Places to Play

Kids don’t need an invitation to play. I have two nieces and a nephew who take any opportunity to transform their beds into trampolines, couches into jungle gyms, boxes into forts, living rooms into dance floors. 

Adults, on the other hand, need to be told to play. In a world where speed and efficiency are rewarded, play is underrated but oh so necessary. 

Westlake Park, Seattle

This temporary art installation by Downtown Seattle Association invites people to do just that: take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and play. Their website says they “offer a variety of daily games and activations – from ping pong to foosball.” When I was there the other weekend, I noticed a play area for kids, as well as portable library with books for kids and adults to enjoy.

In their other location, Occidental Square, they had a life-sized chess game. This square was really empty on a Monday morning at 9am, but I wonder how much traffic it gets other times. Do people respond to these efforts at interaction and creativity? Do you?

You can see the “PLAY” blocks in the far left corner of Occidental Square, Seattle

Seattle isn’t the only city encouraging its residents to play. I’ve encountered similar efforts in New York City and Amsterdam through public art, life-sized chess games, public pianos, and letters to climb.

Perhaps this sign is more popular with tourists (guilty), but fun nonetheless

Where there are life-sized letters, there are people wanting to climb them. Heck, there are people wanting to climb almost anything. These jellybeans that were in Vancouver’s Charleson Park are a prime example. I think some of the most effective public artworks are ones that can be touched. Humans are so hungry for contact. 

Love Your Bean by Cosimo Cavallaro in Charleston Park, Vancouver. This public artwork was a Vancouver Biennale project and has since been removed, sadly.

When I think of the word play, I think of a piano. Its presence in my various apartments over the years is akin to a good friend’s quiet constancy. For me, a piano is not just an instrument, but a physical space to unravel myself. I much prefer playing to my ears alone, but I appreciate the public pianos cropping up in virtually every city (or in Victoria’s case, along the beach where I played only to wave, wind, and husband). 

My favourite public piano so far, Victoria
Friends in Okotoks, AB

The above images all strike me as examples of placemaking, a word popular in urban planning spheres for the last few decades.

Project for Public Spaces, based in New York, has a concise article summarizing this hands-on approach to making neighbourhoods and cities more enjoyable places to live, work, and play.

With community-based participation at its center, an effective placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being.


I’ll share one last example from Seattle that literally appeared like a hole in the wall. I don’t know if it was a community-driven initiative, but it felt like it fulfills the last part of the above quote. I was walking to King’s Street Station from Occidental Square to catch the bus back to Vancouver when a sign on a gate reminiscent of a high-security prison stopped me. 

Say what? How could something beautiful hide behind such ugly doors? But when I stepped inside, I kind of liked this incongruity between outside and inside, catching me unawares. 

Just as adults need places to play, we also need places to rest like this Waterfall Garden Park. An oasis of quiet and calm. I sat on one of these chairs and listened to the music of the waterfall, feeling like I had found a diamond in the rough.

Do you have any stories like this of surprise urban retreats? What’s one of your favourite places to play or rest that you’ve encountered in a city? I’d love to hear!

A Poem in PRISM

I began this blog back in 2011 to write about the city as text and text as the city. I was noticing many examples in Vancouver of “literary buildings”—buildings that contained written text on it, such as a poem or a phrase. I was fascinated by this combination, how a city is a surface to be read, and how some architects make this literal.

I don’t talk about architecture as much on here as I used to, but cities (particularly Vancouver) still heavily inform my creative writing practice, which is focusing on poetry.

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I’m saying all this to lead up to an exciting announcement: this past summer, my poem “Text to Vancouver” was published in PRISM international, a quarterly literary magazine based in Vancouver.

Given the content of my poem, I was thrilled my piece found a home in this particular magazine among many writers whose work I admire.

If you’d like to read it, you can order a print copy here. To whet your appetite, I will say that I wrote this poem after reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “Letter to N.Y. ” The rhythm of her poem captured me and I wanted to write my own version to my city, but update it for the twenty-first century. Kits Pool, designated bike lanes, and glass condos are some Vancouver references I place in there (I initially wrote “thrown in” and realized how wrong that is. Nothing in poetry is ever thrown in!)

