14. This kind of re-queering goes on every day, but is most evident in the hours after the annual gay pride parade, when thousands of young LGBT people of color flood the Hudson River Park. Kept from the piers by police barricades, young queers enact a parade of sorts along the promenade.
15. Even in the age of post-queer liberation, the work of radical LGBT activists constitute a new in-between queer space, between the increasing invisibility of mainstream gays and lesbians of television and movies, of townhouses and magazines, and the violence and discrimination that still confound LGBT people in many parts of this country.
16. Distinct from previous struggles, groups in New York City like FIERCE, Queers for Economic Justice, the Audre Lorde Project, and Make the Road NY carve out new spaces, not only of visibility, but of safety and resilience, in public, urban space, oftentimes far from established gay centers. They address the most critical lapses of urban services and safety.
17. QEJ’s Shelter Project organizers work in the city’s homeless shelters, reaching out to homeless LGBT people, offering support and community, working within the interior space of the shelter and also creating tangible connections to wider networks in the city. The work highlights homelessness, a particularly fraught queer space all too prevalent among urban LGBT youth.
18. The Audre Lorde Project’s Safe Neighborhoods campaign is creating a network of safe spaces in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, without police intervention. In a country where 1 in 100 people is in the criminal justice system, ALP organizers know that the increased criminalizing of young people of color helps no one. ALP will be holding their 3rd Annual Safe Neighborhood Summit on April 16, 2011.
19. Make the Road NY’s GLOBE project, working largely with immigrant communities in Bushwick, Brooklyn, engaged neighborhood schools as partners in creating supportive environments for LGBT youth. Sited at the intersection of immigrant and LGBT rights and safety, the initiative negotiates and pulls apart at spatial and social boundaries that are complicated and multi-level.
20. Each of these initiatives insists that the safety and welfare of LGBT people in cities cannot be divorced from the social, economic, and spatial conditions of urban environments. They broaden the possibilities of movement for queers in the city and map – literally and otherwise – paths forward for urban social movements that are critically inclusive.
The author is a former member of the board of directors of the Audre Lorde Project, and contributed planning and architectural designs for FIERCE’S Pier 40 youth center campaign. She was also one of the organizers, with Q-Wave, of the first LGBT contingent in the New York City Lunar New Year Parade in 2010.