The Black Cap closure – one year on how you can help

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Twelve months ago one of London’s most famous gay venues closed. But the fight’s far from over, says Ben Walters


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In its heyday: boys at the Black Cap. Photo: BC
In its heyday: boys at the bar. Photo: BC
It’s almost a year since the Black Cap was closed. It still stands there, at 171 Camden High Street, as it has for centuries, but you can’t go in any more. To those who love the pub, its bolted doors and barricaded windows are a slap in the face – a sad reminder of the vulnerability of London’s alternative spaces.

On April 12 2015, without any notice, and despite doing a roaring trade, this Camden landmark and icon of LGBT community and culture, boasting more than half a century of unique and irreplaceable heritage, was shuttered overnight. Why? Because the owners thought they could make more money by turning it into flats, retail or a mainstream venue.

Ben Walters and friend:
Ben Walters and friend: ‘We might be facing our biggest challenge yet.’
To those who cherish independent and grassroots culture of any kind, that stings. And to the queer community for whom the Black Cap has been a safe space since the days when it was illegal to be gay, it really hurts.

Gay marriage might be legal but homophobic violence is on the rise across London – just one of a host of social, economic and physical issues that disproportionately affect LGBT people. Yet queer venues are closing all across town. Since the Cap shut, the number of people asking Camden LGBT Forum for help with severe social isolation and mental health concerns has trebled.

We still desperately need this dedicated and culturally significant venue for the LGBT+ community.

But look at those bolted doors and barricaded windows from another angle and they show a kind of victory.

The fact that the Black Cap remains dormant nearly a year on is testament to the passion and organisation of the community that loves it – and to the fact that profit-motivated developers don’t automatically get their way.

#WearetheBlackCap. Photo: WATBC
#WearetheBlackCap. Photo: WATBC
The #WeAreTheBlackCap campaign, of which I am a member, has maintained a weekly vigil outside the site on Saturday afternoons, hearing countless stories about the importance of the Cap to the neighbourhood and reminding people of its significance.

More than that, the campaign has actively defended the Black Cap as a unique site of LGBT community and culture. Camden Council recognised this by granting our application to designate the Cap as an ‘Asset of Community Value’, singling out its groundbreaking cabaret shows and irreplaceable community role. The pub’s owners tried to get this status overturned. The campaign defeated that attempt.

#WeAreTheBlackCap has also succeeded in opposing repeated redevelopment plans that would have turned the site into flats or a chain café.

And we’re setting up a charitable wing, the Black Cap Foundation, to help raise funds to re-open the pub as an LGBT+ venue with performance at its heart and support similar causes beyond Camden.

A protest outside. Photo: Facebook
A protest outside. Photo: Facebook
As the anniversary of the pub’s closure approaches, we might be facing our biggest challenge yet. A new company called Ruth & Robinson (R&R) has now taken over the lease on the property. Funded by venture-capital investors, R&R’s goal is to develop a chain of mainstream bar-restaurants across the southeast over the next four or five years, then sell them off to the highest bidder. Their first venture in Clerkenwell closed within months of opening.

R&R approached #WeAreTheBlackCap, saying they were keen to engage with the local community and that they took the campaign’s concerns seriously. We hoped there was a chance to work together to reopen the Black Cap as an LGBT+ venue with performance at its heart. We even presented a detailed plan of how a thriving Black Cap could benefit R&R’s overall business strategy.

They turned it down flat, making it clear that they wanted to turn the site of the Black Cap into a mainstream bar-restaurant called Hollenbeck’s.

R&R proposed a number of ‘LGBT-friendly’ ideas, from staff diversity training to occasional performance nights. Nice enough – on any other site. But to those who value the Black Cap’s history and future as a place of queer safety, community and expression, these gestures simply don’t cut it.

To eradicate a thriving queer icon for the sake of a generic straight venue that hopes to be tolerant would be harmful to both the LGBT+ community and the fabric of Camden’s culture.

R&R have already sought to change the site’s planning status from one that recognises the Black Cap’s unique qualities to one that would make it easier to convert into a straight venue.

We don’t much fancy their chances. Luckily, Camden Council understand and value the #WeAreTheBlackCap campaign and have so far been brilliantly supportive. But we need your help to defend the Black Cap now, and set its future on the right course.

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Here’s what you can do:

Get down to Bloc bar tomorrow, March 22. Photo: SE
Get down to Bloc bar tomorrow, March 22. Photo: SE
1. Come along to our public meeting about the next phase of the campaign, at 7pm next Tuesday March 22 at Bloc Bar, 18 Kentish Town Road, London, NW1 9NX.

2. Go to Camden Council’s website and object to the planning applications to change use and appearance of the Black Cap.

3. Come to our ‘ONE YEAR ON’ protest planned for 1-4pm on Saturday April 9 outside the Black Cap.

Given the Black Cap’s success right up until its doors were closed, we are confident that it will re-open and thrive again – if we defend it now and work with the right partners in future.

Our communities need to act now before we lose yet another institution that makes our city so great and diverse.

We can all take strength from a simple truth. A door that has been closed can be opened again – if we come together and push hard enough.

Find out more here and on Twitter @weareblackcap


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