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Since their first recorded history, ‘gay villages’ have played an important role in the increased visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQ2+ community.

Designed by local Westender, Jim Balakshin, the ‘Heart of Davie Village’ gateway sign (located off Davie and Burrard St.) will be a beacon for the community that will symbolize the reorganizing of heteronormative spaces into more welcoming and safe landscapes.

Read on as Jim explains the inspiration and process behind the Heart of Davie Village, the connection to the community, and how he hopes the piece will be interpreted:

What is the inspiration behind your installation, the ‘Heart of Davie Village?”

The development of the city of Vancouver is highly influenced by the arterial streets that cross the landscape. The identity of many neighbourhoods are defined by the urban villages that line these corridors and serve nearby residents. This installation aims to celebrate the diversity of the West End and vibrancy of the Davie Village.

Describe the installation

The Heart of Davie Village is a 1.25m x 1.25m (4 feet x 4 feet) heart-shaped neon sign. The piece is double-sided and mounted on a pole 3 metres (10 feet) in the air. The sign was constructed using traditional signage materials such as steel and glass tubes, and was completed by skilled craftspeople and artists who have decades of experience hand painting signs and bending neon tubing.

Why a neon sign?

There was a time in the 1950s when Vancouver had more than 19,000 neon signs —one for every 18 residents! The city was adorned with a dazzling array of animated neon tubes in a kaleidoscope of colours that symbolized cosmopolitan glamour and excitement. By the late 1960s however, opinions changed and anti-blight crusaders convinced City Hall that neon was a sleazy light source that overshadowed the city’s natural beauty. New laws were passed which prevented the fabrication of signs, and neon light slowly disappeared from city streets. Today only a few dozen great examples from that era remain. I chose to use neon because of its uncanny ability to appear timeless, neon can project memories and fantasies from an earlier era, yet still generate meaning and significance today. Even though neon signs are increasingly being replaced by light emitting diodes (LEDs) and digital displays, new electronic signs cannot replicate the artistry and soul of hand blown neon tubes nor the vitality neon adds to an urban environment. For that reason, many historic neon signs have become treasured landmarks in both time and space.

In what way(s) do you hope this piece will shine a light on the West End?

Since their first recorded history at the turn of the 20th century, ‘gay villages’ have played an important role in the increased visibility of the LGBTQ2+ community, and the overall acceptance of gender and sexual minorities.

Often located in highly-dense, inner-city districts, ‘gay ghettos’ emerged as places of refuge for members of the queer community in an age when society made no effort to disguise rampant homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination. These villages embraced diversity and became landing pads for newcomers to cities.

At a time when homosexuality was illegal, very few establishments welcomed members of the LGBTQ2+ community.

These early gathering spaces appropriated spaces for safety and support and fostered a shared sense of identity that celebrated sexuality rather than hiding it. LGBTQ2+ Establishments began congregating on Davie Street in the 1980s. This increased sense of belonging and community overflowed from the bars into the streets, and eventually spread throughout the entire neighbourhood.

The ‘Heart of Davie Village’ is a recognition of the historical geography of the Davie Village and the contributions of the community towards the political advancements of LGBTQ2+ rights across Canada.

“Like lighthouses, visible at great distances, they draw travellers through the darkness down highways and city avenues, promising that under the neon glimmer is a sanctuary.” – Chris Ross

How do you hope the public will interpret this piece?

The design of this project was highly influenced by the historic vernacular of roadside signage and advertising imagery. The size, materials, symbols, colours, and typography are simple typologies and are open to interpretation. I hope everyone can find meaning in it, and feel a sense of place and belonging. My wish is that this piece will symbolize the collective spirit and diversity of this great community, and the vibrancy of the Davie Village.

Follow Jim on Instagram: @jimbalakshin  #heartofdavievillage #lumiereyvr

Photos by Sonya Reznitsky