Friday, May 21, 2010
uprooted benches: uprooted community
For three years in a row, I've worked with groups of teens to write short radio plays; a program
sponsored by CAHEP and Playwrights Guild of Canada. The scenes are based on a sense of place‒
exploring how community shapes, reflects and inspires us. And if you look closely while you're
wandering around town, you may see small green signs attached to posts. If you call the number
number on the green sign, you will hear a radio play about that very location, written by one of
Thunder Bay's young playwrights. There are eight of these radio plays in the Bay/Algoma area alone.
Which leads me to my peculiar and surprising morning tea.
Like many other people, I occasionally hover outside of the Hoito and Calico‒ taking in the sights and
sounds of Bay street. But today was different; today when I arrived to meet my friend for tea, I was
met with dismantled benches, dismantled flower beds, dismantled concrete ledges and an uprooted tree.
My friend had warned me, but it still took me off guard. There was, of course, no one gathered there;
no one in sight, though the morning sun was warm. There was no one gathered there because there was
nowhere to sit. My friend‒ in her unique fashion, had brought with her a tree in a pot, a small folding
table and a chair. And there we sat; discussing the disappointment we felt at the loss to the
neighbourhood. We would miss the hub of community that always gathered there‒ the diverse group of
people that morphed and changed as the day progressed. Where else in our city could I go to find such
diversity‒ a place where men in suits sit next to kids with torn jeans and wacky hair? Where else could
I hear a variety of languages spoken‒ very often the Finnish language, but also sometimes Italian and
other languages too. Where else would I see senior citizens shoot the breeze with teens, babies in
strollers and children climbing along the concrete ledges while the adults linger in conversation long
after filling themselves up with Finnish pancakes? Where else would I find a senior citizen busker
playing traditional accordion tunes one day and a young “hippy” playing folk tunes the next? Quirky?
Yes. Part of the unique appeal of the Bay/Algoma area? Yes. Now uprooted? Yes.
Community is not something easily replicated. Community builds organically over a number of years.
Putting a bench somewhere does not automatically bring people. I heard the other day on the local
news that both our teens and our seniors are saying there are no places to sit in our town. Maybe we
could begin by not removing the few sitting places that we have.
While my friend and I drank our tea and coffee with her “bring-along” table and chair, we fantasized
the place filling up with all kinds of people‒ all bringing their own seating. And we also imagined that
once the place was re-bricked, the Hoito would decide to fill it up with not two sitting benches, but
five. And not one ledge of flowers but three ledges of flowers. We realize that this is not likely the
plan. The plan is more likely to fill in the brick and leave the place looking a bit stark. I'm not saying
it would look stark to the untrained eye. A visitor would likely walk by the Hoito, never knowing that
at one time, the place was a gathering place in the truest sense of the word; a gathering place where
anyone felt free to sit, whether or not they were a patron of the shops at that given moment. I like to
think that such places still exist.
I can think of one other person that will likely notice the change to this sitting area; and that is the
young man who wrote his story about the tree‒ the tree now uprooted. His story, titled “Hidden Nest”
invites the listener to look at little closer at their surroundings. I'm asking the Hoito and the City of
Thunder Bay and the Bay Street businesses to look at little closer at this little corner of the world, and
perhaps consider restoring it to a place where people, once again, feel free to gather.