I was pleased to be asked to write a reaction paper as part of a symposium for City and Community in response to Amin Ghaziani’s forward-looking piece entitled, “Cultural Archipelagos: New Directions in the Study of Sexuality and Space.” (The full set of papers is available with free public access here). Ghaziani’s lead article in the symposium suggests that too often the default conceptualization of queer urban spaces is the gayborhood. He labels this concept a spatial singularity and suggests that it might be usefully replaced with the idea of a cultural archipelago, arguing that there is rarely a single queer location in an urban area, but rather a range of locations that are friendly to LGBTQ people. In my response I focus on two reflections. First archipelago to me evokes cultural islands in a chain that each have a unique but fixed contribution to the larger urban form. Second the notion of a spatial singularity suggests a more galactic metaphor might be needed.
My research on queer spaces in Atlanta and Tampa suggests that there is often a well known “heart of the gay village” usually centered on a bar or collection of bars and/or other LGBTQ gathering spaces such as a community center, bookstore, or coffee shop. However, due to rising land prices as housing in the vicinity of the queer space becomes increasingly popular, many LGBTQ people cannot afford to live anywhere close to the heart of the village. Many of the people that I interviewed lived at some distance from these queer focal point(s), although many were drawn to the locus to socialize, to find community, or to find a partner. When the people that I spoke with described their search for housing, they often indicated that they had started with the most proximate locations to the queer space and then circled outward, always trading off proximity with affordability. In this way LGBTQ people end up selecting and queering other neighborhoods at some distance from the queer focal area, though they still are drawn to center for periodic entertainment and community gatherings. This search for housing is always a fairly fluid process that iterates with changes in the housing market.
The concept of fixed islands does not quite capture the dynamism of this process.
The metaphor that works better for me in this case is a set of planets (LGBT citizens and/or communities) orbiting around a center point, that provides light and warmth. However, Ghaziani’s addition of the spatial singularity concept took me back to an undergraduate astronomy class in which we discussed black holes which were also described as spatial singularities that warp the space time continuum. Sometimes stars can burn up all available fuel, exploding first into an expanding super nova and then contracting very rapidly into a black hole. Perhaps queer neighborhoods may sometimes operate like a star that gets too over-heated. If rapid urban redevelopment and gentrification cause inflation to rents and housing prices, the fabric of the queer space, may first explode with activity and then become destabilized shrinking to near invisibility.
My research on the Midtown neighborhood in Atlanta argues that when planning and urban development efforts fail to recognize the fragility of queer spaces, there can be serious consequences for the viability of LGBTQ spaces. In Atlanta plans for high-end redevelopment along the Peachtree corridor took precedence over longstanding LGBTQ bars on the street and explicitly excluded the adjacent Midtown gayborhood from influencing the redevelopment process. As interest in redevelopment in the Midtown area heated up, Midtown lost many gay and other queer residents who moved south and east in search of more affordable spaces further away from the Midtown “sun.”
Dr. Petra Doan is a Professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning.
The feature image is from PhillyGayPride.org.