What we need to ask ourselves about Jim Deva Plaza

Originally published on DailyXtra

Read Part 1: Why Jim Deva Plaza will be a welcome addition to Davie Village

Last week I explored the importance of the proposed Jim Deva plaza.

A public space dedicated to the queer community would be a powerful symbol of acceptance, as well as a functional space that could be accessible to our whole community. Memorializing the life and work of Deva would further build on this symbol by inscribing his work of community building and challenging censorship and shame into the built environment for generations to come.

But I have some questions about our new space: Who will be welcome, and how will we be allowed to express ourselves there?

A public space is for the public, which to me means the people in a community as a whole. In contrast, a private space would only be for a specific selection of the whole community. However, there are restrictions on our public spaces. While they don’t explicitly exclude certain groups of people, the limitations on use of the space show for whom it is intended.

Most parks in Vancouver formally close at 10pm. This assumes that by this hour, the public have satisfied their needs to be outside and have returned to their private homes to sleep. But for  some parts of our community, 10pm is when the Davie Village starts to wake up!

When I lived in the Davie Village, I loved how there would be people awake and out at any given hour of the day. I haven’t experienced this 24-hour cycle anywhere else I’ve lived in the city.

I think it highly unlikely that anyone would expect our new plaza to empty, even if it formally “closed” that early in the night. However, I would be surprised if there wasn’t some later hour where at least from a policy perspective the plaza was no longer “open.”

One group I could see impacted by time restrictions on the space is queer youth. I’m pretty sure everyone’s on board with wanting the plaza to be a youth-friendly space, especially for those under 19.

But what happens when the plaza “closes?” Do they get sent home? What if they don’t have homes?

If queer youth are wanted in the space, what about queer homeless youth? Some of the design choices in the presentation boards show a bias against these members of our community.

For example, the illustration of benches for the plaza features central armrests to prevent someone from lying down on it. This type of bench is deliberately designed to prevent people from sleeping on it.

Embedded in a design choice like this is the assumption that the act of sleeping in a public space needs to be discouraged or prevented. As a result, homeless queer youth and other members of our community who may want to use the space in this way are similarly discouraged or prevented from being in the space.

I’m not interested in a community space that deliberately excludes some of the most marginalized members of our community.

Another piece I wonder about is how having community space “legitimized” by the city will shape its uses and the ways in which we’ll be able to express ourselves in it.

Coming of age in Victoria in the late 2000s there was no semblance of a gay village. There were few explicit or exclusively queer public spaces; definitely no rainbow banners or crosswalks. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t find each other.

The subversive use of public space, the queering of otherwise “normative” public space, was a powerful tool that allowed us to be simultaneously visible and hidden in plain sight.

I found my community in Beacon Hill park. I found them in mall bathrooms. I even found them in tearooms in Oak Bay.

Sexuality is a huge part of why we have been marginalized and also why we gather as a community. That means it’s going to be an important part of how we create space together.

So will Jim Deva Plaza be a space for cruising? Or will we be more concerned with “decency?”

I think Barb Snelgrove put it beautifully:

“This place needs to be a space inspired by Jim’s lifelong passion for freedom of sexuality and freedom from censorship.”

The kind of space we produce deeply influences the kind of society we have. If we create a public space that excludes our most marginalized members and sanitizes our sexuality, that will be the society we are creating.

Is that the society we want?

Why Jim Deva Plaza will be a welcome addition to Davie Village

Originally published on DailyXtra

Henri Lefebvre was a French 20th century philosopher who understood that the kind of space we produce deeply influences the kind of society we have. In order to change our culture and the ways we relate to each other, we have to change the spaces where we live and interact.

The new Jim Deva plaza proposed for the heart of Vancouver’s traditionally gay village is a powerful example of this type of change.

North American culture privileges heteronormativity and the automobile. To reclaim road space for pedestrians and to then dedicate it to queer community shows a deliberate desire to change that culture.

The rainbow crosswalk, painted by city officials in 2013 at the intersection of Davie and Bute streets, adjacent to where the new plaza will hopefully sit by Pride 2016, was a symbol of what was to become a focal point for the neighbourhood. Not that symbols aren’t important, but it was just a symbol. It felt kind of like a greeting card: a kind gesture.

The proposed plaza is an actual gift to go along with the greeting card.

Public space is something our community can actually use. (I like practical gifts.) People will meet, become friends, fall in love. There will be first dates and breakups, there will be community celebrations and community memorials. There will be new opportunities to have new interactions in a public space explicitly designated for the queer community.

Currently the Davie Village has many spaces open to segments of the queer community, but none open to all. The bars and clubs provide social spaces but due to the focus on alcohol these spaces are not accessible to all ages or members of our community in recovery. Qmunity provides an inclusive and all ages space, but their main space is not physically accessible due to the staircase (which they are excited to address with their new space). Restaurants and cafes can solve some of these issues, but as businesses there is always some level of financial barrier to accessing their spaces.

As a public space, the proposed plaza will be all ages, physically accessible, and not requiring purchase to participate.

A space for our entire community.

The name is also a gift to future generations because it connects us to our history. It begs the questions “who was this Jim Deva guy?” and “what’d he do to get his name on something?” Deva’s work of community building and challenging censorship and shame undoubtably created a healthier and safer community for myself and future generations to come out into.

In 50 years, young queer people (or whatever we’re called then) will stumble across a plaque and get to read some of his story.

Maybe they’ll have already learned about him in school in their History of Social Change in the late 20th century class. But if they haven’t, this can still connect them.

When I imagine myself in this future plaza, I can feel a sense of celebration and of pride. A permanent public space is a constant affirmation that our community exists and is deserving of recognition.

Not just once a year, but every day.

Read Part 2: What we need to ask ourselves about Jim Deva Plaza