by: Dean Labowitz and Ami Mehta
By Dean Labowitz and Ami Mehta
What is queer space? What would it take for architects to consider queer and trans people as critical stakeholders? How can architects find shared language with queer and trans folks? These were some of the large questions we tried to answer in the 2023 AIANY Civic Leadership Program (CLP)‘s fifth Development Session, organized by the cohort’s Dean Labowitz and Ami Mehta. Through a case study of an iconic queer New York landmark, Jacob Riis Beach, participants were taken on a multi-media journey to understand the complexities of a site in the throes of rapid development.
To begin to understand the significance of Riis Beach to the queer community, the four-hour session began with an audio-visual workshop led by the scholar, artist, and activist, Jah Elyse Sayers. Sayers, who has done years of research (or “Riisearch”) on the site, opened by leading the fellows through a somatic, grounding exercise, asking participants to visualize a place where they felt open possibility. The activity set the stage for Sayers’ immersive audio experience: curated recordings from their oral history project. Over the course of two summers, Sayers has recorded Riis experiences from beachgoers, some who have attended Riis annually for over 30 years. To process the powerful audio, Sayers guided the fellows through small group discussions centered on Riis artifacts: archival photos, reddit posts, trip advisor reviews and newspaper articles found in their research and by Mehta online.
After the break, Labowitz and Mehta brought the discussion beyond the scope of Riis, to the city’s queer spaces more generally, building upon the reflections of the immersive workshop and introducing three guest speakers. Stefa Marin Alarcon, a vocalist, composer and multi-media performance artist born and raised in Queens, NY, represented Trans Equity Consulting, a group paving the way to establishing genuine equity in the workplace and beyond. Tom Calahan provided the broader perspective of queer nightlife based on his illustrious and far-reaching weekly newsletter of curated local electronic music events. AIANY 2023 President Matthew Bremer, AIA, provided a viewpoint from the organization and of an architect creating and advocating for LGBTQIA+ issues within the profession.
Along with Sayers’ presentation, the panel discussion centered around ideas of agency, whether queer spaces are created or found, and what working with or against the system looks like as queer and trans people, advocates, and allies. Throughout the session, the CLP fellows were asked to interrogate the role of the architect in including queer and trans voices in designing the future for Riis. The discussion considered the role of community engagement in this and other sites, and explored best practices for greater queer community engagement. Hopefully through this thoughtful session and movements for queer spaces generally, architects and designers can begin to better see queer and trans communities as vital stakeholders in the futures of these spaces.
The Civic Leadership Programs gives special thanks to:
Kasey Motley, CLP Advisor
Jenna Wandishin Reichberg, CLP Advisor
Bradley Sherburne, CLP Advisor
Harriet Provine, CLP Advisor
Ankita Nalavade, CLP Advisor
Iyatunde Majekodunmi, CLP Advisor
Suzanne Mecs, Hon. AIANYS, Managing Director, AIA New York