Safe Space for Capital

How did a brand of gay-friendly values become synonymous with those most prized by capitalist urban redevelopment?

Throughout the recent string of gay-rights victories in the United States, the most vibrant celebrations could be found in so-called “gayborhoods” like New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Castro district.

Whereas gay parts of town were once associated with derelict urban districts (think of the old Times Square or the Tenderloin in San Francisco), these neighborhoods are now some of the country’s most desirable. So much so, in fact, that theories of the “creative city” that emerged in the early aughts often cited the presence of gay people — implicitly, white gay men — as a sign of areas ripe for urban regeneration, whether as arbiters of culture, diversity, or safety.

It would appear that a particular brand of gay-friendly values has become synonymous with those most prized by contemporary capitalist urban redevelopment.

Christina Hanhardt’s new book, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, looks at how the creation of “safer urban streets” became a central goal driving both LGBT activism and neoliberal urban regeneration agendas. The tactics devised by some LGBT activists for the purpose of creating “gay spaces” safe from violence have been adopted by property owners and policymakers, often with negative consequences for other marginal urban groups — including those in the LGBT community, such as queer and trans* youth of color.

The book opens by contrasting the 1969 Stonewall riots, often credited with kickstarting the US gay liberation movement, with a 2002 rally called “Take Back Our Streets,” at which West Village resident groups called for increased police enforcement of quality-of-life laws with the stated goal of creating safer streets. Resident groups like the Christopher Street Patrol emulated tactics used by LGBT activists, including community street patrols targeting groups loitering in the neighborhood’s public spaces. In the Christopher Street area, these groups are most often queer youth of color and transgender women.

The irony here, Hanhardt points out, is that the now-sanitized Stonewall riots were protests against police raids targeting queer communities — trans* women and gender-nonconforming people in particular. Those activists had linked up with similar radical protests by Black Power and Third World decolonization organizations. How is it that subsequent LGBT organizing helped to create neighborhoods and cities that perpetuate the marginalization of lower-income communities and people of color — including many who themselves identify as queer?

The first several chapters trace the post-Stonewall emergence of a mainstream LGBT agenda that became detached from its late-sixties alliance with other marginal urban groups, instead foregrounding the creation of “gay spaces” as a primary organizing goal. This strategy emphasized and publicized the importance of a gay visibility tied to urban space and saw individuated violence against lesbians and gays as the movement’s primary threat.

To this end, in the 1970s and 1980s, groups like the Lavender Panthers in San Francisco and the Society to Make America Safe for Homosexuals (SMASH) in New York pioneered the use of safe-street patrols, gathered data about crimes committed against individuals, and called for greater police protection.

But Hanhardt also draws attention to groups that criticized this strategy and instead highlighted the structural forces uniting gays and lesbians with other disenfranchised urban populations. Groups like the Third World Gay Coalition and Dykes and Faggots Organized to Defeat Institutionalized Liberalism (DAFODIL) pointed to the poverty and violence created by displacement through the private real estate market, and asserted that claims to queer space should challenge the logic of property rights rather than enforce it.

Over time, however, these intersectional groups paled in impact and longevity next to an increasingly mainstream national LGBT movement whose activity centered on combating a narrowing definition of violence — and a narrowing definition of its victims.

Examining this history of LGBT activism in an urban context makes it clear that the strategy of claiming “gay space” often came at the expense of disadvantaged populations. Liberal social-science theories of the “culture of poverty” advanced a racial and behavioral basis to crime that gave rise to zero-tolerance approaches to crime management and to a pathology of homophobia. Hanhardt admits that many of these links are casual, but they do help explain how anti-violence campaigns played off and solidified a narrative of white gay victims and prejudiced, often non-white, perpetrators of violence. These assumptions, when embedded in technocratic tools like broken-windows policing, have had the effect of codifying police enforcement along lines of race and class.

A look at contemporary Greenwich Village reveals the success of LGBT organizing strategies as well as the ways they have exacerbated the uneven development that has become a defining feature of contemporary cities since the 1970s. By the 2000s, the Village was fully gentrified, while its identity as a “gayborhood” made it home to an array of institutions offering social services and support to queer people throughout the New York metropolitan area. Conflict continually erupted over the neighborhood’s public spaces — most visibly the piers at the western end of Christopher Street, a popular gathering spot among queer and trans youth of color who were targeted as an unwanted presence by Village residents and by the pro-development Hudson River Park Trust. Residents used the local community board to issue periodic calls for increased police enforcement of quality-of-life laws, like those prohibiting loitering or rowdiness, to curtail the presence of those deemed outsiders.

Hanhardt points to the community board’s ironic fate under neoliberalism: designed at the height of 1960s Great Society liberalism as a means of empowering marginalized groups, community boards have since become one of the primary vehicles through which property rights are asserted. Meanwhile, Village residents of various sexual orientations adopted the tactics of anti-violence LGBT activists, forming a Christopher Street Patrol to “take back” the streets. Hanhardt thus shows how the goals and aims of gay anti-violence organizing — here used to target queer youth of color — have become indistinguishable from those of private-property protectionism.

But Hanhardt also looks for ways activists might claim space without defending capital. She profiles a group called Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE), made up primarily of queer youth of color who organized to protest the policing and enclosure of public spaces in Greenwich Village. FIERCE became a regular presence at community board meetings, adopting a strategy whereby those most affected by quality-of-life policing strategies spoke out in opposition to them. “We are property values,” asserted FIERCE activists, pointing out that their poverty and vulnerability to police violence was part of the process of uneven development and real estate speculation.

In the end, members of FIERCE, despite their non-resident status, reclaimed the participatory ideals of the community board as they became part of local decision-making and were included in design and governance processes for the waterfront redevelopment. Their success demonstrates how culture, identity, and experience — their status as queers claiming a gay space — could be animated not just in support of homeowner hand-wringing but also against it. In so doing, they successfully challenged the logic of a model of urban citizenship tied to private property and accumulation.

What lessons does this success offer to other activists? Neoliberal urban policies, by denigrating the public sphere, have been highly effective at pitting the groups impacted by its policies against one another, precluding more radical political programs and the coalitions necessary for structural change.

For instance, many community groups formed in response to Black Power calls for black ownership of neighborhood resources have, with the decline of federal funding for community development, come to rely on economically productive activities that generate rental income. These rental incomes serve to sustain piecemeal subsidized housing projects developed by community groups attempting to fill the gap left by declining funds for public housing — a partnership that effectively abets privatized real estate development rather than challenging it.

Meanwhile, since the 1970s, the homeless population has grown at astronomical rates and waiting lists for public housing are several years long. In response to calls for more affordable housing, policymakers incentivize the construction of scores of luxury condo towers — occasionally with smatterings of “affordable” units. This model, which enlists housing advocates in support of accommodationist solutions, reinforces a model of urban citizenship tied to property ownership, perpetuates the development machine, and ensures a permanently homeless class disproportionately populated by minorities and LGBT youth. If these patterns are to be interrupted, activists of different stripes will have to unite to challenge policies that privatize urban space.

Against the fractured landscape of cities characterized by uneven development, Safe Space is a clarion call for radicals to recognize the common deterrents facing all those working for more just cities. While developers and policymakers advocating urban regeneration make use of the rhetoric of diversity, organizers need to call attention to the inequalities these agendas create and examine how imperatives like urban safety or increased housing development often benefit certain populations — usually the wealthy and white — at the expense of others.

Safe Space recognizes that claiming the city as an equitable space for all will require a broader understanding of identity, its use as a tool for development, and its latent potential as a site of resistance.