In case you haven’t heard, Capitol Hill is going through some serious changes. Karyn Schwartz, owner of Capitol Hill mainstay -and generally rad shop SugarPill – has set out to remind residents and part-time party animals what the neighborhood was founded on…QUEERNESS. This is especially important considering recent a spate of violence towards community members. Schwartz has collaborated with local filmmakers and artists Joey Veltkamp, Bakar Maruashvili, and Georgi Gurgenidze to create an interactive film project where iconic queer images are projected on buildings throughout the neighborhood for a couple of weeks before, during, and after pride.
Anyone can become involved by posting images and there is a Facebook invite with a link for more info. So get involved, check it out, contribute. Give yourself a reason to be proud. Karyn Schwartz certainly has one.
How did this project come about?
I was in one of about a million community meetings I have attended over the past few years about the changes in the neighborhood, including issues of gentrification, development, safety and finding a balance between the daytime and evening business communities, and one day I found myself unable to listen to any of it anymore and all I could think of is that I just wanted my neighborhood to be more visible and actually queer again – particularly during Pride. I had this image of being able to project the most iconic queer images – both from history as well as the present, and from people’s real lives as well as from cinema, literature, art, etc. I thought it would just be so beautiful to see ourselves shining down on the neighborhood from the gigantic outsides of so many tall new buildings, and for everyone visiting the neighborhood, but most especially those who are not queer, to see who we are.
I use the term QUEER on purpose here; in a broad sense I am referring to the entire kaleidoscopic spectrum of the LGBTQ community, but also I think of the word queer as a way to include those of us who are unconventional in other ways as well. When I came out in the 80’s, being queer was as much a political stance as it was a declaration of sexual identity or gender expression. A lot has changed in the years since, and as it has become more socially acceptable to be LGBTQ, the center of gravity of our community has shifted. At the same time, as the neighborhood has undergone such rapid development and so many people – queer people – unconventional people who still live more on the margins of the tech-driven materialistic society that has taken over the neighborhood – have found ourselves forced out of the neighborhood, that center of gravity has dissipated even more. Without romanticizing the “gay ghetto” that used to be the locational heart of the queer community, and the very real dangers that we faced in all of the years when being queer was still something that we were universally hated for and openly discriminated against or worse, I do find myself longing for a more visible, tangible geography of identity, and the very real connection that is fostered by living and working and creating and struggling in proximity to one another. I have also grown weary of reading “obituaries” to the neighborhood; all the people who would proclaim that Capitol Hill is dead, despite the fact that there are still so many of us here, fighting fiercely and passionately to hold on to what is left of one of the most vibrant and creative neighborhoods in the city.
How do you think it would affect Capitol Hill (and Seattle in general) if it becomes an inhospitable environment for artists, musicians, etc.?
We have already lost so many people who could not afford to stay in this town, and so many more of us are on the rapidly receding edge of being able to remain here, particularly due to the insane rise in rental costs. What happens when a neighborhood becomes inhospitable to the people who inhabit it is what has happened in every other place that did not have the foresight to stave off the kind of rampant and sudden development that always seems to drive out the very people who make a neighborhood not “desirable” but diverse. This is not unique to Capitol Hill by any means, and it is not unique to this moment in time, yet somehow city planners never seem to find ways to preserve what sits at the foundation of healthy, creative, resilient communities. They just allow for the wholesale transfer of entire landscapes to the highest bidders with no meaningful restrictions on what can be put in place of what was once a nexus of relationship, cooperation, recognition, and care- and then they wonder why so many people either leave or simply fall through the cracks, unable to sustain their livelihoods or their real sense of belonging, health and sanity when their support systems disappear. What happens is that artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, teachers, healers, people of all stripes who make the world more beautiful, more humane, more tolerant, diverse and hopeful, and more welcoming to people who do not fit the modern definition of “successful”, find themselves also having to leave and start over again someplace else, and the very place that benefitted from their collective brilliance withers in their absence.
There is a multitude of ways to get a message out. Why did you choose this specific medium and how do you think it’s going to be effective?
I actually never thought this would happen – it was just a daydream – but on a whim I called a few people who have ties to the film community just to see if anyone could imagine really doing it, and that was how I ended up getting connected with Bakar and Giorgi, who have launched this platform as a way of doing public installations about freedom of speech. I love the medium because it is participatory, and what I am hoping for is that many people will add their voices and their images to it, so that the widest representation of queerness, and of the history or queerness, and of this neighborhood will be depicted from many points of view.
How long have you been working on Capitol Hill? What is it about the neighborhood that makes you stay, despite all the changes that are happening?
