The Bank St business community supports creating a rainbow village when the street is redeveloped in the next year or two.
Gerry LePage, executive director of the Bank Street Promenade Business Improvement Area (BIA), told a February public meeting that his association has long favoured a formal recognition of the strong gay presence on the strip.
The details could be worked out, he told the meeting.
About 100 gays and lesbians packed a room at the Jack Purcell Community Centre Feb 15 to tell councillor Diane Holmes and city staff that they want to see formal designation of a gay village when Bank Street is redeveloped. They called for rainbow flags, designated street signs and other decorations that would clearly note the reality of the surrounding gay residents, businesses and organizations, but without disrespecting the other diverse community members.
In a follow-up interview, LePage says the BIA is onboard.
“We’ve looked at this from many different perspectives with respect to economic development, the cultural mosaic and the diversity that the gay village would bring to Bank St,” says LePage.
In response to a 2002 request by the Ottawa Pride Committee, the BIA surveyed its members between Somerset and Gladstone to see if they wanted the area to be called the Rainbow District. An overwhelming 88 percent of members responded in favour and the BIA passed a motion supporting the name.
“That motion passes on to subsequent boards to say this is a cohesive, legitimate group or members of the community that wish to instil a particular flavour, environment and aesthetic appeal to a very specific geographic area,” says LePage.
Participants in the Feb 15 meeting spoke up repeatedly for expanding the proposed rainbow village to encompass Bank St from Laurier to Gladstone. Most gay businesses and organizations are located north of Somerset, several noted. Holmes said the will of the community was clear.
LePage is disappointed that the gay community has been low-key in pursuing a designated village since the spurt of activity in 2002.
“Action speaks louder than words,” says LePage. “We can talk to a lot of people about having purple buildings and red sidewalks, but that doesn’t tell us how we’re going to get it. It’s important to not only know what you want, but the mechanism by how you want to achieve it.”
Proper communication, cooperation and organization is needed, he says. The BIA can be a useful ally to the gay community.
He’s felt left out of the loop by the community, LePage adds, citing the relocation of Pride events to the city plaza last year after several years on Bank St.
“It was us who made the inquiry last June because we hadn’t heard anything about what was happening with the Pride festival on Bank St. We didn’t even receive a phone call about what was being done. We heard by accident that it had been changed over to city hall,” says LePage.
He’d like to establish better ongoing communication between the BIA and gay groups. That will be especially important as the rainbow village designation proceeds. LePage would like to see consistent and reliable representation to the BIA from the gay community.
“For us, it’s better if we have someone who is appointed by the gay community to come into the office on a regular basis and say these are our issues and this is what’s happening. Sometimes, we’re able to help and take action, other times it will be noted and become part of a bigger issue.”
Is the BIA looking for board representation from the gay community? Not right now, says LePage. There are no vacancies on the BIA board of directors, and he’s not seeking a new member until one resigns. A date hasn’t been set for the next election, but LePage says it will happen either next October or November.
Until then, someone from the gay community can step forward as a liaison between the community and the BIA. ” They will have just as much input at board meetings as any board member. But it depends on their level of involvement,” LePage says. “Any member that is purporting to represent [the gay community] hasn’t approached us.”
He’s seen cultural identification work for both minority communities and the city as a whole, says LePage. He refers to it as “cultural branding.” In cities, culturally branding a specific geographic neighbourhood happens when a particular group with strong common social, cultural, and economic links emerges, says LePage. In Ottawa, he points to Chinatown and Little Italy as role models of particular cultural groups claiming space.
“Chinatown had a critical mass of Chinese. A commitment was made within that community itself to provide their cultural outlets there and to conduct business there,” he says. “Little Italy evolved because a critical mass of people were attracted to a specific geographical area and made a commitment to live there, play there, and work there.
“That’s the same way Castro Street in San Francisco and Church Street in Toronto evolved. It’s where individuals in a particular group made a very specific and long-term commitment to coalesce their businesses and their cultural events in a very specific geographic area.”