We Are Still The Black Cap

We caught up with the group still campaigning to reopen the Black Cap

Last week marked three years since The Black Cap closed its doors for the final time and it has remained empty and a little unloved to this day. It feels especially out of kilter with London’s fast-moving property market, when you can leave your flat in the morning to go to work and return in the evening to find it razed to the ground with a new glass-fronted phallus of 1,2 and 3-bedroom luxury apartments in its place.

This inactivity can be seen as a victory of sorts, with plaudits due to We Are The Black Cap, a campaign group made up of activists and former punters whose dogged determination could yet still see this stalwart of the cabaret scene re-open again. It’s currently mired in a battle with developers who want to transform it into apartments; just one of a myriad scenarios happening all over the capital. On this bittersweet anniversary, we spoke with Alex Green, a campaign spokesperson for the group, to find out where they’re currently at with the fight and what the future holds.

First of all, what role did The Black Cap play in your life before its closure?

I moved to London when I was 18 in the 80s and The Cap was the first full-on gay place I went to. Within minutes of being in there, I just felt the most comfortable I had ever been. Over the years, I met my queer family there and it just became our social club. So whenever people moved away, had birthdays, funerals, sadly lots of those: we’d always meet there. Even when I moved away from Camden, it was always an anchor. I’ve heard a lot of similar experiences from people who talk to us on the street during the vigils. What I loved about The Cap was that it was always queer in the truest sense of the word; you’d have a trans woman at the bar, a group of lesbians at the back, a big age range, and a real mix of people. You don’t see that in many places.

Could you sum up why The Black Cap closed?

The pub was bought in 2010, along with a number of other pubs, by a company called Kicking Horse Ltd. It then started to get really shabby very quickly. It had always been very well maintained and we’ve since conducted surveys that show it’s not as structurally unsound as is often claimed now. They tried to turn the upper floors into flats, which we managed to quash after a big campaign. We then got an Asset of Community Value with help from the Camden LGBT Forum, which we were one of the first gay venues to get. Soon after, the pub also got a Sui Generis status, which means ‘of its kind’ as an LGBT performance venue. With these locks in place, it was shut down in 2015, as it couldn’t be redeveloped, as the whole venue had to be an ‘LGBT performance venue/pub’. It was a pretty sensible move when you think about it: it closes, we’re pissed off, but eventually go away, as has happened in a lot of other places, so then they can get away with changing it. But we haven’t let that happen!

What has the We Are The Black Cap campaign done so far?

There are three main strands to it. Firstly, we have tried to find out where the third-party financing behind Kicking Horse has come from, which is difficult as it’s a moving target, and appeal to them. We’re very lucky to have had help from Chris Clark from a charity called Make Public, who works to expose these sorts of deals. Since we’ve launched the campaign and it’s grown, the whole issue of transparency has become a bigger issue. It was a part of Sadiq Khan’s Mayoral campaign, as offshore money has skewed the London housing market as well as its cultural venues. On top of that, we’ve got the very visual protests every Saturday…actually, not protests. We have to call them ‘vigils’ instead! Thirdly, we’ve tried to set up a consortium base, The Black Cap Foundation, so if it’s sold or a lease over 25 years is offered, we’ve got the ASC so we get a 6 month period where we can put an offer in first.  So far, we count it as a success that it’s not a carbuncle set of flats upstairs that no-one can afford and a coffee shop underneath!

So what’s the current situation?

It’s a bit of a stalemate at the moment. They have been open to offers to lease it out, but the rent they’re quoting is £300,000 a year, way above market rent. They also say it’ll need nearly a million to do it up before it can re-open, which is just untrue. It’ll need a lot of work, but we could have performers back on there in a month or so. These are classic tools for delaying the property world. We keep saying to Kicking Horse ‘you could be the hero!’ and even earn money while doing it, but they’re just as stubborn as us!

What are the next steps and how can people get involved?

It’s about re-invigorating the campaign, as we’ve got about 3,000 followers on social media, 12,000 on the petition, and we want to make as much noise as possible to show the owners and the mayor’s office that people are still very passionate about this. We’ve launched a new ‘Why I Am The Black Cap’ selfie frame with Regina Fong’s hair. You don’t need to be someone who used to go to The Black Cap, you just have to believe we should be able to keep places that are culturally important for our community. It’s great that we’re more integrated in society now, but I don’t believe we should completely wipe out our history. When it was illegal, The Cap was a place of relative safety for the queer community in the late 50s and early 60s . Why should we not fight for places where we have a tangible, physical history, when there are so few of those places left?

How hopeful are you?

The market does feel different from three years ago. There has to be a point where ramming as many flats that Londoners can’t actually afford can be feasible. For example, right next door but one to The Cap, they knocked down a set of shops and rebuilt this new unit with flats above it. 18 months on, one of the shop units has finally been let to Tesco and only one flat out of about twenty has been sold. You do wonder how profitable it all is and whether it’s worth having groups like We Are The Black Cap as a fly in your eye, refusing to give up. It’s been exhausting, but it’s so important!

For more info or to get involved, visit weareblackcap.com or #wearetheblackcap on Facebook or Twitter