London is losing a major part of its vitality and, importantly, ‘fun’ following a stark spate of closures of LGBT+ venues and other spaces. But practitioners are fighting back with research and project proposals, along with concerted attempts to reopen key bars and pubs in the face of ‘gentrification’.
Those were some of the key points to emerge from London’s Pride: celebrating LGBT+ spaces, an NLA webinar at which David Kay of Child Graddon Lewis outlined ‘50 years of discrimination’ and revealed that some 58% LGBT+ venues have been closed since 2006. Of those, over a third had been closed due to redevelopment, but 21% because they had been changed from a ‘queer’ venue – now a respected term – to a straight one. ‘There’s a disproportionate loss of queer venues in the city’, said Kay. ‘Admittedly this is focusing primarily on nightlife, so doesn’t include community spaces, LGBTQ+ living health spaces, stuff like that. But I think it’s indicative of a trend’.
Places like Madame Jojos in Soho embodied the cultural and excitement of what a queer space can be, added Kay, and when it went, so did part of Soho’s soul. ‘I think it’s really important that that identifies this really important heritage and community that queer spaces bring to the city’, Kay added, citing 18 venues in the area that have been lost to schemes like the Crossrail development at Tottenham Court Road. Other areas show a similar story, with important community assets closed down, forcing a shift to cheaper spaces further out – an ongoing ‘gentrification trend’.
The famous Royal Vauxhall Tavern has been under the threat of development for many years, with tools such as listing explored to protect it – Historic England considering it worthy of protection as a combined architectural and cultural merit. Other ideas include using Section 106 to protect venues, Kay added. But queer spaces should be protected as ‘safe spaces where people can be themselves’ and where communities can form friendships in ‘fun’ places. ‘We have all missed these spaces and I think the absence of them gives us all reason to realise why they’re so important to us’.
Patrick Devlin talked about the work his practice, PTE, has done with Tonic Housing exploring ideas around what a LGBT+ retirement community might look like. ‘We started talking about the idea of an intentional community, which is the bond between a group of people who share characteristics in common’, and how that fits with security, safety and comfort. ‘It’s not so much about breaking down walls but welcoming people in’. An upside, he said, was that the COVID period had meant a growing realisation of the importance of local areas and their identities.
Other speakers at the event included activist Dr Olimpia Burchiellaro on the battle to breathe new life into the Joiners Arms venue on Hackney Road, a late licence pub that she hopes can re-open as a community-owned and run queer pub after it was closed in 2015 by developers. ‘But it’s actually quite hard to re-engineer queerness and provide a queer venue once it’s been closed’, she said. And Gareth Gwynne of of Tower Hamlets spoke about how the authority has few powers to stop development but that a new space at the Joiners could evolve as a better one for the community, even if planning was more concerned with use than users.
Finally, Webinar chair Ben O’Connor spoke about the need to show value in diverse spaces and the issue of ‘pinkwashing’, where LGBT+ artists and performers add agency to placemaking but don’t support the community. ‘I think that’s something we absolutely need to address and it needs to be that meaningful inclusion is part of that’, he said.