Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Legal Spaces, Queer Spaces: The Castro

Law is a vital ingredient in the construction of space, notably that space which has been defined as 'queer'.  Whether in the form of Manchester's Canal Street or San Francisco's Castro, these 'communities' within a community, these villages', or 'ghettos' are a product of changing laws, offering a space defined by identity - and offering a place of inclusion whislt also excluding a class of citizen not deemed 'desirable'.  Often their mere existence is a result of legal oppression elsewhere yet increasingly these spaces fall under the gaze of city officials seeking to 'clean up' a space.  So it is interesting to see the way that legal powers are being applied with zeal by District 8 Supervisor Scott Weiner (a surprising number of US politicians with that name - by which I mean more than one) as he launches further proposed powers.

The Bay Area Reporter notes that smoking and camping would be banned and set hours for sitting on movable benches and chairs would be imposed at the Castro's two street plazas under new rules proposed by Weiner. The restrictions would apply to Jane Warner Plaza on 17th Street near Market and across the street at Harvey Milk Plaza above the Castro Muni station. The ordinance would specify that Jane Warner Plaza, the city's first Pavement to Parks project, falls under the rules that apply to the city's public parks. Wiener introduced the proposed rules on November 15 at the request of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District, which oversees maintenance of the outdoor areas. The Board of Supervisors is expected to begin holding hearings on them in early 2012.

These are similar spaces to those you might see in New York - bits of the road/street that have been re-designated 'plazas' with chairs/tables/planted trees/palms and other street furniture.  I rather like them, and in the Castro they've always seemed busy spaces, and important social 'hubs'.

A legal technicality means that the plazas are still classed as 'street's, and so this change puts them on the same legal footing as parks.  So whilst street signs are up saying 'no smoking' (I confess, I never noticed them), they are not enforceable.  Leaving aside this remorseless attack on smoking (which in itself drives me crazy), the measures also mean that sitting on chairs or benches that are not permanent structures in either plaza would only be allowed between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m (which seems nuts). Sleeping would also be banned in both plazas any hour of the day which is not about ensuring that Castro citizens remain conscious in public at all times (elf and safety gone mad someone shouts), oh no, it's about ensuring that there is a reason so shift on those nasty homeless people.  "you can't sleep there", "who says?" can now be responded with some Americanisation of "it's the law innit".

The measures are not without opposition; queer activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca (for it is he) called the latest planned restrictions "more anti-homeless bigotry from Wiener and the folks at the CBD", he added: "Harvey Milk Plaza has always been a symbol of the freedom of the Castro, it's the place where Milk got up on a soap box and expressed his opinion about things," wrote Avicolli Mecca in an email, referring to the gay former city supervisor and Castro merchant the plaza honors. "Gay men have always stood and talked or congregated at any hours of the day and night in the plaza ... Now Wiener and the CBD want to impose restrictions on the plaza, such as no sitting on the benches after 9 p.m., that are intended only to stop a certain group of people from sitting or using the plaza."

BAR noted that Mecca predicted that the police would use the seating restrictions to harass homeless people and underage queer youth who hang out at the plazas at night. "Forty years ago, this is the kind of legislation that was often used to restrict the use of public space by gay men. Now it's used against the homeless or those perceived as homeless," wrote Avicolli Mecca. "As we used to say in ACT UP, 'Shame, shame, shame!'"  Mecca is probably right and this is yet another curious development in the use of queer space, following  Weiner's previous attack on nudists in the area (towels now need to be put down on furniture before you sit on them).  Yes, you can still be nude in the Castro, but no bare bum on the furniture thank you.  I think people should put towels down, but I don't like laws that say such a thing - it seems rather heavy handed.  You can read more on that here (check out the fab photo too).

This comes amidst controversial and saddening reports of changes at the iconic Castro Theatre - reinforcing the message I keep privately getting from folks that live in the Castro  - it's an area increasingly less 'gay' and an area in economic trouble.  Weiner's legal reforms could (unintentionally) be part of this narrative of 'normalising' the Castro and reducing gay inhabitants to no more than performing monkeys for the tourists.  It's a perfect example of the importance of understanding the social, historical, political and theoretical context in which law operates and the passionate feelings it can generate when its force is felt.

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Elly said...


Isn't one issue though, that some of these 'queer spaces'are also incredibly gentrified spaces, with city centre queers often being middle/upper middle class?

So the moving on of homeless people and 'anti social' behaviour is partly to do with the queers having made these areas into 'nice' districts.

The irony being it used to be queer behaviours that were considered 'anti social'.

Chris Ashford said...

Yes, absolutely Elly.

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