In celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride, CRTKL is speaking with members of the firm’s LGBTQ+ community to celebrate their voices and elevate their perspectives. Today, we are talking to Tyler Blazer, Sahil Dagli, and Van Pham about queer culture in New York City and how our community continues to thrive in the face of change.
What does queer culture look like for you in New York City?
Tyler Blazer: Queer culture is an important part of NYC’s history. While many might have often romanticized New York as a wonderful place to live, it was also a very difficult place for many – especially during the HIV/AIDS crises in the 1980s and ’90s. Despite the struggles of poverty, lack of access to proper healthcare and housing, and generally being recognized as equals within society, the queer community largely sought refuge together and in some way helped keep NYC alive in its darkest times.
It was around the 1960s and ’70s when the queer community started to take advantage of abandoned spaces throughout the city and co-opted many of the piers as places of refuge. I believe, in some sense, this helped start a revival in many of the nearby derelict neighborhoods. Even today, the areas of West Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen owe much of their resurgence to the queer community. And while these neighborhoods might not be as prominently queer today, NYC still reigns as a queer culture hub. Sahil, Van—how do you find that translates for you today?
Sahil Dagli: I come from a big city in India, and, as a brown person, when I first came to New York City, what struck me most was the casual inclusivity. Besides signs and flags, what defines queer culture for me is how the streets are so embracing. Fashion and LGBTQ+ culture are deeply intertwined, so when you’re walking on the street, people can wear whatever they want and not be singled out. The looks can be avant-garde and outrageous, but they don’t get the strange looks you might get somewhere else. There’s this nature of nonchalance: it seems as though almost everyone is okay with whoever you are. It’s not an underground movement anymore—it’s just a part of the culture. As an immigrant and person of color and as part of the community, these layers have added to my understanding of queer culture and its inclusivity.
Van Pham: I’m from Southern California originally. Queer culture there is very visible, but it’s only really accessible through the party scene. All I really knew there were gay bars and clubs. When I came here, I felt similarly to Sahil — New York is, generally, really embracing and open to every kind of queer person. I’ve met so many different types of people who are queer and it’s been a really great exposure and learning experience. It’s so great to have those conversations and to see them not just isolated to one neighborhood. You can be as involved as you want in almost any part of the city. You could go to a rally, tan in Sheep Meadow, take a day trip to Fire Island. With the pandemic, many bars and places have had to shut down because, even though queer culture isn’t solely based around bars, those are safe havens. Since those weren’t available, culture had to evolve – activism has seemed more present lately, for example.
Tell me a bit more about the evolution of queer spaces in the city.
TB: I was on an LGBTQ+ themed AIA NY Architecture Boat Tour recently, and something that struck me so prominently on the tour was how the queer community helped reshape the development of the city’s Westside — a thriving neighborhood once teeming with heavy shipping activity. By the mid-20th Century, the whole passenger cruise and shipping industries were struggling to compete with airplane travel. Nobody else wanted to go to these areas, but it was desirable to the queer community because they could carve a space of their own among the derelict and abandoned piers along the Hudson. Alvin Baltrop and Peter Hujar documented many of these piers on Manhattan’s west side for over two decades, notably capturing the evolution of the queer life around the Christopher Street pier. What’s built there now are beautiful parks and a surge in luxury redevelopment by today’s “starchitects” – but there’s still this ephemeral presence when you look out at the old pier supports wasting away in the Hudson River. At The Whitney [Museum of American Art], David Hammons’ new outdoor exhibit Days End pays tribute to Gordon Matta-Clark’s interventions at the former piers by building a skeletal frame over the Hudson River evoking the shape of the old pier shed.
While most of these queer spaces are physically gone, what’s left are memories of space preserved through meaningful exhibits of photography, art and other memoirs. What’s interesting today is how almost all of our public spaces have transformed into safe spaces for the queer community — meaning spaces that aren’t specifically tucked away or revolving around nightlife activities, but places that allow others to seek comfort as a queer person any time of day.
VP: I could probably name on one hand the number of queer-designated public spaces in the city. Mostly, places have become queer spaces because queer people frequent them on certain days. They’re not a protected queer space, it just “became a thing”. Because of that, combined with a lack of funding, we’ve had to be more creative and more forthright with occupying space as LGBTQ+ people. Yesterday, there was an equality rally and I noticed they always tend to take place on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum, then the march or parade starts from there. That has become a rallying location point. It’s a tiered space where you can set up for speakers and spill out to the streets. Since capitalism and money are coming in and taking away formerly queer spaces, we’ve moved elsewhere and taken over in a different area to make a hybrid space for ourselves.
