Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Urban Research

Art and Neighbourhood Change beyond the City Centre

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Urban Research

Art and Neighbourhood Change beyond the City Centre

Article excerpt

Art and Neighbourhood Change Beyond the City Centre

On a typical Saturday afternoon, the public plaza of Main Square in Toronto's East end sits relatively unoccupied. There is no purpose-built seating in the square and while it is bordered on three sides by concrete retaining walls, these are perennially covered in pigeon feces and are unwelcoming options for resting or lingering. The ground of the square is uneven causing passing strollers, mobility devices, and grocery carts to catch on the surface as pedestrians cut diagonally across the site. There is frequent and visible drug use in the alcoves of the abandoned storefronts that have sat empty for nearly a decade. Residents claim that after the property management gutted all the other communal areas in the apartment complex, they simply "left the square to rot." Described by local residents as "dead space," "empty space," and "totally underused," the square appears an unlikely civic gathering place. [Figure 1]

Yet this privately owned public space (POPS) owned by the Talisker Corporation and managed by Realstar is not completely desolate. Residents and passersby do adapt and use the square on a daily basis, despite the apparent bleakness of the environment. In the words of one neighbour, "it probably doesn't look like a really nice space...but on a warm summer's night the place is buzzing...this is their outdoor space, their front yard." (author's interview). The plaza has clear and undeniable potential as an open space, not only to the approximately two thousand residents who live in the surrounding Main Square towers, but to the diversity of residents and commuters from nearby communities. Well beyond Toronto's downtown, at the crossroads of Main Street and Danforth Avenue, the square is located in one of the densest, most walkable, and relatively affordable neighbourhoods in the city. (1) It is conveniently situated next to the Danforth GO and Main Street TTC stations, and is at the centre of a prospective transit Gateway Hub as outlined in regional growth schemes (Metrolinx 2015).

For nine days, from August 26 to September 3, 2017, the square was transformed in a direct effort to actualize future possibilities of the space and to amplify existing forms of vibrant common life. The "Main Squared" arts and community festival aimed to animate the space of the Main Square plaza and to revitalize the East Danforth community of which it is part. Festival organizers drew on democratic ideas of historic "public squares" to invite "residents, community members, and the general public to reimagine the square as a space for social engagement, discourse and civic activism" (Main Squared 2017). Through envisioning and enacting new social and spatial configurations, the arts festival sought to assert the public nature of the space, positioning festival-goers as equal co-creators of a revitalized shared world (Iveson 2011; Low and Smith 2006). While turnout at the festival was uneven, those who participated described a vibrant set of activities, workshops, and performances that brought together typically isolated individuals and groups as part of a fun-filled collective experience. Yet amidst the celebrations of the festival, there were lingering fears not only about the obstacles to revitalizing civic life, but also about how if the positive effects of animation were too successful, they may be lost to current residents (author's interview). Faced with rising development pressures (for example, there are at least four new condominium developments within a one km radius of Main Square, including a thirty-story building proposed directly across the street) improvements to the square and to the quality of life of the neighbourhood, could paradoxically destroy the very conditions of possibility for diverse democratic encounters. Successful local placemaking could also result in transformations to the retail and residential offerings around Main Square that would render Main-Danforth more homogenous, exclusive, and private. …

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