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9 min

A recipe for vibrant cities

Danish politician Uffe Elbaek embraces chaos

Uffe Elbaek prefers Toronto's gay village to San Francisco's Castro. Credit: (David Walberg)

From the moment I first encounter Uffe Elbaek, I know he is no ordinary politician. We meet, appropriately enough, at a party, where he bounds into my conversation with Toronto city councillor Kyle Rae to sprinkle a little flattery. With pomp and merriment, he gestures to Rae, “Do you know that this man is the most famous gay politician outside of Canada?” Elbaek, too, is both gay and a city councillor in his native Denmark. He has travelled to Canada to speak at Creative Places And Spaces, a conference that seeks to inspire creativity in varied facets of urban life.

The man is far too boisterous at the opening reception aboard a steamboat in Toronto Harbour. There’s a mean wind blowing across the lake, and other attendees, who have come from across North America and Europe, huddle together grimly. It’s blustery and cold, and my nipples could cut glass. But Elbaek is oblivious to the elements.

He requests a copy of Xtra so he can scope out the nightlife, and his eyes fire up when he shouts, “Where is the best party?!” He pronounces the word “paah-ty,” as though he were raising a fist in triumph, part headbanger and part noble revolutionary. His handsome Swedish colleague moans: apparently, there’s little room for negotiation on the nightlife front, and the straight guy is forever corralled into gay bar after gay bar.

Before we disembark, Uffe (pronounced Oof-eh) hands me his business card, which confirms the party-hardy attitude. On the card, alongside the requisite contact information, is his slogan. “See you on the dancefloor,” it says.

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Elbaek extols a good-time philosophy that extends to his work life. He thinks city living should be fun and, what’s more, he thinks it’s a politician’s job to help make it so.

Elbaek asserts that the key to a lively city is nurturing and managing the kind of chaos that makes life interesting. “If you overplan it, if you destroy all the spaces in between, you also destroy some of the energy that gives the nerve to the city,” he says. “It’s not only a problem for gay men who want to have sex in the local park, it’s a problem for the skaters or the kids who want to have a nice party in the parking lot.”

It’s refreshing – bizarre, even – to hear a politician so casually affirm kids and fags who use public space for their own peculiar pleasures. But Elbaek is adamant that the energy that makes city living worthwhile comes from accommodating – and assisting – people getting together on their own terms.

“You have to create spaces where things are more anarchistic and unorganized, otherwise it all turns into a mall, and I just hate it.”

His attitude is a stark contrast to the stifling bureaucracy and Puritanism that predominates Canadian city politics. We may be among the most urbanized populations on earth, but we still regard human interaction as suspect.

In Vancouver, the municipality is decidedly obstructionist for anyone peddling booze or sex. It’s almost impossible to get a simple licence to open a new bar, and existing boĆ®tes endure ridiculous restrictions. Anyone who’s stood in line on a sunny day for one of the few coveted chairs on the barren patio at the Fountainhead, a popular pub in the West End gay village, knows how silly restrictions can ruin a good time.

Sam Sullivan, the winner of Vancouver’s recent mayoralty race, knows how to snuff the life out of urban initiative. During the election campaign, the mayor-to-be told Xtra West, our Vancouver sibling, that he recommends five years of consultations before allowing any changes to bar hours in the gay village. This in a neighbourhood where police report virtually no bar-related noise complaints.

In Toronto, city politicians miss the forest for the trees with their petty attempts to reverse the slumming of the downtown core. They obsess over the minor surface blight of graffiti and newspaper boxes – the very stuff of urban creativity and exchange. Mayor David Miller adopted the broom as his personal symbol during the last election. It was meant to symbolize a cleanup of city hall corruption, but now it represents a desire to sweep the city clean of any trace of its own citizens, to make it look as unreal and unlived-in as a sterile model suite in a high-rise condo tower.