I have been working on Capitol Hill since I moved here in 1989. My very first job was at the original Globe Café, which had just opened the week I arrived and quickly became a place where many long-time collaborations and creative relationships were formed. Just by walking through the neighborhood, it took me all of 48 hours to find 2 jobs, a place to live, a choir to sing with, places to go where I felt welcome and safe, the gay bookstores and gathering places, the local chapter of ACT-UP to work with and so many people who were doing things that were really interesting and inspiring to me. What keeps me here is my own history here, and the deep roots that I was able to put down so quickly that have made my life possible through many trying times. I can’t imagine starting over somewhere new – community is something that takes a long time to foster, and only a relatively short while for external forces to pry apart. I feel fierce about this neighborhood, and I like being a steady part of the fabric of this community. I barely scratch out a living doing what I do, but every day I feel like it was a good thing I showed up for work, and that it meant something to someone who crossed my path, and that THAT is the point.
This project is at least partially in response to the recent violence against members of the LGBTQ community. How do you think this project might affect that situation?
I can only hope that the many people who don’t live or work here but only come to the neighborhood at night just to party and get wasted might be moved by the images of the people who made this neighborhood what it is. There is a huge disparity between the daytime and the nightlife here, and a lot of the folks who come here in the evening have no ties to the community nor respect for who we are. They should have to contend with our queerness if they are going to spend time in our neighborhood, and they should learn to respect the people who call this neighborhood home.
What other actions do you think we can take to quell this violence?
Oh gosh, there is so much violence and so much hatred and so much willful ignorance in this country. I don’t know if I can address this question succinctly, but I do know that there needs to be a collective insistence upon calling out hatred and bigotry whenever and wherever it is apparent. There needs to be zero tolerance for every single incident of violence against queers of all expressions and identities, against people of color, against women, against older people and people of differing abilities… I don’t think this will be a welcome observation, but there needs to be the will on the part of bar owners to stop fueling the nightly insanity that turns the neighborhood into a sort of straight, white teenage Las Vegas, with young people wasted out of their minds stumbling around like the night of the living dead, throwing their guts up in every doorway, getting into fights, and all too often, attacking people who don’t look like they do. There also needs to be a meaningful effort on the part of the city to finally develop some solutions to the explosion in homelessness, and the immoral absence of accessible resources for people with serious drug addiction, mental health issues and the growing population of young people traumatized by serving in the military in any one of the places we are currently at war. There are far too many people with no place to call home, no sense of purpose, no ability to participate in society or community and no ability to heal. None of these problems are going to go away, and as the financial pressures in this city intensify, we are only going to see more violence and more crime unless we begin to dismantle the institutionalized disparities between the haves and the rest of us.
Who are some queer icons you are hoping to project? What moments are important to you to show?
I want to see it all. I want to see every kind of person imaginable, from every generation, every culture, every moment of struggle as well as triumph, every organization or affinity that helped you find your way to come out, or find your way to your true sense of home. I want to see the cover of any book that opened your eyes to the possibility of your own heart’s desire, the record album cover to the song that you first fell in queer love to, the iconic performers and queer celebrities that made you realize you were not alone. I want to see every configuration of family, every point on the wide, fluid spectrum of gender and identity. I want to see images of us fighting together for justice, of us taking care of each other, of us celebrating as well as grieving, of us changing history by daring to be and live out in times that were not as friendly as they have finally become, and of us continuing to defy the pressure to assimilate even as we become not just acceptable but fashionable. To me being queer is about being yourself; about being true to who you are despite what society insists you must be in order to fit in and be approved of. I want to see images of people who have been brave; I want to see portraits of what has inspired others to be more courageous than they ever thought they would be. If it holds meaning for you as a queer person coming into your own true identity, your own power and your own love for yourself and for the people who adore you for who you are, I want to see it.
How can people get involved in the project? Do you have anything else planned for future community involvement?
The platform we will be utilizing is incredibly simple – you can access it through facebook, and once you sign in, uploading your own message with text and/or images is just as easy as posting something to facebook. Posts will be moderated by filters as well as by actual humans who will make sure that no hate speech or anything else untoward ends up in the projections, and within about a day, posts will get added to the queue for projection as well as become visible on the deehubs site, under the Here and Queer campaign in Seattle. You can share the link with anyone you want, and you can share your posts on other social media sites for others to see, and in this way we are hoping that the project will take on a life of its own as people discover that they can add their own voices and images to the project. The projections will happen at various sites around Capitol Hill for about 2 weeks. After that, I plan to continue being a part of my neighborhood as a business owner, as a community member, as a writer and an occasional musician, as a resident and as a proud and extremely lucky member of my big queer family here.