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Speaking of publications, you may notice that I’ve also put up a new Publications page. The writing life has plenty of discouraging moments and I feel it’s important to celebrate  what I’ve done so far, as I aim to keep pursuing this path. Hence me sharing this news with you!

Thank you for reading and encouraging me in your own ways. If you’re comfortable sharing, I’d love to hear what little or big thing you’re celebrating. We could all use more reason to!

Main Street Miscellany

Main Street is one of my favourite streets to walk in Vancouver. It’s full of coffee shops, antique stores, vintage boutiques, art galleries, patio restaurants from the classy comfort of Burgoo to the kitschy flamingo-decorated Rumpus Room, and everything in between. I was in the French château-inspired ballroom of the Heritage Hall last night for a fundraiser, and it reminded me of how much I love this street of all things where you just never know what writing will appear on the walls.

Here are some shots of my favourite Main Street miscellany:
IMG_7763IMG_20140530_221650554IMG_759949th Parallel & Lucky's DoughnutsIMG_7766IMG_7603Urban SourceMain Street is also home to a great art store called Urban Source (pictured above) where you’ll find almost any material from scrabble letters to puzzle pieces, dried flowers to woodcuts, miniature test tubes to coloured clothespins. I think I spent over an hour perusing their bins of paper and tables of objects. It’s particularly a treasure’s chest for collage work. It provided the materials for my latest DIY project—turning my empty David’s Tea containers into 12 little “windows” that represent different parts of me. I hung it in my apartment kitchen.

IMG_7782IMG_7774With the lid closed:

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The Neon Parade

When I was at the Museum of Vancouver in January checking out their Playhouse exhibit, I toured one of the other exhibits they have currently on display: Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver.

To say it was eye-catching would be an understatement. Fluorescent blues, pinks, yellows, reds, and greens met my eyes. A constant humming sound made it a space you wouldn’t want to spend more than half an hour in.

I walked around from sign to sign, trying to picture these now-vintage signs hanging in their heyday on Granville Street in the 1950s-60s, Vancouver’s “theatre row.”

There are still a few remaining neon signs on Granville Street, but this “visual pollution”, as the City’s Environmental Committee put it in 1974, had to be reduced. So a sign by-law was enacted in 1974 to control the amount of neon cropping up over the city. It was apparently a very polarizing issue. Here are what some opponents said:

I walk into spaces like this and feel nostalgic for the past—to experience coming downtown Vancouver to be greeted with such fanfare—lights, colour, action—reminding me of the city as spectacle, the city as stage. Coming downtown was an adventure. There is something appealing about the signs’ audacity, drama, even grittiness. But then I try and picture what it would be like to have lived in that era where these signs were everywhere, building after building, and perhaps it was more nauseating than nostalgic, more contrived than genuine. A part of me then sympathizes with the naysayers, although some of their rhetoric sounds a touch extreme:

You can have civilization, or you can have neon.

You can have happiness, or you can have neon.

This anecdote is rather humorous:

An urban legend grew up that the most dangerous intersection in Vancouver was along Kingsway where a flashing neon woman swung back and forth, mesmerizing drivers.

As German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in his famous essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” (1903) the growth of the modern city in the early twentieth century impacted city dwellers psychologically in a new way than ever before. Cities bombarded us with stimuli of all shapes and sizes, contributing to the feeling Simmel identified as the blasé. The blasé is an attitude of indifference caused by the over-stimulation of the nerves because of the rapidly changing sights and sounds in the city. Blasé becomes an item of clothing we wear when stepping out into the streets: it’s a protective shield from the 24-7 advertising assault on our senses. It’s not hard to see how neon signs play a role in this urban armour.

So, what’s your reaction to neon signs? Love ’em or leave ’em?

SAFE

For several days and counting, the new Safeway at Granville and 70th has been stuck with half a sign. All safe and no way. I walk by the first time, amused at the delay. We see buildings mid-construction but we don’t often see words. We don’t read an author’s half-finished manuscript. We read the published book with the illustrated cover on display in Chapter’s. We don’t listen to a half-done speech from a president, sports star, or other figure in the public eye. We are used to whole words, even though we think in half words and half-finished sentences all the time.

Last week, I talked about reading the city through text on buildings, and asked are we reading them or are they reading us?

Text reads differently when it’s separated from what makes it familiar. When it’s disconnected from its usual reality.

