“It's time we re-embraced Pride as a more overtly political event”: the world's LGBT communities unite and celebrate

Oxford Street, Pride London, 2006. Image: Getty.

On Saturday 12 June, 49 people died in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, in the deadliest attack the US gay community has ever seen. Two days later, Pride in London’s launch event took on a tone that was both sombre and defiant, as Soho was bedecked in rainbow flags sending a message of solidarity abroad. The sight of the Admiral Duncan pub, the site of a homophobic bombing back in 1999, was especially poignant.

That this shooting came in June seemed especially cruel. Pride events often take place that month, to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969, when the queer patrons of the Stonewall Inn, NYC rebelled against arrest and showed the straight world they would no long live in the shadows.

In recent years, though, Pride events have become social, rather than overtly political, affairs. “I think it's easy to forget how important Pride events are, especially in places like the UK where the legal battles are largely won,” says long-time LGBT commentator Paul Burston. But “the battle for hearts and minds is far from over, as shown by the terrible loss of life in Orlando. Pride is political by its very nature, but I think it's time we re-embraced the roots of Pride as a more overtly political event.”

These events can also have a deeply personal impact. “I first marched at Pride when I was 16, back in 1986,” says Luke Howard of queer DJ collective Horse Meat Disco. “As we arrived in Kennington Park it began to rain and everyone piled into the disco tent. They played ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ and I felt so alive, so free and so happy.

“It felt like an end to the suffering of being a frightened teenager in the closet. The streets can be quite a frightening place for LGBT people, but at Pride it's like we reclaim them to celebrate our lives.”

Sofia Pride, 2015. Image: Getty.

The most visible aspect of Pride is the colourful parades, featuring dancers, performers and various LGBTQI groups. Pride in London shuts down Regent Street in central London every 25 June, and proceeds across Piccadilly Circus, the only parade granted such a privilege. This year, despite the rain, over a million people took part in the event, its organisers claim – including 40,000 in the parade alone.

But Pride is a worldwide affair. Sao Paulo’s Gay Pride hosts well over a million people every May, making it the largest Pride in the world, while Madrid boasts the largest Pride in Europe. Pride Toronto also scores highly in terms of numbers. (No wonder it’s Justin Trudeau’s favourite. )

But as well as the parades and the inevitable after-parties, there’s still a serious side to Pride. Many include a vigil or memorial event to remember those who have died along the way to equality. In June, Dublin Pride ended on a Ceremony Of Remembrance by Merrion Square’s Oscar Wilde statue – a reminder of the price people paid for homosexuality in the past. Manchester’s  Big Weekend at the end of August concludes with a candlelight vigil; usually dedicated to HIV victims, this year should be especially sombre, after events in Orlando. 

But while Pride remains internationally relevant, there are those within the LGBTQI community that want to see it improve, both in focus and execution.

Rio Pride, 2013. Image: Getty.

Kevin Kauer, founder of Nark Magazine and the Bottom Forty DJ collective, is a mainstay of Seattle’s Capitol Hill queer club scene, and back in 2010 took on the local authorities with his memorably-named Dickslap party. Dickslap successfully challenged homophobic licensing legislation that “may not allow, permit, or encourage any person… to touch, caress, or fondle the breast, buttocks, anus or genitals of another person”, and shamed the local liquor board into a retreat.

Kauer believes Pride – and other queer events – should be open to respectful straight people too. “The more we segregate and run away from the ‘straight’ community, the more we create and perpetuate the idea that homophobia has a purpose,” he says. “The gaps between our communities are where phobias are created.”

The gaps that concern him include those within the LGBTQI community itself – for example, the gaps between gay people and trans people. “Without educating one another that empty space of the unknown still creates opportunities for judgement and phobia.”

LA Pride, 2014. Image: Getty.

Others think Pride need to be more radical. Rhys Alden and Tameera Mohamed of Rad Pride Halifax, underway until Tuesday, see racism as a key factor not properly addressed by mainstream Pride.  “Contemporary Pride doesn't support racialised and trans bodies and it doesn't support queers without the money to buy into it,” they explain. “Also it advocates for members of the LGBT community to join the army (to kill people of colour) and the police (to incarcerate people of colour). The vast majority of violence isn't perpetrated against white cis gay men: it happens to queer and trans people of colour.”

The Rad Pride organisers’ points take on greater resonance after Orlando. Saturday night was Latin Night at LGBT nightclub Pulse, and Omar Mateen’s victims were overwhelmingly HispanicThe FBI’s own figures show that LGBTQI people are the most likely minorities to be victims of hate crime. The reaction to Black Lives Matter’s peaceful disruption of Toronto Pride bought these intersectional issues very much to the fore, as did the recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Phillando Castille.


Despite these flaws, though, it’s clear that Pride plays a valuable role in the gay communities in cities around the world. Luke Howard was at Justin Trudeau’s beloved Toronto Pride.

“There were First Nation Canadians, plus those of Middle Eastern, Caribbean, South American, European, Asian and African descent, all represented,” he says. “Loads of straight people brought their kids to watch the parade, and I saw Muslim families that had tied rainbow flags to their kids' buggies.”

In a divided world, Pride has an enduring power to unite people.

 
 
 
 

Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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