31 October 2008

Jane & Finch and el Zocalo

the public realm of daily lifeAlana Young
If one wants to understand a city, one must first look to the street. It is here in the inherently public realm that the story of daily life unfolds, a place where every occurrence has the possibility of becoming property of the public domain. The most seemingly simplistic of public spaces, the street is often the most revealing in its reading of a city. Not only is it a form of civic infrastructure the street constitutes the shared space of the collective body.
Nowhere was this made clearer to me than during my time spent living in Mexico City. There, the street formed a physical manifestation of the city and its people, constantly re-asserting itself under the immense pressures of everyday life. In a state of constant flux and apparent chaos, the street was ceaselessly transformed by its inhabitants into a multitude of unanticipated forms and uses. Not only a place for transit, the street provided a haven for vendors of all types to sell their wares, for performers to create spectacles of the most death defying acts, and for self-proclaimed artists to exhibit and sell their latest works. At other times the street was converted into an unofficial stage for soccer fans relishing their victories in the World Cup, an outdoor gallery for various art and photography installations, and even as a temporary home for thousands of protesters during election disputes. Being able to attract and support such a great number of non-conventional uses, it immediately became clear to me that the street, as a valuable public space, was very much alive and thriving. The continuous adaptations and transformations the street would undergo and the equally continuous number of active participants was truly fascinating. The rhythm of activity exposed countless human behaviours and social trends, ultimately instilling an identity of place. Many contemporary theorists, architects, and urban planners have also recognized the street as an extremely valuable public space, acknowledging its key relationship to both the micro-scale functioning of everyday life and the larger macro-scale elements that create the image and identity of the city. Frequently considered an essential outlet for both collective and individual expression, the street must be re-envisioned as a vital public space of encounter and happenstance–a place of possibility that facilitates and stimulates engagement in the public realm. These ideas are studied extensively by Sophie Watson in ‘City Publics: The (Dis)Enchantments of City Encounters’, who acknowledges the challenges modern ideals acquire in contemporary society. In a time when design promotes uniform, standardised space she chooses to analyse a series of marginal sites where differences such as ethnicity, age, race and gender are not only recognised, but also celebrated. She argues for a civic realm which, ‘will go some way to destabilize dominant, sometimes simplistic, universalized accounts of public space and help us re-imagine urban public space as a site of potentiality, difference and delightful encounters’. (Watson 2006: 19). Constructing ‘normative’ public spaces, she warns, will ultimately lead to failure in their inability to recognise and incorporate change. In Ludic City Quentin Stevens also shares a concern for standardising the everyday by examining the patterns and significance of play and diversion that often occur in the street. He suggests one should more carefully analyse the informal, undefined qualities of quotidian routine believing that, ‘play reveals the potentials that public spaces offer’. (Stevens 2007: 1). Play, in Stevens’ opinion, provides a critical reading of underlying social transformations and previously neglected conditions helping to inform more responsive designs. The San Diego-based architect Teddy Cruz also advocates the power of marginal spaces and unplanned circumstances, allowing them to form an integral role in creating responsive environments. In a time when an architecture of homogeneity is commonly used to ‘reduce cultural difference and intensity into projects of beautification’, Cruz believes in developing architecture and public spaces that are more adaptive and humanising. He argues that it is not the grand architectural gestures that generate engaging places but rather the ‘negotiation between planned and unplanned, official and unofficial is really what shapes urbanism’ (Cruz 2006). Throughout Toronto one can find a variety of curious interstitial spaces and in-between places. Each site represents a part of Toronto’s social, cultural, political and economic conditions. One particular place of interest is the intersection of Jane Street and Finch Avenue in North York, a neighbourhood often referred to as the most dangerous in Toronto. In reality the crossing at Jane and Finch, a community that is home to immigrants from more than 120 nations, merely lacks a unique identity. The site is similar to many other disenfranchised public spaces, where street and parking lot merge into one massive, relentless field of asphalt, full of chaotic signage and towering apartment buildings. Instead of responding to the needs of the community the site is barren and uninspired, a tactic meant to mask difference and discourage non-conforming activity. Visits to the site uncovered various informal happenings. While some events that take place, such as the traveling carnival and the Sunday market are sanctioned and supported by the surrounding retailers, many other unofficial and often less than ideal events have become customary. Heavily used by cars and pedestrians, the intersection is a common destination and transfer point for many TTC bus patrons. Due to its high exposure, some community members find it is an ideal location for acts of self expression and protest, while others use it as a meeting point before heading onto their final destinations or for the conducting of ‘business’ transactions. Taking advantage of the abundant space, some even momentarily park to make a phone call or jot down notes in their car before departing, and several large delivery trucks meet daily for their lunch break. While the parking lot adjusts to suit the users needs, there are countless ways to make it a more responsive and engaging public space. In a community of more than 55 000 inhabitants there is latent potential to harvest the abundance of fresh voices, which could generate a dynamic model for similar diverse communities, much in the spirit of Watson’s explorations. The answers are right in front of us; it is a matter of recognising the rich insights that experts like Sophie Watson, Quentin Stevens and Teddy Cruz have to offer. Rather than designing a place of uniform indifference, we should build spaces that celebrate the unrealised qualities of a site and its people. If the city is a place of unlimited possibilities, then the street must reflect it.

Young, Alana. 'The Public Realm of Daily Life: Jane & Finch and el Zocalo' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Alana Young and On Site review

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