This space is whose place?

The divestiture of community public spacing in a globalized terrain

At Yonge and Dundas, December 2007 [Idlewild]

At Yonge and Dundas, December 2007 [Idlewild]

Prepared 11 April 2007 for Prof. Emily Gilbert (UNI320Y1Y, University of Toronto).

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Negotiating the terrain of Canadian public space has become increasingly delicate and even treacherous. If asking what other people think of when they hear “public space”, they might respond, “Oh, going to the park next to the lake for a barbecue,” or “walking to the corner to sit with my neighbour to enjoy a coffee.” Homeless citizens might respond a bit more soberly, rationalizing unclaimed, unused space (public or not) as a possible shelter where personal effects can be stashed and hidden while scrounging for money and food. It may be surprising, though, to make a connection between the regulation of public space regulation and limits on citizenship, but this link is a crucial one.

Increasingly, spaces are becoming highly regulated, especially as governments turn to public-private partnerships for financing the construction, operation, and securitizing for spaces of public assembly and places of social engagement. Another factor is a broader competition in which Canadian cities must engage and compete at a global scale (and how these measures are engineered to make the cityscape more appealing). With an increased surveillance, there are now fewer places to run into others without looking over one’s shoulder. Consequently, visible minorities — with collective memories of being singled out harshly — may be less inclined to participate in social-civic activity, meaning fewer chances for broader communities to hear and learn from their experiences. For homeless individuals, marginality/criminalizing laws render them susceptible to additional harassment for circumstances not classically ascribed to criminality. As strictly public space is surrendered, citizens find fewer ways to organically exchange cultural transactions — skewing spacing toward a divisive, boundary-laden territory that favours globalizing image posturing over civic participation.

Public space is not a natural feature; it is a social construct, one whose boundaries demarcate not so much an actual topography, but rather an abstract milieu of cultural exchange (Ruppert: 2006, 276). Canadian law defines public space a bit more literally: “a place where the public goes, a place to which the public has or is permitted to have access, and any place of public resort” (Vasan: 1980, 186). These comparably valid, but divergent interpretations inform the locus of fierce debate that pits literal against figurative, physical against imaginary, economic against social, and even cerebral against emotional.

The institution of public spacing has classically dovetailed with civic participation in the process of citizenship, that of “the rights and obligations connected with being a member of a state” (Gabriel: 2001, 262). In this sense, each and every legal Canadian citizen is endowed with a right to engage with and respond to elements that are found in everyday public spaces. Pedestrian instances might include DIY postings on hydro poles, sidewalk chalk drawings, or even community-made sculptures. Gabriel (262) augments this, arguing that citizenship obligations are also relevant and applicable for non-formal community members who may lack legal citizenship; this idea of inclusive participation through the intersection of public spacing is significantly broadened to accommodate recently-migrated individuals and visitors, thus opening a channel of dialogue between both established and future legal citizens.

The right to public assembly (and association) is assured by the Fundamental Freedoms within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Part I, §2c–d). Though implied, this enjoins a symbiosis of responsibility between citizen and public spacing, enabling organized public demonstration on Parliament Hill; public usage of government-funded and -operated parklands (like Banff National Park, Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, or Toronto’s High Park); public rights-of-way on city sidewalks and arterials; and access to public gathering places (like Nathan Phillips Square). Within this constitutional framework, of course, specific by-laws do govern limits on citizen interplay; each by-law tries to address the specific needs and limitations relevant to those spaces (for example, park closing hours and criminalized activity).

This constitutional protection wasn’t always the case. Nazi sympathizers from around Toronto converged on Willowvale Park (now known as Christie Pits) in August 1933 to vilify and taunt Jewish Torontonians in a public space abutting a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood (Levitt & Shaffir: 1989, 17). A week of sectarian violence — culminating from previous demonstrations of the swastika during an intra-urban baseball series (between the hosting Jewish and visiting Catholic teams) — exploded when Nazi hooligans unravelled “at the top of the [park] hill a large white blanket bearing a startling black swastika,” triggering a volatile night of rioting which spread to the neighbourhood south of the park and resulting in serious casualties and multiple arrests (Ibid., 19–20).