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Aarhus is Denmark’s second city, home to about a half million people. Elbaek has represented those people on city council for the past four years, and recently began a second four-year term. “I’m one of the few councillors who is actually living in the inner city of Aarhus. Most of them are living in the suburbs and, to be a bit frank, it also colours the political views.” He is also the founder and principal of Kaospilots, an experimental school of business design and social innovation.

He lives in the city’s Latin quarter, where he revels in diversity. “Coming out of my home, I have a French restaurant to the left and a porn shop to the right and in front of me I have a Thai restaurant. You have the whole mix of life.”

Like many European cities, there’s no designated gay village, although the inner city is home to gay bars, saunas and gay-friendly restaurants. Elbaek recognizes the importance of gay villages in North America, but he remains ambivalent. Of gaybourhoods, he says, “What I like about it is, as a gay person, I know that there’s a gay bookstore, and that the culture reflects my own identity. That’s the positive side of it. The negative side of it is, if a culture starts to get too homogeneous, it starts to be a bit boring.

“If too many people think the same way or dress the same way or react the same way, for me personally, I start to get bored,” he elaborates, confessing he enjoys the frisson of the unknown. “Also when it comes to sex or flirting, I prefer to be at a club where you know there’s a mixed crowd, where you really don’t know whether the guy you are hitting on is straight or gay. It creates tension. I like it much more.” In most clubs in Canada, that strategy might land you a black eye. But Elbaek admits the battle is not over in Denmark, either.

“I think that on the surface gay acceptance is very high in Denmark, but I don’t accept that it’s only on the surface. I want it to be as easy for two gay men or women to kiss, deeply and emotionally, as it is for a heterosexual couple. Also, outside the inner city.”

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It’s one thing to accept that Canada has a reputation as the world’s bromide, but must we appear as dullards next to even the Danes? Elbaek says that public sex is more acceptable in his country, and is practised with more exhibitionistic flair. Still, there are detractors.

“Every year you have the story in the press of a gay sex scandal: in the Royal Gardens in Aarhus, at the harbour or at a swimming pool. But at least it’s out there in the public and the public knows about it and it’s part of city life.”

Acknowledging sex as a legitimate use of public space is a litmus test for the urban politician. Sexually repressed cities – like sexually repressed people – are stunted, uptight and generally unpleasant to be around.

Elbaek’s advice to prudes is nothing short of revolutionary to Canadian ears, used to the embarrassed euphemisms and apologies of even our friendliest politicians. “If you’re heterosexual or homosexual, I think everyone can get a kick out of having sex in the open. So stop moralizing it. It’s fun to have sex out in the open. Hey, come on!”

But Elbaek is equally adamant that all citizens respect one another. “There’s just that little issue,” he says. “Why do they do it so everyone can see?

“It’s an interesting internal discussion in the gay community,” Elbaek says of the tension between gay men’s civic entitlement and civic responsibilities.

“Everybody says, for sure I should be able to have sex in a public space. But hey, can’t you at least clean up your condoms so the kids, when they are coming to the playground the day after, don’t have to play in used condoms?” He admonishes, “Sometimes the gay community has to shape up.”

As in other European countries, some Danish Muslim youth are at violent odds with the larger society. The recent riots in France may have complicated roots, involving poverty and racism, but homophobia has played a part in other clashes.

In Denmark, the gay community had a rude awakening at the 2001 Copenhagen Pride celebrations, when Muslim men and boys hurled rocks at participants as the parade went through their neighbourhood. “It created a lot of tension and the police had to interfere,” says Elbaek. “It raised the whole question about how do we live together as cultures, and part of that discussion developed further into asking what if you’re a gay Muslim?” Elbaek says there are lots of Muslim patrons at gay clubs and saunas, but that the culture remains largely underground.

The city’s response to the attacks was to develop a specific outreach program for young gay Muslims. Newsletters, printed in Turkish, Arab and African languages, are circulated through schools and libraries, and a hotline was set up for youth to call for support and counselling. Social events are staged where queer Muslim youth can meet one another.