TB: I agree, Van – many times, queer spaces are just temporal out of necessity or by chance — for example, on the Second Sunday of the warmer months there are LGBTQ+ takeovers at Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. Queer people take over one of the park’s green spaces and invite their friends and just hang out for the afternoon. There are sometimes huge crowds – including queer people, allies, music, diversity, picnics; it’s more open and accessible than a bar where you may feel the pressure to drink.
Many neighborhood bars have also begun having queer nights. Plenty of bars and restaurants have started flying pride flags year-round, too, not just in the month of June, to designate their space as friendly and safe to our community.
SD: I live in Brooklyn, and you’re right, Tyler — many of the bars and cafes around me are showing a queer presence yearlong. Since the pandemic, a couple of smaller places in the neighborhood have closed, but a few other cafes started hosting music events outside the bars. Irrespective of the flag, it became a community gathering for the street.
How can we work to preserve queer culture in NYC?
TB: I think it’s important to elevate more voices within our community. Queer culture has always had a complex relationship with gentrification; though it certainly has negative consequences, not all “gentrification” is bad. Gentrification has created iconic queer spaces and opened some areas of affordability for new underserved communities to move into the city and claim their own cultural space for the time being. Moving forward, I believe rezoning efforts should put more stress on avoiding displacement and focusing on affordability and inclusivity.
VP: Globally, architects and designers need to employ a strategy of community development – especially in the case of large-scale developments in urban areas. They must consider and consult the communities in order to ensure they’re not displacing local populations. That applies internally, too – not everywhere in the world is equally accepting of queer people. Employees must feel safe enough to publicly express themselves.
SD: I agree — we must support pre-existing queer communities. It’s not just about having bars or cafes that are inclusive— what about LGBTQ+ health centers? Affordable housing? Elderly care? Elderly people in the LGBTQ+ disproportionately face difficulties in finding safe shelter. We must consider the different kinds of buildings required by the community in terms of the built environment.
TB: There are also amazing organizations we can support, like Sage, that are doing the boots-on-the-ground work of helping those in our community in need. Queer elderly people have different health needs – medical care can be more complex when there’s a risk of HIV-related complications. Hospice and nursing homes are also notoriously depressing— there is not a sufficient investment in design for those spaces.
How can the queer community find resiliency through these crises?
TB: In the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) industry, specifically, I think resiliency can come through continued exposure, advocacy, and representation. Queer representation is becoming genuinely important to contractors and developers even. Organizations like the ULI (Urban Land Institute) and Build Out Alliance have shown dedication to LGTBQ+ advocacy and allyship. You’re seeing that acceptance infiltrate all elements of culture and industries. People have a better understanding of what it’s like to be queer.
I grew up in Tennessee, and I’ve been able to see in my own family that their understanding of queer culture has grown. They’ve met people who are nonbinary or trans – something they had no understanding of not long ago. I see that as resilience. We still have more to fight for, but there are more people on our side. I’ve seen during marches advocating for trans people of color, for example, bystanders who are just going about their day stop on the sidewalk and cheer along with them. They cheer them on and amplify their voices. That is resilience.
VP: Now more than ever, we are having these conversations more –- like the one we’re having right now. More workplaces are doing small things like adopting pronoun inclusion in employee email signatures. These little steps will only continue because there’s finally broad exposure to the hard conversations that have always needed to happen.
I’ve read that Gen Z is more likely to identify as LGBTQ+, and along with that comes recognition and comfort. Each generation of queer people has paved the way for the next to be more comfortable as a part of the community. As we continue the work, it’ll become a new normal.
SD: You can even see the resiliency and the transformation in the pop culture landscape with shows like Schitt’s Creek.
VP: Or Lil Nas X on SNL!
SD: [Laughs] That too! I wish I could have grown up watching this media that’s so accepting. It really does make a huge difference in shaping the broader narrative.
Tyler Blazer is an associate in CRTKL’s New York City office. Tyler is a licensed architect at CallisonRTKL with nearly 10 years of experience working on complex residential, retail, and mixed-use projects. Having spent much of his career between Atlanta and New York City, Tyler is passionate about sharing his experience, knowledge, and creativity on each project he touches. Tyler is a champion of great design not only during the early conceptual phases but also carries that spirit throughout a project life with a keen sense of detail and technical proficiency.
Van Pham is an associate in CRTKL’s New York Office. He is an experienced Associate with a demonstrated history of working in the architecture & planning industry in multiple sectors ranging from luxury/specialty retail to commercial to workplace. Strong professional with a Bachelor of Architecture focused in Architecture from University of Southern California.
Sahil Dagli is a Senior Designer in CRTKL’s New York City office. Hailing from India, Sahil Dagli is a Senior Designer at CRTKL and also is a Global Research Fellow for the North East Region for CRTKL. After attaining his Master’s in Science in Architecture and Urban Design from Pratt Institute, Sahil often engages in architecture writing and photography and loves to explore ideas in architecture and research.