Mayor William Stewart, following days of muted involvement to thwart Nazi instigators, outright banned in the riot’s aftermath all public displays of the swastika; this, he argued, “might have seemed an infringement of the civil liberties of the individual but there is a Canadian tradition of taking quick and firm action to avert the likelihood of collective violence” (Ibid., 21–22). Transparent public expression of hostility toward Jewish Canadians nevertheless persisted well into the 1940s, as demonstrated by signs on public beaches which read, “No dogs or Jews allowed” (Henry, et al.: 1998, 80). It is unknown whether these were city installations or ad hoc acts of vigilantism. But this ban against Jewish Torontonians exemplified how legal citizenship did not enfranchise universal access to a participatory citizenship within public spacing — in other words, Jewish Canadians were relegated to “second-class” citizens because they were suppressed from unimpeded involvement in public spacing discourse. Also, these essentialized social constructions along socio-ethnic boundaries reified a Foucauldian power dynamic, one engineered to restrict Jews from conditional “public” space and to deny them a voice within that realm.

Regulating public spacing against selected citizens still happens, although the signs are notably more subtle and geared along socio-economic boundaries, within which social-ethnic divisions still persist. This regulation is for practical intents conveyed through monological systems of meaning, resulting in the disempowerment of “undesirable” subjects from asserting their right to participate in a public discourse. On one level, public space is moderated by moral notions of the “good” citizen (one who obeys the “please limit your stay to 20 minutes” and “please do not litter” signs) while that morality is articulated through by-laws which obscure its core agenda. More on that momentarily.

For the street-bound citizen, public spacing is esteemed as those places which are not actively claimed by private interests (or its development). So long as the locations are discreet, relatively safe, and reasonably protected from the elements (or police harassment), then unused lands may be purposed — or re-purposed — for habitation (e.g., tent cities) or other activity (Lang: 2007, ¶2). Private and public-private development ventures, meanwhile, may attempt to generate a simulacrum or fantasy of “public” assembly — Cadillac-Fairview’s Yonge-Dundas Square, for instance — while enforcing limits over specific classes of assembly, association, and personage. For example, the act of police charging and banning of two youths, who drew with (or “defaced”) chalk on Yonge-Dundas Square’s sidewalk pavement, would not have been reprimanded for doing the same across the street on a public sidewalk (Ruppert: 2006, 286). Likewise, panhandling and loitering, while morally frowned upon and restricted in public space (though still technically legal), would probably be met with an arrest for trespassing on Yonge-Dundas Square (Ibid., 284).

This move away from strictly public spacing corresponds with the omnipresence of globalization. As cities compete globally to attract knowledge-based, location-independent economic activity, an increased promotional emphasis on urban livability and its appeal drives urban planning strategies toward neo-liberal models of financing the usage of space, which in turn comes with weaker municipal oversight and greater emphasis on public-private partnerships — both to help governments mitigate costs and to police restrictions on marginalized, “undesirable” citizens under measures which would be illegal under a government-managed public model (Mitchell: 1997, 304–305). In particular, politicians “have turned to a legal remedy that seeks to cleanse the streets of those left behind by globalization and other secular changes in the economy by simply erasing the spaces in which they must live” (Ibid., 305). Instead of using a private alleyway, for instance, a homeless person might instead be relegated to falling asleep on a city sidewalk to avoid outright arrest.

In Canada, these strategies of erasure have been defined in the B.C. Trespass Act (SBC 1996, c. 462) — later strengthened following passage of the B.C. Safe Streets Act (SBC 2004, c. 75) — and the Ontario Safe Streets Act (S.O. 1999, c. 8). What these by-law approaches share is a “law-and-order”, get-tough criminalization of “nuisance” activity commonly ascribed to indigent citizens: squatting, “squeegeeing”, panhandling, land trespass, and public intoxication (Ranasinghe & Valverde: 2006, 326). By criminalizing the movement and actions consigned mostly to homeless people, one’s means of navigating public spacing as a matter of daily survival becomes straitjacketed, sometimes removing the last threads of self-sustenance that an individual might be able to exercise in such dire situations. Collins & Blomley (2003, 42) observe how this legislative trend of passing so-called nuisance laws in recent years “may be interpreted as signalling a growing mistrust of the ideal of a truly inclusive public space.”

This mistrust is not exclusive to homelessness, either. Notions of citizenship, when challenged along socio-cultural borders, has in the past decade ushered a reactionary backlash against those citizen-participants who may be — as with Toronto’s Jewish immigrants before — non-formal members within the community but nevertheless participate with the demeanour of a public citizen. The Canadian immigrant, trying to establish social, economic and cultural ties to the nation-state, does so by engaging in workaday activity along corridors of public spacing — i.e., using public transit or shopping at sidewalk markets.