I know what the text on this building should have said. Everything I know from growing up in urban environments tells me this building should read “Safeway.” But because it didn’t, it made me stop. Smile. Pull out my camera. Read the building in a whole new way.

The funny thing is, SAFE isn’t a half word. I think that’s what struck me so much—that it made sense in and of itself. That it is such an ordinary word displayed so visibly, so unusually, so as to render it extraordinary.

“Protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed.”
Baseball: “having reached a base without being put out.”

I like the baseball definition better because it doesn’t imply that you’re not in the game, that you’re not taking risks. No, you are playing, you are hitting, you are running. And when there’s so much set against you that can take you out (balls, bats, opponents), you’ve landed on a base that is holy ground so to speak—sacred because it’s safe. Nothing can harm you while you’re on it.

The building isn’t “Safeway” until it gets its name. Naming is everything. We name our cities, neighbourhoods, children, pets, cars, boats, computers. Naming says you have an identity. You are worth something to me. You are personal. You are mine.

Right now, the building is SAFE.

It is not a grocery store.

It is a glass rectangle with a swoosh across its façade.

It is a four-letter word on a building.

It is poetry.

It is telling me, making me Safe. A reminder that in a city—any city—where there is so many things and so many people who aren’t safe, that Safe still exists. There is no prescribed Way to find it or to find it without confronting danger first, but it is there. There are places and people who are Safe. Safe has a reality beyond its sign.

I walk by a second time on Monday, Vancouver’s first snowfall of the 2013 winter season. To my delight, SAFE is still there. I hope the construction workers have trouble finding the WAY so that SAFE can linger a while more, reminding me and other city-dwellers through the liminal state of a grocery store what we all long for.

Who’s Reading Who?

My interest in text and the city started by walking around downtown Vancouver and noticing poems on buildings—words on a space different than what we’re used to. I still stop for words (like Here Comes, A Window Story) and this building seen while roaming around the East Side Culture Crawl:

So when I heard the Contemporary Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver was featuring a window exhibit by Turkish artist Meriç Algün Ringborg called Metatext, I went to check it out, to read it.

The exhibit is literally written into the front façade of the building (as shown above), on several different window panels. You read it from left to right, like you would a novel. And as you read it, you feel you are reading something like a novel.

And then you feel you really have no idea what you’re reading. A string of words—or definitions—is closer to what it is. Here’s the description from the CAG:

The new work at the Contemporary Art Gallery takes the English dictionary as its starting point. Using only selected definitions of specific words, this ambitious commission appears as a series of inter-related sentences notionally composing mini-narratives and realized in a way that seems to incorporate different voices and characters. As such the work evolves out of the dictionary akin to a fragmentary novel or short story, a series of episodes branching out into a loose meta-narrative concerning writing as a creative act as implied through the use of this ‘found’ language.

It is a strange experience reading the text(s) because each line relates slightly to what’s around it, but also completely interrupts it with something new. Metatext plays with the idea of being a novel and yet lacks any of the cohesiveness we look for in novels. It is terribly self-conscious and long-winded about what it is doing—writing about writing, and a little pompous about it too: “the book that I’ve just written. considering the conditions, it’s very good” . . . “the book is a thoroughly entertaining read. it’s the best novel I’ve ever read”. The whole thing reads very ironically because by the end, we realize we have just read the novel being talked about (this metatext on the windows) and it isn’t very good but the author(s) thinks it is, and do we feel pity for the deluded writer, or sympathy because no doubt we’ve been there too, or annoyance for having spent twenty minutes reading this text that makes no sense, and what kind of dictionary is she using anyway?

IMG_6626Since the text is embedded into a building in downtown Vancouver, it makes us consider narratives of the city and the people who inhabit its space. How do our narratives of private and public overlap? The picture below showing my reflection, along with the buildings in the background, speak to this confluence of private and public. The act of writing a novel is typically a solitary activity, done in the privacy of a home, with typewriter/computer and one’s own thoughts late at night or early in the morning. What happens when it is exposed in a public space, a city space where we use words and construct narratives on a daily basis? How do our inner and outer words interact, especially in Vancouver, a city that never lets you escape your reflection as you’re walking to the office, walking to the grocery store, walking to and from home? We see ourselves in the window and wonder, who’s reading who?

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