In a midnight spectacle of bright lights, paint, and steam, voices shouting and camera flashes, dozens of surprised onlookers — teeming with excitement when they realized what was happening — witnessed a group of construction workers painting rainbow crosswalks on the corner of Christopher and 7th Avenue late last month. Just in time for Pride.
The intersection is less than a stone's throw from Stonewall, now the nation's first national landmark in honor of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) history.
Somewhat surprisingly, NYC's West Village, undeniably one of the oldest and largest LGBTQ neighborhoods in the nation, received its stripes after many other cities, including LA's West Hollywood, San Francisco's Castro, DC's Dupont Circle, Atlanta's Midtown, and many more.
The trend of LGBTQ branding as part of streetscapes began decades ago. Although it has become more widespread as of late, markers of LGBTQ identity on the urban landscape are nothing new. Rainbow street signs adorned Philadelphia's Gayborhood long before the appearance of crosswalks there. In Chicago there are rainbow pylons and other streetscape fixtures that are part of the Legacy Walk on North Halsted Street, a whole streetscape project dedicated to LGBTQ culture and history.
Although volumes have been written about these initiatives in LGBTQ circles, that dialogue has not extended into planning circles to the same extent. It's a phenomenon worth looking into for urban planners and for economic development professionals, particularly as the trend could extend beyond the largest cities and most well-known LGBTQ neighborhoods to smaller ones.
As a way of priming that dialogue, I want to throw out some questions urban planners should consider:
- Do concrete representations of LGBTQ culture and history in the physical landscape help solidify their presence and status?
- Do these interventions have a positive impact on tourism, local businesses, and/or property values?
- How can we gather data about this?
- Will LGBTQ spaces become tourist destinations and contribute even more to local economic development than they do now?
It goes without saying that there is a social benefit to these spaces — which arose as the only safe spaces for LGBTQ people and are even themselves tarnished with a history of violence — Stonewall being a celebrated example with the 1969 uprising.
Today, throughout the world, LGBTQ people (merely because of their place of birth) still face death and torture. They flee certain countries for their lives — often to urban centers in safer countries like the United States — as first points of safe haven.
We know that extrajudicial killings of people for being "presumed gay" are still being conducted daily. Are we doing enough to advocate for them and prepare for what we know will be the inevitable arrival of these displaced and marginalized people as they seek asylum in our communities?
Furthermore, do planners across the country have an affirmative role in partnering with local LGBTQ communities to anticipate these demographic shifts and to identify ways to represent LGBTQ culture and history in the built environment, even as LGBTQ identity and politics remains controversial in many parts of the country?
What do these big city examples mean for smaller cities? Should every small city's "gay street" be branded an LGBTQ street or neighborhood in brick and mortar if local stakeholders demand it?
Moreover, is it likely that this trend will extend across gay neighborhoods and streets and corners across the nation?
APA's LGBTQ and Planning Division welcomes dialogue on this, and remains active in writing articles and even sponsoring talks at APA conferences and other venues on this very issue.
Beyond discussing and measuring the impacts of LGBTQ branding or placemaking of neighborhoods, planners need to consider neighborhood change. Especially as urban neighborhood experience gentrification and even neighborhoods like the West Village have arguably become "less gay" over the decades, it's important to understand how the various ways planning, development, and capital improvements affect LGBTQ neighborhoods.
Will these LGBTQ neighborhoods — destinations for LGBT people but also symbols of LGBTQ history and struggle — remain LGBTQ as time goes on? Should they? Are LGBTQ neighborhoods at risk along with many urban ethnic communities?
It is now time for planners across the country to elevate these issues to mainstream discourse, and address these complex questions with much greater rigor and urgency.
Top image: Rainbow crosswalk in San Francisco. Wikimedia Commons photo (CC BY-SA 4.0).
About the Author
Perris Straughter is a member of APA's LGBTQ and Planning Division.