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Views on a new queer quarter for Blackpool

Business owners and members of the LGBTQ+ community have expressed their support for the development of a gay village in Blackpool, but say that safety concerns in the area need addressing first. Darren Gorman reports.

Members of the public are currently being asked to share their views on the council’s vision to build on the strength of the high concentration of gay venues in the north of the town centre.

The ‘Be Who You Want To Be’ survey follows a council report published in August which stated its intention to work with community groups and partners to develop a new village quarter. Set within the Claremont Ward, it would celebrate the resort’s LGBTQ+ heritage.

The survey asks the public to share their thoughts on the area currently and their ideas for improvement, with suggestions for development including “street art, LGBTQ+ themed sets for fun picture opportunities, planters, street furniture and visual representations that would define the area such as rainbow flag and road markings”.

Despite drawing inspiration from Manchester’s Canal Street and stating that it will celebrate LGBTQ+ heritage, the council has opted not to label the area a gay village, saying it would instead carry no label, “welcoming all with the mantra ‘be who you want to be’ and encouraging inclusivity and diversity at every level”. Queen Street, Springfield Road, High Street, Lord Street, part of Talbot Road and others are cited in the plans for development.

The area earmarked for development

John Street, who runs Mardi Gras Bar and Hotel on Lord Street welcomed the plans. He would like them to include the pedestrianisation of Lord Street along with installing planters and seating to encourage daytime socialising.

He added that the plan could be controversial “depending on how it’s handled”. His main concern is how well the area is covered by CCTV and how responsive the police are when trouble arises.

“I had an issue recently where I’ve had to call the police out because somebody was using homophobic language, threatening people and actually attacked somebody, but the police didn’t even turn up. They weren’t even interested.”

Ava Docherty agrees that safety is a concern. The 25 year old is the first female-born drag queen to work at Funny Girls on Dickson Road, which is included in the plans.

Ava Docherty (middle left) on stage at Funny Girls

“I currently run from the doors of Funny Girls to my car because it doesn’t feel like a safe area,” she said. “I’ve always thought it was quite ironic that the LGBT area of town was in the not so safe area of town.”

Claremont is one of the most deprived areas of the country and its town centre streets have a high concentration of bars and clubs. In August the ward had 344 reported crimes, compared to 269 in the neighbouring Talbot Ward and 72 in neighbouring Warbreck. Of these 143 were violent and sexual offences and 87 were anti-social behaviour. Some 182 of them were concentrated in the area earmarked for a village quarter.

The council’s report states that it intends to support the area “to be a place where people can safely socialise and celebrate difference and diversity without the risks of homophobic or other discriminatory abuse”.

Blackpool Council is working collaboratively with partners including The Blackpool North Shore Business Group, Renaissance Charity, LGBT+ Facebook Friends, hoteliers group BAGS and Blackpool Pride Festival to develop its plans. While there is no funding currently attached to the idea, the council hopes a collective and clear vision for the area would help attract both public and private investment.

“I think that’s got to be one of the big things regarding this area – educating people so that we can hopefully get rid of hate crime.”

Shaun Pickup is a trustee of Pride Blackpool, a voluntary-led organisation made up of individuals from the local LGBTQ+ community and allies.

He said: “We feel it’s a good idea because it will hopefully encourage development within the area. We’re looking at bringing in a daytime economy alongside the nighttime economy.”

Pickup believes that education and catering for LGBTQ+ youth will help drive down crime.

“I think that’s got to be one of the big things regarding this area – educating people so that we can hopefully get rid of hate crime.”

He added that he doesn’t believe LGBTQ+ specific crime is a particular problem in the area.

“Back in the day, when I used to go out all the time, we weren’t welcome in places like Walkabout, but if you go in there now for Monday Madness there are more LGBT people in there than there are in the Flying Handbag.”

Blackpool Central Library and The Grundy Art Gallery are in the heart of the development area

Pickup would like to see an LGBTQ+ heritage trail in the area and green space developed on the site of derelict buildings near The Grundy Art Gallery where a gay icon such as Paul O’Grady as Lily Savage could be memorialised with a statue.

“Years ago, Blackpool led the way on LBGT,” he said. “We were the first to have a burlesque show bar within Funny Girls. It was one of the first gay nightclubs. The old Galleon Bar used to be on Tower Street and that was predominantly a gay venue.”

Pickup is also keen to promote Pride Blackpool’s vision of promoting to the youth community.

“We’d like to see a community hub that can become an LGBT meeting place, which groups and organisations can use as a central gathering place.”

Street is keen to appeal to a younger crowd too.

“Blackpool isn’t great for the younger gay community, we only get a smattering of under 25s – most tend to go to Manchester.

“I’m interested in diversifying our offer. We’re expanding Mardi Gras and have just opened a restaurant-bar. We’ve also created a chill out zone for people away from the music which appeals to the older clientele as somewhere quiet. I would love to do an under 25s night once a week to focus on getting the youth out. We want the youth involved because one day we want them to take over all this.”

“I think the gay scene in Blackpool at the minute is very much geared towards the older generation of queer people.”

Docherty agrees that the area needs to cater to a younger crowd.

“I think the gay scene in Blackpool at the minute is very much geared towards the older generation of queer people. I’m a drag queen at Funny Girls and that’s the only place I can go in Blackpool.

“My kind of drag is very much a younger style. I’m not a comedy queen. I like dance and performance and there are not really many venues that cater to that. It all caters to the older generation and it’s not been refreshed.”

She would also like to see a daytime venue that acts as a queer meeting and creative place.

Melanie Whitehead is the creative director of The Old Electric community theatre on Springfield Road. She is hopeful the development will be beneficial for both the residents and businesses in the area.

“I think it’s got huge potential to really be a destination place. Blackpool needs that go-to area for the LGBTQ+ community. I think this could be instrumental in helping pull the community together,” she said.

The Old Electric has worked on LGBTQ+ specific community projects including Social Sundays where the organisation paid for taxis for people who were exploring their identities, and who may not feel safe using public transport. It is also the home of Blackpool’s LGBTQ+ choir Electric Pink Voices and a dry venue.

“We made a deliberate choice not to serve alcohol on the premises. That was seen as a real positive for a lot of the choir members because everything seems to circle around bars, drinking and drug culture.

“The idea that there was something happening within a safe space that was specifically targeted at the LGBT+ community felt like real strength.”

Whitehead feels the town is missing more of these types of venues and would also like to see more of a focus on the daytime economy.

“The main area that’s missing in Blackpool is a decent food offer – different places where you can go and feel like you can just hang out and have something to eat in a nice environment. That kind of family-friendly place, where it doesn’t cost a huge amount of money and focuses on healthy food, is missing.”

Pickup said that having Blackpool Council providing its support to the project is important and shows they are committed to improving the area, while supporting the LGBTQ+ community.

“It’s heading in the right direction. And it’s great that the council is 100 per cent supportive and 100 per cent behind the LGBT community within Blackpool.”

Share your views on the Be Who You Want To Be survey by 19th November at www.blackpool.gov.uk/BeYou

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