But vulnerable new arrivals — particularly since 2001 as visible minorities of perceived Islamic faith (and especially so for women who wear hijabs or niqabs as an expression of their religious faith) — are “haunted, as we all might be, by . . . their own deportability” (Burman: 2006, 285). A visible minority within this context must be vigilantly aware of their surroundings for legitimate fear that “they may at any moment be targeted and so watch their own every move and become paranoid about past social encounters” (Ibid., 285). Given Citizenship & Immigration Canada’s (CIC) track record for deporting non-citizen men of Jamaican (and Islamic) parentage (even when they were raised in Canada since infancy) — and sanitizing these deportations by claiming they were “removed to” some other legal country of origin — there is plenty cause for concern that one may be suddenly apprehended and expelled (Ibid., 280). This wariness, borne from the necessity for survival, is not something readily forgotten by those who later land as permanent residents, who become citizens, and who try to participate fully in the political process. A legal status might change after taking the Queen’s oath, but socio-cultural marginalization can (and often does) linger so long as the body politic at large refuses to confront those visible markers as part of a greater Canadian pastiche — be it within a multicultural context or, as Kymlicka noted, a polyethnic context (1996, 154). One way for the body politic to engage in a discourse is through protest, but if fewer public spaces remain for large groups of citizens to voice their dissent (or opposition) against the status quo, then the ability to articulate those grievances in democratic capacity is impaired.

Erring to the side of caution isn’t novel. Immigrant groups, particularly first-generation arrivals, have long turned to building tight-knit communities and (re-)creating a familiar cultural space in both public and private landscapes within their adopted country. For example, neighbourhood shopping plazas in suburbs, owned by entrepreneurs from a neighbourhood’s immigrant community, “produce[s] jobs and income for the members of their own communities, while the owners become local leaders” (Lorinc, 2005, 137). Further, as Lorinc explains, private shopping malls — those master-planned by developers — are not public spaces: “Mega-malls are not ‘free markets’. Strip plazas are” (Ibid., 137). Toronto’s Jewish community in 1933, who were caught up in the Christie Pits riots, resided in a concentrated neighbourhood enclave adjacent to the park, but they were still deemed a social threat by much of the majority, non-Jewish population (Levitt & Shaffir: 1989, 15). Patterns of diasporic clustering are poignantly evident today in Toronto, an urbanity colloquially referred to as the “city of neighbourhoods” (City of Toronto, 2007, ¶1).

In another case, Vancouver has become home to an emerging community of Chinese-Canadians who have steadily settled in the Kerrisdale and Oakridge neighbourhoods — formerly Anglo and Jewish enclaves, respectively (Ley: 1995, 185, 192). Anglo-Canadians in Kerrisdale, however, took umbrage with the inevitable diversification of a new immigrant culture — one added to a place which had previously been colonized by immigrants who themselves had wilfully appropriated from first nation people the land and rechristened it with anglicized names (Ibid., 203).

This cultural (and racial) bias led by Anglo-Canadians in both Kerrisdale and surrounding communities was made clear once a Chinese-Canadian homeowner removed a pair of mature sequoia trees — much to the horror of those residents who had protested and tried to thwart it (Ibid., 185). Ironically, although the sequoias were on his property, the debate over whether he had the jurisdiction to do this threatened to undermine the private spacing of real estate at the expense of a disputable public objection (disputable because the neighbours were only a small subset of the broader public, and they were members of a homeowners’ association which functioned as a private entity).

So without a commons for people to exchange their experiences, cultures, and collective means for democratic expression, the remaining options under a public-private or entirely private overhaul of public spacing appear discouraging. Public spaces are a necessary socio-cultural venue where the unfamiliar traces of other communities provoke local citizens to leave behind their shells of complacency. Having the space to do this provokes an acknowledgement of their own humble place within a much bigger, complicated world. And the place where these cultural transactions can begin en masse is in the commons of public spacing. That is why street festivals, sidewalk food carts, and rehabilitated shopping plazas can function as powerful expressions of cultural exchange within the public realm. Further, as labour and skilled talent migrate across tremendous distances to the sites of new jobs, the push and pull of cultural dynamics between neighbours also becomes inevitable. This should be welcomed.

So it seems self-defeating to eliminate the public in space planning when trying to invest in urban improvement ventures to help draw intellectual capital from elsewhere. By eliminating the public in the usage of spacing, communities risk further partitioning from one another and creating a new kind of provincialism which verges on a new wave of antisocial polarization.

The last thing any community needs is another Christie Pits erupting in their own yard.


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