Four years later, Elbaek remains uncertain about the parade route. “If you know that your lifestyle will offend a certain group, why do you show it straight in their face?” He mulls over his conflicted thinking on the matter, saying, “On principle, I think it’s the right thing to do, because we’re living in Denmark and you have to live up to the democratic standards of Denmark. But clearly, if you want to live together you have to respect each other’s values and you have to also identify with the other.”

Respect, he says, is demanded in education. In Danish schools – even religious schools – objections to gay rights are dealt with decisively, unlike drawn out Canadian battles over the banning of gay-positive books in Surrey, BC or an Ontario Catholic school board’s refusal to allow Marc Hall to take his boyfriend to his prom.

Elbaek cites a problem with a private Christian school that refused to include gay studies. “City council had to step in and lay down the law. Even if you are a private school, you must promote tolerance.”

Denmark has many private religious schools for Christian and Muslim students, Elbaek says, but requirements are clear. “All local schools report to the local city council. Private schools are 75 percent publicly funded. The public can go in and say, ‘Yes, it’s a religious school, but gay curriculum must be present.'”

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Elbaek’s sophistication on urban matters goes beyond the trends of city revitalization, although he is well versed in the current fashions. He cites Richard Florida, the US author who sparked the movement to harness diversity and creativity as agents of economic prosperity in cities. It might also be said that Florida, who attended the first Creative Places conference two years ago, is the conference’s unofficial mascot.

Elbaek brings up Florida’s famous indexes, one concerning infrastructure and technology and the other concerning diversity. The latter index ties economic potential with a city’s numbers of foreign-born residents, as well as artists and gay people. It’s not so much what gay people bring to a city that’s important, but what our presence and the quality of our communities suggests about the city itself. Elbaek compares what is sometimes referred to as the Gay Index to the proverbial canary in a coal mine.

“If you can identify that lots of gay people like to live in a city, you know that there’s a lot of oxygen in the city, that there’s a high level of tolerance, which again attracts a lot of the right-minded people who drive a healthy economy,” he explains. It’s a compelling idea, if a tad utilitarian.

“The more delicate angle is that, if this is not just speeches you make at nice parties or receptions, but actually something you want to make happen, this attitude has to go through all levels of the society and the culture of the city.

“You can’t force a gay culture to be more active, but the city should have a clear stand when it comes to welcoming the gay community, should promote the gay lifestyle as a completely overall statement. Then you have to take it down to all the other levels, about how do we promote it and support it in the school system… in our culture programs… in social services and so on.”

He laughs as he provides an example from San Francisco, where the mayor saluted the Folsom Street Fair, an annual leather and SM event. “He said, we honour your culture, you are part of the city’s profile and identity and we support the Folsom Fair,” he recalls the mayor writing in the fair’s program. “And I thought, hey, okay, here’s this very straight-looking mayor and his letter in the middle of all these ads for leather bars and gloryhole activities. And I thought, oh, that is fun!”

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Elbaek lists San Francisco among his favourite gay cities, but prefers Toronto’s gay village to the Castro. “The village is much more diverse and you have a really mixed crowd. You also have a lot of tenant buildings and a lot of people living there as normal citizens in the area.”

Elbaek lived in the Castro in the mid ’90s. “There was a lot of life, I think, at that time. Now it starts to feel like an old people’s home,” he laughs. “That is, middle-aged or old gay couples who can afford to live in the area, because the rent is so high and it forces out people who are not able to pay that kind of rent and I think that killed the nerve of Castro. But I don’t see the same thing here in Toronto. I feel Toronto has a much more lively attitude than the Castro.”

He tells me his favourite gay cities include the Scandinavian capitals (Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen) and other European centres (Amsterdam, Berlin and Barcelona), as well as Cape Town, South Africa. He says all of these cities share an approach he admires. “They have an outspoken political strategy toward attracting gay tourists and gay activities.”

Ultimately, though, it comes down to the party: “The important line is that cities with a lot of gays are more fun cities. The party’s better. Come on, guys! Even for the heterosexuals. It’s more fun!”