Queering Culture: The Importance of Seating Queer Voices at the Table with Tyler Blazer

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.

Tell me a bit about your advocacy work with the LGBTQ+ community.

Tyler Blazer: I’m involved in a group called Build Out Alliance. When I first moved to New York City, one of my former colleagues I met through involvement in the AIAS (The American Institute of Architecture Students) reached out to me about this new group advocating for increasing LGBTQ+ representation in the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) industry. While there appears to be adequate queer representation in residential architecture and design, it’s seriously lacking within the professional side. Recently, through Build Out Alliance, I was put in touch with the owner of Henrietta Hudson – the oldest historically lesbian bar in New York City, located in the West Village. In light of repurposing the space for the COVID-19 pandemic from a crowded nightclub into a community lounge, I met with the owner Lisa Cannistraci to be a conduit and provide connections with permit expeditors and code consultants as she sought to renovate her space and add a parklet outside. Henrietta Hudson has been around for thirty years now. Not only is it one of the few lesbian bars left in New York City, but it’s one of only fifteen left in the whole country. Often, these queer spaces cannot afford to keep up with the enormous expenses of continually renovating to transform with the public interest. The owner was looking to appeal to more of a non-nightclub crowd with her recent renovation: removing the pool table, emphasizing midcentury furniture and lounge seating- even introducing a tapas menu. It expands Henrietta Hudson’s platform to say: I can do both! It can be a community lounge space for all types of people, not just queer people, then it can turn more into a bar/nightclub environment later at night. It’s not just another place to wait in line for a $20 vodka soda – we don’t need any more of those [laughs]. Thankfully, in this case, the owner didn’t need to re-file — so we could just help set her up with connections. Now, if she ever wants to transform the space again, she has more connections to help wade through all of the difficulties of New York City’s code and zoning ordinances.

Where do you find your place in the community? What inspired you to become more involved?

TB: I’m originally from Knoxville, Tennessee —  growing up in the south, there wasn’t much cultural representation in the communities where I lived. My exposure changed drastically when I moved to Atlanta after college. I was there during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016 following the murder of Michael Brown. I remember being in my car stuck in traffic at a major intersection when protestors unfurled their banner right there in the middle of the intersection. That was the moment that despite my inconvenience- I realized that the only way to be truly heard is to be disruptive. My commute is simply not as important as their cause. And it’s not always about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – I think one can miss the point when you try to do that. It’s really about listening. Listening to those affected and what they have to say. Showing them that their voices matter. Since then, I’ve realized the importance of using my position to elevate the voices of others in the community who aren’t as privileged.

In the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) industry, we have a unique opportunity to give back to our communities. Last year following the murder of George Floyd and another wave of the Black Lives Movement garnered support, a few of us in the office were sharing resources about systemic racism and white fragility in the workplace. That eventually evolved into my application to the Social Action Committee, where my main goal is to elevate the voices of other queer people and advocate for future leaders. My main focus has been to ensure that we are partnering with the right people and actually giving the community what they want – we want to involve small businesses and promote partners we morally align with.

Currently, during Pride month, there’s an issue in the LGBTQ+ community called rainbow washing, wherein companies will, for lack of a better term, slap a rainbow on their logo without doing much actual work for the community. Many companies who do this are even actively harming the community, like donating to anti-trans legislation or supporting world leaders who want to ban queerness. Or dedicating a park to Marsha P. Johnson but having no idea what the queer community actually wants from a park.

Even when the intentions are good, the execution can be missed. As architects and designers, we can do better at representing those stories, listening to the community and giving honor to those names and spaces.

On the other side of that, though, is increased representation. There is certainly something to say for the fact that you can go into a Target or Walmart around the country and see LGBTQ+ pride merchandise – that was not true even a few years ago. There is real value in, let’s say, a gay kid in Alabama who visits Joanne’s fabric store with his grandma and sees the Pride collections – even though their family or friends may not accept them in the immediate, they can see that this acceptance is out there.

So, it’s issues like this that requires queer people to be at the table and to share their wide variety of perspectives and experiences. A lot of companies that use the Pride flag don’t even understand what it means. The pink triangle symbol was actually co-opted from the Nazi concentration camps– during the AIDS crisis, it was used a symbol of unity: “silence = death.” It’s great that we have companies wanting to elevate that, but it’s important to do it responsibly and not pander. You also have to be willing to put your money where your mouth is – which sometimes means taking a moral stance over a financial gain.

How has your own experience been shaped by your identity?

TB: In New York City, I really am lucky to be constantly surrounded by queer history. I’ve learned to immerse myself in queer books and other queer media like POSE– a tv show about underground ballroom culture set in the late 1980s- to  Paris is Burning – a documentary on the same subject. I’ve learned so much from being in the community here and being adjacent to these spaces. And while many know about the history of [The] Stonewall [Inn], sadly many don’t know about other parts of queer history such as the mass burial sites in NYC’s Hart Island where many unclaimed victims of AIDS lay to rest.

It’s amazing, though, how queer culture has become so much a part of popular culture because it’s being driven by the queer community. From queer art at Pier 52 becoming the basis for modern art as we know it today to drag queens competing on network TV, my community’s identities have deeply shaped not only my own experience, but the broader culture’s.

 

Clare Sausen

Clare Sausen

Clare Sausen is a Content Writer for CallisonRTKL. Based in Washington, D.C., she leverages her personal and professional experience in journalism, radio, and nonprofit communication to serve as a valuable member of the global firmwide team. Since attaining her Bachelor of Arts degree from George Washington University in Communication and American Studies, she has honed her craft of architectural storytelling across multiple platforms.
Clare Sausen