Archives for posts with tag: the commons

One of the things I miss most about Montreal is its parks.

Montrealers, with their unmistakable joy-of-life, live their lives publicly, in the city’s streets and laneways, and in its parks.

When I lived in Montreal, my local park was Jeanne-Mance: a beautiful green field stretching three long blocks, bordered by tall maples and elms, and framed by the mountain on its western edge. Parc Jeanne Mance offers a lot — wide parades, playgrounds, sports fields of every sort, perimeter paths for jogging and walking — but my favourite element of the park, hands down, is at its south-east end.

Here, at the corner of Duluth and Esplanade, is the loveliest of shady tree-groves. A desire line meanders in between woody perennials that provide equal parts back-rests and shady canopies. Here, under the immense and leafy growth, you can recline, quietly watch-people and be people-watched, and run into friends who are using the park as a shortcut from the Plateau to downtown. Stop and chats are as abundant as the old urban growth; picnics, instruments, naps and solo reading sessions common.

This is where I spent most of my time in summer-Montreal, where I began to sink my teeth into the magical intimacy a city can provide to someone open to it. Parc Jeanne Mance and its other-neighbourhood counterparts are the true gathering spaces of Montreal.

Halifax, my current city-of-residence on the other hand, has no such park — and as a result, no such park culture.

As a resident of the city’s North End, my park options are limited, and baby I can feel that park deficiency

That’s why I was delighted to attend this past weekend’s CKDU picnic, an outdoor bbq at the Commons hosted by Halifax’s campus radio station. It was an opportunity to enjoy the park in a way I hadn’t before — in a way that was distinctly more Montreal.

See, the Commons sort of sucks, in my opinion.

There is undeniable value in the refreshment it provides for the city. A great greenspace, no matter how it’s designed, provides invaluable pleasures and alleviences to the experience of urban living: we are all richer for breathing deeply and having access to spaces such as these.

But the landscape architecture of the Common hardly fosters the sort of gathering and straight-chills that Montreal equivalents harbour.

Halifax’s Common is barren. Save for the perimeter, which is indeed lined with beautiful old trees, there really is no nice place to sit. There actually is one, right in the middle of the North Common, however, nine times out of ten, it’s occupied by the punk-dog kids, and other parties — which is great, they’re great — but the space is so small, that trying to share it would those who are already there is sometimes uncomfortable.

Most of the Commons’ space is instead occupied by sports fields. It’s true, that on a sunny day the park’s baseball diamonds, soccer fields, and cricket pitches are completely full, a testament to the real demand for sport-space in the city. But it doesn’t make for good gathering, and in my opinion, is a real loss for the city, and a damn shame.

The fact that a giant pile of soil supporting a fresh layer of grass and vegetation recently freed from behind a chain link fence is now consistently used as a place for people to gather and sit is evidence of the need for Chills-space in the Common.

At the CKDU picnic, a temporary landscape architecture of tents, tables, vintage clothing stores, and music equipment transformed typically ephemeral “passing through” space at the edge of a soccer field, and marked it instead as a gathering space where people could comfortably hang in the presence of others and the lovely shade provided by a loose collections of tented canopies. The simple intervention in space introduced by the picnic transformed the park dramatically for the better.

I spent a whole bunch of hours at the CKDU picnic, soaking up the temporary Montreal-style park hang. I relished this Commons-hang, and ever-so-thoroughly enjoyed the chance encounters with passing friends who were using the Commons as a short cut between downtown and the North End. It made me sad to think how fleeting this use of the Common was going to be — gave me a glimpse of the sort of park the Commons could be with better design.

How easy it would be to plant a grove of trees in this small disused sliver of the Commons — what a lovely legacy that would be to the park-hangs of Halifax’s future.

Leading image by Chris Foster

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There is a distinct quality to a row of houses that sit directly on a park in a dense urban core. Though they do not differ at-all architecturally from their regular-street counterparts, it’s the very situation of these houses that creates feelings of fleeting breeziness, of opportunity. These houses are concrete openness.

The houses open to Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto

Concrete openness toward Parc Jeanne Mance, in Montreal

Openness in Halifax, at the Windsor Parkette, just west of the Common

Everything has an incredibly complex geography. The objects and peoples that surround us are the result of a myriad of interactions that have flung this culture and peoples from there to here, and the hundreds of components of that object across the planet.

More often than not, the complexity and immensity of everyday geographies is hidden. Marx spoke of this phenomenon politically when he wrote of “commodity fetishism” — when the intricate and exploitive social relations that produced a product are veiled, and the object is treated as separate from these realities. Coming back to the geography of an object, it would be impossible (or, exhausting) to be constantly aware of the spatiality of everything and everybody you come into contact with.

I have had moments in my life, however, when the intricate geographies of the objects and peoples of a situation reveal themselves, in explicit and poignant ways. I find this happens most often when many objects and peoples from distinctly different places interact in otherwise ordinary circumstances. “Convoluted geographies” is an academic term to describe the moments when the geographic complexity of the world reveals itself. Perhaps sharing with you some of my previously experienced convoluted geographies would be more effective than describing the abstract concept.

Several years ago, I looked out over the the thoroughly designed cultural landscape of Bathurst Lawn cemetery, a Jewish gravesite in Thornhill, a 50s era suburb of Toronto, a North American banking and manufacturing centre originally inhabited by the Mohawk and colonized by the British. The cemetery and most of Thornhill was carved out of formerly agricultural land and before that, old growth forests. It was my grandmother’s (who we affectionately referred to as Bubby, a commonly used Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) term of endearment) funeral, and she was being buried alongside my grandfather Max and many other Holocaust survivors who had migrated to Canada from Poland after World War II. Framing the western edge of the cemetery are several Modernist condominiums (one of which my Bubby lived in for many years). As the service ended, and the closing prayers read in ancient Hebrew, a commercial airplane noisily crossed the sky as the clouds rolled in and out of the horizon.

And another experience of convoluted geographies: Last Friday at the First Nations Pow Wow, an annual event held in Halifax’s North Common. My brother and I,  descendants of Eastern European Jews, participated in a Miq’Maq drum circle with people of a variety of cultures in an British-Style Commons park, in Halifax, a distant outpost of the British Empire and former military base on a protected bay on the Northern Atlantic Ocean. The event was held on Canada Day, a celebration of the unity of British colonies in 1867, and during the drum-circle-song, fireworks began to go off over the Citadel, the defunct star-shaped military base that now functions as a museum and recreational green space in the middle of the city. I heard Native mothers tell their children to watch and enjoy the fireworks – fireworks celebrating the country and peoples that has historically and violently marginalized their culture, and continues to do so. But everything was incredibly far removed and glossed over from the histories and politics of violence and oppression that were present at that moment. The Pow Wow was full of Native American simulacra – vendors selling pieces, symbols of native culture, that, now commodified, have lost their connection to meaning; the defunct military base visible from the drum circle, sterilized in it’s use as a recreational space and symbol of the city – and the fireworks – impotent displays of colour and light that are far removed from their military origins.

The above-described situations were incredible to perceive in one moment — these are convoluted geographies.