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4 min

Location, location, location

Seeking the right spot for a queer centre

WHERE TO PUT THE QUEER CENTRE? Members of the ad hoc committee dedicated to creating a queer community centre showed for a Feb 15 public meeting. Credit: Pat Croteau

The organizing committee for a queer community centre is in discussions with the city over finding a city-owned building that could be rented cheap.

Such a centre could be the focal point of an Ottawa rainbow village, say committee members.

In the first public discussion of the centre since last summer, members of the committee gave a peek into their thinking at a Feb 15 meeting. Though creating a rainbow village on Bank St was the official topic of the meeting, the need for a community centre came up.

In response to a question from participants, Nathan Taylor, chair of the ad hoc committee driving a proposal for a queer centre, spoke up.

“There’s a fairly broad consensus [emerging on the committee] that we would like to see a community centre in this area and be a part of a growing village,” he said. “The downtown is a highly desirable location for this centre and there is a growing village in this area.”

Other queer committee members also linked their work to a rainbow village on Bank St.

Lyle Borden, the co-chair of the committee, later told Capital Xtra that, “One of the good things that has dovetailed from the Bank Street reconstruction meeting is that we now believe that the (queer community) centre has to be in the downtown core, near… the gaybourhood core.”

Though a large number of Ottawa gays live downtown, Borden says that even those gays who have spread out in pockets throughout the Ottawa region identify with Bank St between Laurier and Gladstone as the gaybourhood core. He compares the 38 gay-identified businesses and organizations in Ottawa’s gaybourhood to the 28 in Vancouver’s Davie Village.

“When it comes to businesses and bars, it’s where people come. We consider the (Bank St Promenade area) to be a core,” says Borden. “We’re not just talking about three businesses. We’re talking about individuals who are involved in counselling, newspapers, Pink Triangle Services and bars. It’s a community that’s growing and in transition.”

Marie Robertson is a local lesbian business owner who sits on the queer community centre steering committee. She lived in Toronto for 20 years before returning to Ottawa.

“Twenty years from now, (Ottawa’s gay village) won’t just up and walk and go somewhere else,” says Robertson. “If you look at other cities with sizeable gay communities, like Montreal or Toronto, Church St in Toronto has been the gay village for over 20 years. Once you establish in terms of businesses and services, people move their residences.”

Putting a queer centre in the wrong location could condemn the project to ultimate failure, says Borden. He points to the US$8-million queer community facility in San Francisco that doesn’t get enough use because it is “out of the way.”

“One of the things that we don’t want to happen is to see a centre open up and people don’t come to use it,” says Borden. “You really have to have a sense of where the people will come to. And so we’re looking to that in relation to that’s where the place should be.”

It should be possible to get a centre in the right location, says Robertson. The city of Toronto, for example, sold a space in the gay neighbourhood to the Canadian Lesbian And Gay Archives for just $1.

“It’s not like we have to think, ‘Oh my God! We’re never going to get the money! The city will never negotiate with us!'” says Robertson. “I just like to be open-minded and creative and see what we can do, instead of looking at what we can’t do. I wouldn’t be on this committee if I didn’t believe that.”

But it’s one thing to know where a community centre should be established. It’s another thing making it happen. To date, city hall has donated $5,000 to the project. Mayor Bob Chiarelli has repeatedly offered his personal support for a queer community centre, and city hall has contributed some time from staffer Christopher Luesby to help the committee get formally incorporated provincially.

But it’s not clear how far the mayor and council would go in ensuring that the queer community has a home in a location that makes sense.

At an Aug 25 Pride Week public meeting with Chiarelli, Keith Duncanson, former president of Pink Triangle Services, told the mayor of the community’s frustration with the slow pace of plans for the centre. And while Duncanson noted the gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans community has a lot of work ahead to make the centre a reality, he also challenged the mayor to go much further in committing to a centre.

“It needs to be addressed,” said Duncanson. “Let us in now,” he challenged the mayor. “Give us access to space already available” in city-owned buildings in the downtown.

The current main discussion between the city and the queer community is finding a city-owned building that could be rented for a very low price, says Borden. Location seems a lower priority for city hall.

In order to get a venue, the community centre steering committee wants to be careful whom they partner with, says Borden.

“We don’t want to be swallowed up by a larger mainstream establishment. We want to be able to stand on our own and say this is the queer community centre, we are partnering with other members from our community, as opposed to the mainstream,” says Borden.

“The consensus from the beginning is that we want it to be our community centre identified within our own area.”

Another debate the steering committee has been having is whether the community centre should start small and grow big, says Borden.

“Some people have suggested to start off with something fairly minimal offering basic services, maybe offering referral to other services. Others feel that it should be something significant in size, that it warrants its own existence. I think that’s where the committee is beginning to lean,” says Borden. “If we could partner with PTS or Egale, who already offer major services to the community, then you’ve already started off big.”