Queens of the Hill
How Not to Save Gay Spaces
In the basement of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center on November 24, about 70 people—younger, older, of all races—gathered for a forum about the disappearance of "gay spaces" from Capitol Hill. Manray was razed last year for a new development, Equal Rights Washington moved its offices to First Hill, rising rents have forced poor queers off the Hill.
The discussion couldn't have been less productive. I sat on the panel. I was probably invited because I write about urban development, I was a grassroots activist in Seattle for more than a decade, and I'm gayer than fairy lights. I arrived hoping to encounter sensible activists—the kind of people I've worked with in the past—and instead I found myself trapped in a room filled with the people who drive sensible, practical people away from activism.
The moderator, a scruffy former Tenants Union organizer named Scott Winn, opened the meeting by calling on the group to acknowledge the Duwamish Tribe, which, he said, had been the first group to be pushed out of Seattle by gentrification. Nice gesture, but a little late. A round of applause broke out when one woman cast Seattle denizens as the "oppressed" and the "oppressors" based on where they moved. (When I moved from a Capitol Hill studio I could no longer afford, I was "oppressed"; when I arrived at my new rental house in the Central District, I was an "oppressor.") One man called for picketing new development... just as development is stalling. Another man mourned the loss of the LGBT Center, which actually failed due to its own terrible financial choices—not "oppression."
It's easy to complain about oppression; it's harder to come up with workable proposals to save a bar or an apartment building. According to the Puget Sound Regional Council, the local population will increase by 1.7 million in the next 30 years. Antigentrification groups like Allyship, an LGBT advocacy group that organized the meeting, need to push their members to stop blaming "oppressors"—a strategy guaranteed to drive away people who are interested in the cause but with no threshold for bullshit—and start lobbying city hall for policies that make Capitol Hill affordable for all. Here's what they can do.
Push for Smaller Apartments: The city should establish incentives for new buildings—letting developers build taller in exchange for building smaller, more affordable units: say, 300 square feet for a studio and 1,000 square feet for a three-bedroom. This month, the city council is voting on a program that would allow developers to build taller buildings in exchange for including "workforce housing." There is still time to modify that program to create more cheap apartments in Capitol Hill and the Central District. Council Member Sally Clark, chair of the city's Planning, Land Use & Neighborhoods Committee, is a dyke who used to live on Capitol Hill. Send sensible people to lobby her.
Defend Pike-Pine: Council Member Tom Rasmussen—gay as a tree full of kittens—is leading a push to protect the historic buildings and gathering places in the Pike-Pine neighborhood. The city's Department of Planning and Development will deliver recommendations on ways to do that later this month. Antigentrification activists should review the proposal and show up at public hearings this winter, before it's too late to have any impact. The council will likely pass legislation by 2009.
Plan the Light Rail Station: A block and a half of prime real estate on Broadway will open up in 2016, when Sound Transit finishes an underground light rail station. The city council can tweak regulations to encourage developers to rebuild some of what's been lost—affordable apartments, performance spaces, meeting rooms—on those blocks.
Land Trusts: Identify the top 25 or 50 buildings that house cornerstone cultural institutions and organize community land trusts, contracted agreements among owners to preserve a piece of property, to protect them. Pool money, apply for grants, and find philanthropists to help buy the buildings.
Fix the Noise Ordinance: The city council passed a noise ordinance in 2007 that penalizes bars and clubs that annoy the residents of nearby buildings—even if their buildings went up across the street from well- established nightspots. The city should amend the noise ordinance to exempt existing clubs.
Find Allies: Musicians, artists, and theater troupes are also being shoved off the Hill. The Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee (CODAC) is a group of local business owners and arts nonprofits that recommend ways for the city to preserve arts spaces. Gays need to work in tandem with CODAC and its constituents to save the spaces they share, not "dialogue" about "oppression."
And here's what not to do: Don't misread a browbeating from The Stranger as dismissing the legitimacy of this cause. Preserving gay spaces in this city—it's part of what makes cities great places to live—is a good idea. But basement circle-jerks will drive away the kind of people—savvy and motivated—that a movement needs to attract.