4 min

West End gets gay plaque

Revitalized festival recognizes gay village

The Vancouver Heritage Foundation's Places That Matter plaque, to be mounted on Davie St this fall. Credit: Natasha Barsotti photo

Don Hann is pleased that the Gay Alliance Towards Equality (GATE) is now etched into a commemorative plaque to be mounted on Davie St, to signify that Vancouver’s gay village is a place that matters.

Hann attended the Sept 8 presentation of the plaque, which kicked off the West End BIA’s inaugural West End Fest, touted as a revitalization of the previous Davie Days event.

Davie Village is one of 125 sites selected by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Places That Matter project celebrating last year’s 125th anniversary of the city’s incorporation. The selected sites, submitted by the public, recognize people, places and events that helped shape Vancouver.

“This was the location of much of the activity of the Gay Alliance Towards Equality, which was among the leading civil rights groups in Canada in the 1970s,” says Hann, who was a member of GATE. “Many of our demos and actions took place in this area, in this riding.”

Like many young gay men and lesbians in the early 1970s, Hann moved to Vancouver in search of others like himself, settling in the West End, which was already emerging as Vancouver’s gay neighbourhood.

It was a “foundational decade,” Hann says, “but it’s a forgotten decade in many people’s minds and imaginations. It isn’t in school textbooks; it’s not in university courses yet.

“There’s an enormous amount of work to be done in history — recalling just the history of the gay movement in the West End — that we hope to see someday,” Hann says.

“It was a wonderful idea to have this plaque here,” he continues. “This is a small token of recognition, of remembrance. You’re recalling a specific organization, a group of people, who made almost unimaginable sacrifices to build this movement.”

Vancouver West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert says the BIA’s decision to kick off the festival with the plaque’s unveiling sends a “good signal” that the organization is starting to treat the Davie Village and the queer community as a key asset for how the area is marketed.

“I’m really pleased the BIA thought that it was so important — that it would be the big speech of the day,” he says. “Of course, we have to consistently work and consistently keep pushing.”

As the inaugural West End Fest unfolds, a steady stream of people work their way back and forth among the tents, booths and entertainment zones that dot Davie St between Burrard and Denman.

“Happy Pride everyone,” quips sketch comedian Ryan Steele at the festival stage on Denman St. “Pride lite,” his co-conspirator in comedy Amy Gee amends.

Back at the Burrard St main stage, drag queens Joan-E and Carlotta Gurl are crowd magnets with their energetic performances, Joan-E channelling Liza Minnelli with a well-received “New York, New York” and Carlotta with her penchant for multiple cartwheels.

The BIA’s new executive director, Stephen Regan, says the recalibrated festival is just one of the steps the organization is taking toward making the West End more vibrant.

“This was one of the things we wanted to do; we wanted to put on a different, revitalized festival. Everything we touch, everything we do, we want it to be the cleanest, we want it to be the safest, we want it to be the most vibrant. We want to have great events, and we want to really engage businesses and members.”

The BIA’s tent near Burrard St showcases illustrative, but not conclusive, plans of the kinds of changes to its catchment area — Davie, Denman and Robson streets — that the board has been discussing as part of a “visioning” document. Elements include new zoning, street furniture, lighting, traffic flow and calming measures, mid-point crossings on long blocks and patio placements, Regan says.

He says the board completed its process at the end of May, around the same time the city launched its West End community-planning initiative. “Our timing was perfect.”

Economic viability is the West End BIA’s number one priority, Regan says.

“We want to make sure that as the city goes through the plan — and they listen to residents, they listen to all the special interest groups — that they keep in mind business vibrancy. Businesses need parking, and they need access and they need decent regulations and zoning,” he says.

“We support density,” Regan continues. “Do it well, but more density, more people.”

Regan envisions a block-by-block outreach to businesses to get a sense of what they want. “Can we clean up your alleyway; are all the awnings looking good? If there’s a vacancy on the block, we need to, as a community, focus on that block and on that business so that it doesn’t get graffiti, so it doesn’t get an accumulation of litter.”

Chandra Herbert notes the BIA’s emphasis on clean streets but has had “encouraging discussions” with the organization to go beyond a graffiti paint-out. “Let’s bring arts and culture; let’s bring that kind of vibrancy to it, so it’s not a sterile ‘Oh, it’s clean, but there’s no life to it.’ Instead of being graffiti, it’s local art.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we had a mural which was a tribute to the queer history of the area?” Chandra Herbert suggests.

“You go down to lots of other successful queer centres in other cities, and they take great pains to commemorate the pioneers but also to celebrate the future of the area as both a place that is a centre for queer activism and queer history, but also, of course, very open to the wider straight, questioning communities as well,” he says.

“The BIA and others can be a positive force, I think, if we do it right,” Chandra Herbert says.

“I think it’s good if we can increase the celebration of our community, as well as remind the rest of metro Vancouver that it’s a great place to visit. That’s good for business, and that’s really also good for residents,” he adds.

Chandra Herbert says the BIA’s previous Davie Days events, though they initially honoured the Village’s queer history, largely lost their connection to the queer community in the last few years. That connection was “sorely lacking,” he says.

Regan says part of the strategic planning process is taking a fresh look at the area, including the Davie Village. “That’s things like the gay community and what is that heritage and pride, and how do we celebrate that?”

Photos by Victor Bearpark