Reimagination of public spaces sought for LGBT community in post-COVID-19 future

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      Probably like many, Alvaro Prol is looking beyond the pandemic.

      Prol has started to imagine life post–COVID-19 from his unique perspective as one of the biggest movers and shakers in Vancouver’s nightlife scene.

      For the cofounder of entertainment giant Blueprint, the health crisis presents an opportunity for the city to review rules around cultural spaces like nightclubs and performance venues.

      “It’s just a very hard place to have creativity happen because of a very uptight city when it comes to regulations,” Prol told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

      His big concern is that venues in the city are assigned less capacity compared with similar places in other jurisdictions, especially in Eastern Canada.

      “We lose some 25 percent of revenue because of that,” Prol said. “So I think the city needs, in general, now more than ever, to just make sure that they pay a lot of attention to culture.”

      These same public spaces are vitally important to members of the LGBT community.

      Blueprint’s properties include Celebrities, a storied nightclub in the Davie Village that is historically home to the city’s queer population.

      Because of the pandemic, Celebrities is operating as a pub and with limited capacity. There is no more dancing, and a maximum of six people are allowed per booking. Guests are to stay at their assigned table; mingling with other tables is discouraged.

      According to Prol, there is a “window” for the city to review capacity regulations.

      He believes that this could prime cultural spaces when things “come back” after the pandemic is over.

      Prol also suggested that this initiative includes an assessment of how outdoor areas like parks are used for events.

      “We have a lot of talent,” Prol said, “and we just have to do things differently and maybe look at regulations a little different and help keep creativity flourishing.”

      As one who identifies with the LGBT community, city councillor Rebecca Bligh is ready to receive suggestions.

      Bligh, who is a mother to two, noted that the pandemic has cut off a lot of queer people from public spaces that provide them with safety and support.

      “We know that when we feel disconnected, depression and mental-health concerns are elevated,” Bligh told the Straight by phone.

      Places like the Qmunity resource centre for the LGBT community have moved online.

      According to Tim Agg, interim executive director of the West End–based nonprofit, Qmunity will continue operating remotely, but is moving to reopen in-person services.

      Like Prol, Bligh is convinced that as the city responds to the pandemic, it could also use this time to rethink indoor and outdoor public spaces.

      For Bligh, this will benefit queer people who have yet to be fully accepted at home by their families because of their identity.

      “We need to help amplify the voices of that community beyond the existing structures, especially in a pandemic, and I would be very open to hearing feedback from folks in the community,” Bligh said.

      Like Bligh, John Paul Catungal is a member of the LGBT community. He’s an assistant professor at UBC’s Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice.

      According to Catungal, nightclubs and pubs are places where queer people have built communities in relative safety.

      “These are affirming spaces,” Catungal told the Straight by phone. Catungal also noted that public spaces in general mean different things to different people.

      While the City of Vancouver has implemented measures to expand spaces during the pandemic—like more patios for pubs, bars, and restaurants—the academic noted that these are consumer spaces.

      “It requires people to buy to be there,” Catungal noted.

      According to Catungal, city builders need to pay attention as well to public spaces like libraries and community centres, where everyone, including queer people, can access different services without paying money.

      “We can talk about commercial spaces, like pubs and bars and clubs and that kind of thing, but LGBT spaces are also spaces like social-services spaces and community organizations,” Catungal said.

      Without a doubt, the virus has changed the night scene in the Davie Village.

      Byron Cooke is the general manager of the Junction, which is famous for drag shows in the LGBT-friendly enclave.

      “We can’t operate as a nightclub. We don’t have dancing within the venue. We don’t have our drag shows. We don’t have our live shows that we formerly had,” Cooke told the Straight by phone. “We’re just operating as a basic pub with a patio.”

      He said no one knows when things will become like they used to be.

      “We’re just going with the flow at this time,” Cooke said.