“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.” David Harvey, The Right to the City
The recent debate surrounding the Confederate monuments in New Orleans has me thinking about public spaces, how they speak about our values, and the concept of placemaking. Placemaking is something we talk a lot about as wide-eyed urban planning students in grad school, but less so during the grind of actual practice.
According to the Project for Public Spaces, placemaking is an active approach to “strengthening the connection between people and the places they share,” and “a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm.” The folks at MIT are more succinct in their description, suggesting simply that placemaking empowers local communities to create a sense of “belonging” through place. (quotes theirs)
Keep in mind that we’re not talking about businesses, residences, or other types of private space, but about the public realm, and how it can be designed in such a way as to reflect the values and culture of the people who use it.
With regards to placemaking, even something as simple the name of a street can be deeply significant to a community. For example, last year a group of Central City residents banded together and convinced the City Council to rename segments of La Salle and Carondelet Streets to honor their local pastors.
With all of this in mind, I began to think about how New Orleans tailors public space for the members of its LGBT community – how does the city reach out to us in particular to create beauty and engender civic pride?
Only a handful of queer placemaking examples exist in NOLA- some are sanctioned and institutionalized, while others have arisen outside the existing power structure.
New Orleans AIDS Memorial
The public space which came first to mind when considering queer placemaking in New Orleans is the AIDS Memorial in Washington Park.
The park sits in the Faubourg Marigny, once the “epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in Louisiana.” Each disc depicts the face of someone in the region who was diagnosed with HIV or AIDS.
Although gay men bore the brunt of the epidemic in the 1980’s and 90’s, this monument honors everyone who has been effected by HIV/AIDS.
Upstairs Lounge Memorial
Less conspicuous than the AIDS Memorial, although equally as somber, is this plaque which rests on Iberville Street in the Quarter. It memorializes the victims of the 1973 Upstairs Lounge fire – an act of arson that claimed the lives of 32 local gay men.
With the help of the Metropolitan Community Church, it was finally memorialized in 2003.
If you are unfamiliar with this tragedy, I highly recommend the recent documentary The Upstairs Inferno.
These two markers commemorate significant events in New Orleans gay history, but it feels like something is missing. Our city pays homage to our challenges, but what about our successes?
Where are the street names for our native sons, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, or Bianca Del Rio? I can’t help but wonder if New Orleans’ two somber memorials accurately reflect the technicolor gay community I see everyday.
Some U.S. cities have gone so far as to designate official gay districts, adorned with unique signage and rainbow crosswalks:
While streaks of rainbow-colored paint emblazoned across St. Anne Street may not be ideal for New Orleans, we are nonetheless left with a bit of a void in our public space – a need for places which reflect who we are today as well as the path we took to get here.
Sometimes if you want something done right, you just need to do it yourself.
Local artist Jeremy Novy is, I believe, rising to the challenge of proactively defining NOLA’s queer places on our own terms. His graffiti functions as civic art which both adorns and demarcates the queerest parts of the city.
Most well-known for his koi fish stencils, Mr. Novy peppers the city with his work. From the “Gone Gay” signs on French Quarter lamp posts, to his stencils of boot prints and drag queens, Novy’s work seems to pop up wherever gay men congregate.
I spoke with Mr. Novy about his work and got the impression that, although koi fish are his signature, he has a deep passion for creating art which speaks specifically to the gay community.
“We are constantly bombarded by heterosexual images,” he tells me, “I want to put images out there that are queer. What is more powerful and queer than the image of a drag queen?”
Mr. Novy believes his more provocative work, which often features bare-chested leather men, helps expose a new generation of young gay men to the leather scene. “It makes leather cool for them,” he said.
When asked if he experienced any push back in New Orleans for defacing public property, he said there had been none. While creating art in San Francisco, he explained that controversy surrounding his “vandalism” only increased his popularity.
Symbols are important to any community, and every autumn the black and gold fleur de lis becomes omnipresent around New Orleans. For many gay men, however, The Saint’s logo engenders not civic pride, but indifference. For those of us uninterested in millionaires tossing around a pigskin, Novy’s stencils of David Bowie, Mink Stole, and Bianca del Rio symbolize heroes we can believe in.
Process over product
Vigilant artists’ contribution to placemaking in New Orleans is indicative of a larger, national trend where the emphasis is more on making than on place. Graffiti and other on-the-fly, tactical forms of placemaking are stealing the spotlight from centralized institutions which have traditionally decided how the public realm should function and look. This hands-on approach nourishes civic participation, engages communities, and celebrates their unique values.
While the City of New Orleans struggles to decide the fate of several Confederate monuments around town, the LGBT community may have to wait for official rainbow crosswalks and Tennessee Williams Boulevard. However, we may be just as well off simply doing things on our own.