Spaces can shape who we are and how we lead our lives. The regulation of those spaces is therefore an important aspect of identity formation and development. It is in that context that debates around queer spaces – the ‘gay’ villages and neighbourhoods around the world – must be viewed and understand when evaluating the debates that surround their operation.
Two such spaces, the Castro in San Francisco (USA) and ‘the Village’ in Manchester (UK) are each facing major social, economic and political challenges. Sydney’s recent controversy around the removal of the ‘rainbow crossing’ appears minor by comparison.
In the Castro, the issue is one of long-term gentrification which has meant an increase in the number of affluent heterosexuals moving in, and gay men and women moving out as they are unable to afford rents. The apparently ‘gay space’ is increasingly a straight one. Nonetheless, the tourist buses come to for people to gawk at those homosexuals who frequent the bars and social spaces of the area. The Bay Area Reporter noted earlier this month that Planning Commissioners unanimously adopted new rules for upper Market Street aimed at curbing chain stores from opening along the gayborhood’s main thoroughfare. Chains can diminish the identity of these districts but also serve to often push up rates, driving out small businesses who are unable to pay the rents. This could be a useful alignment of civic officials and the community but it follows recent controversies such as the nudity ban which were seen as an assault upon the traditional freedoms and identities of the neighbourhood.
In Manchester, city officials and the local community seem to be at war. At the start of the month, Councillor Pat Karney stated that:
“Late-night drinking has ruined the Village. I pioneered the 24-hour city but if the Village doesn’t get its act together it’s got five more years. There’s problems with community safety and crime and it’s attracting people it was never intended to. It should be quality restaurants, cafes and bars. If we just have drinking dens the people with money and the right attitude will stay away and gravitate towards the Northern Quarter. Businesses are cutting their own throats.”
The ‘five more years’ warning was seen by some as running down the Village, and it does indeed present a familiar challenge of how to address the difficulties of a space without further undermining it. Certainly, the gloss of the 90s Queer As Folk driven boom have worn off, and newer venues in recent years – the Molly House and the Eagle for example have sought to give the area a boost whilst G-A-Y has added to the more obviously ‘gay’ spatial identity.
Alcohol-fueled problems have been blamed for a series of civic interventions. Krunchy Fried Chicken, the takeaway on Bloom Street was told to reduce their opening hours including a series of incidents including a violent bottling.
Meanwhile, the Canal tow path at the Centre of the Village is also becoming synonymous with death, violence and crime. No longer merely the haunt of men seeking public sex encounters (as has long been the case) or seeking sex workers, but a magnet for ‘real’ criminals. In just the last week, a boy of 15 is among five people accused of killing a man who drowned in a canal in Manchester’s Gay Village. Also throw into this toxic mix, an ongoing debate about door policies and questions about how inclusive venues should be (curiously ignoring questions about breaching the Equality Act provisions on goods and services).
Today, Crunch was the latest venue to face a pushback from city officials in response to a bid to extend opening hours to 5.30am. This time it was city centre Councillor Kev Peel who spoke against Crunch’s application, and who pledged to challenge any bid for a post-4am licence in the area.
The Manchester Evening News reported that said :“Enough is enough. We can’t let irresponsible venue owners get away with constantly extending their hours and holding councillors, residents and businesses in contempt. We’ve got residents directly above Crunch and residents next door – people are frightened to leave their homes as a result of this. This is a really positive development. We are not going to tolerate these irresponsible venues in the vision we have got for the village and I will be very supportive of licence reviews where we suspect they are not living up to their responsibilities.”
I was struck by the comment about ‘the vision we have’ for the Village in Peel’s remarks. Similarly, the assertion by Karney that unless the Village changes, ‘the people with money and the right attitude’ would not visit. What amounts to the ‘right’ attitude? Who are ‘the right people’, and who decides? Whatever the rights and wrongs of these license requests – and a 5.30 license mystifies me for that location – it is a small number of people who are now determining what this space should look like, and seemingly without consultation with the people that you might think the space is for.