Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Now or never for gaybourhood

Gays scramble as redevelopment plans move up

Credit: Pat Croteau

Construction that tore up Bank St from Wellington to Slater in 2006 will sink its teeth into the fledgling rainbow village in 2008 — a year sooner than expected. The city’s move to bump up the project has left gay organizers in a time crunch.

On the heels of cancelling the light-rail project (which required a delay in street redevelopment for tracks to be laid) the city is now requesting proposals from consultants. The proposals are for a “detailed design study [of Bank St] from the Queensway to Laurier”, with “construction from Laurier down to approximately MacLaren proposed for 2008 subject to budget approval,” according to Richard Holder, the city’s program manager in charge of the construction.

There are 19 queer spaces on or around the corner from the six-block stretch of Bank St from Nepean to James, including One in Ten, After Stonewall, Wilde’s, The Buzz, and a host of community groups like Pink Triangle Services and Egale Canada. Venus Envy, Breathless, and Centretown Pub sit just off the main drag — as do other groups that bring the total number of queer spaces to 38.

Bank St might get developed as gay or gay-friendly or it might not, but this period of construction represents our best shot at strengthening the rainbow village, according to Glenn Crawford, a gay businessman who lives and works in the area.

Crawford has volunteered to join the committee that will advise on design and aesthetic matters, like banners, street signs and other street furniture. Public Advisory Committees are usually struck with members of the local business and residents’ associations to oversee the process.

In April 2006 Capital Xtra reported that Holder and city councillor Diane Holmes were not committing to having any gay voices on the board. After a public consultation Feb 15, 2006, Crawford volunteered to join the committee. A year later, there’s still been no PAC established. Crawford remains interested in joining the board when it finally meets because he believes it is important for the community to be visible.

“A gay boy from the burbs, I didn’t see a community when I was growing up; I didn’t know it existed,” says Crawfold.

A rainbow village would have an “obvious” effect on queer youth, but Crawford also hopes that it will help soften the views of those who aren’t tolerant of gays and lesbians.

“I think that it also educates the straight population. The public awareness, the recognition — it just makes it that much harder to have homophobic views,” he says.

Holmes represents Somerset Ward which includes the rainbow village and Chinatown. Two of her assistants now say they are ready to include Crawford on the PAC.

Holmes says she’s a fan of developing that stretch of Bank St as the gay part of the city.

“I’ve always been in favour of that. As soon as the PAC is established, then that’ll be part of the discussion. It has always been a part of the discussion,” says Holmes.

Five of Ottawa’s biggest queer organizations have formed an ad hoc consulting and watch-dog group, the Rainbow Village Community and Business Association, to help address planning issues and ensure that the gay village is marked out in the redevelopment.

“This is a rundown neighborhood. That kind of injection from the community can only be a boon to the area. There are no losers,” says Capital Xtra associate publisher Gareth Kirkby. Kirkby met with representatives of Pink Triangle Services, Capital Pride, the AIDS Committee of Ottawa and Bruce House in order to begin the project. They will be inviting queer businesses and other organizations to join them.

“The only voice that seems to be recognized as having any say at city hall is the BIAs,” says Kirkby. And while the new association doesn’t want to undermine the Bank St BIA or create conflict, members believe that downtown gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans need to have their own voice speaking up for the queer community’s interest in planning issues.

Gays and lesbians packed the Feb 2006 consultation on the street redevelopment. A consensus emerged calling for an area at least the size of Nepean St to James St to be designated a Rainbow Village and decorated with symbols of diversity — like rainbow flags and street signs denoting the village. Given the diversity on the street, said some participants, the objective is to use inclusive symbols like the rainbow flag rather than a stronger gay symbol like the pink triangle.

“It’s not about taking away anything from people of other cultures,” says Kirkby. But it is about celebrating the diversity there, with a particular emphasis on the one community that sees Bank St as its special home – the queer community.”

While involving queer businesses, The Rainbow Village Community and Business Association will pay particular attention to the needs of community groups and surrounding residents — as well as the needs of queers who live outside of the downtown but see Bank St as their “capital of gay Ottawa,” adds Kirkby.

If the city finds the funds, the plan would mean that renovation of Bank St from Landsdowne to roughly Third Avenue in the Glebe would take place concurrently with gaybourhood redevelopment in 2008. Meanwhile, work from Slater to Laurier is planned for 2007, according to Holder.

The construction is part of a general ‘redevelopment’ of Bank St that includes narrowing the street to make it more pedestrian friendly and adding special street signs, flags or other types of signage. That kind of re-branding is typical after construction. For instance, when Somerset St was repaved between Elgin and Bank last year, signs were added that said “Somerset Village” and interlocking brick was inset into the concrete sidewalk.

Gordon Boissonneault, the chair of Capital Pride, has floated the idea of another attraction for queer people in the city.

“I think it would be nice to have some kind of monument to GLBT rights,” he says.

“We’re a leader, we’re a G8 capital. We’re the only G8 country that has the rights to the extent that we do.”

Toronto’s Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area erected a bronze statue of the flamboyant, 19th century Toronto magistrate Alexander Wood. New York has a plaque commemorating Stonewall, so why not Ottawa next, asks Boissonneault.

Maybe there might be heritage money or trillium money, or we might have to raise the money ourselves, he says.

“If you go to Washington, if you go to Paris, to London, there are statues and plaques everywhere. Here, you have Parliament Hill,”

At the moment, that’s about all. Outside of a small part of downtown Ottawa, “you might as well be in Winnipeg,” he says.