Taking It to the Streets
2021, Pandemonium, Cities
Pandemonium: Urban Studies and Recovering from COVID-19
Journalist, The Tyee
Christopher Cheung lives in Vancouver and writes on urban change, food, race, and immigration. He is currently a staff reporter at The Tyee and previously reported columns in the Vancouver Courier and Metro on everything from Duffin’s Donuts to life in suburban malls.
Dance Performer, Urbanist, and Shadbolt Fellow in the Humanities 2021-22
Alana Gerecke is an independent scholar and dance artist based on the unceded traditional territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh nations. She has been active in Vancouver's contemporary dance community for 15 years. Her current book project, Moving Publics, examines the spatial politics of site-based dance. She is an Artist-in-Residence at Vancouver’s Dance Centre (2021-22), and her most recent publications include contributions to Performance Matters, Canadian Theatre Research, and The Futures of Dance Studies anthology. Alana is a former Trudeau Scholar and Banting Postdoctoral Fellow. She is the mama of two objectively adorable small humans.
Germaine Koh (http://germainekoh.com) is a visual artist and curator based in Vancouver, in the ancestral territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Her work adapts familiar situations, everyday actions and common spaces to encourage connections between people, technology, and natural systems. Her ongoing projects include Home Made Home, an initiative to build and advocate for alternative forms of housing, and League, a participatory project using play as a form of creative practice. From 2018 to 2020 she was the City of Vancouver’s first Engineering Artist in Residence, and in 2021 she is the Koerner Artist in Residence at the University of British Columbia. Headshot photo by Scott August.
Recap of Pandemonium: Taking It to the Streets
By Meg Holden and Aphrodite Bouikidis, SFU Urban Studies
In the final episode of the Pandemonium webinar series, on March 24, our panel and participants discussed city streets and public spaces as the living rooms of urban people. Panelists reflected on key questions of the publicness, uses and possibilities of urban public spaces, drawing on their expertise from their work as journalists and artists, and their own lived reality in the Vancouver region during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our panelists were Christopher Cheung, journalist with The Tyee; Harsha Walia, journalist and executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association; Germaine Koh, visual artist/curator and 2021 Koerner Artist in Residence at UBC; and Alana Gerecke, dance performer, urbanist and SFU Shadbolt Fellow in the Arts 2021-22. The evening was moderated by Frances Bula, freelance journalist and commentator on urban issues for major Canadian news outlets, and advisor to SFU Urban Studies.
Frances kicked off the panel with her own reflections on what has become of the city’s public spaces during the pandemic, putting her finger on the profound disconnect between, on the one hand, the positive stories we have heard during the COVID-19 pandemic about cities making changes to allow more and different uses of public spaces, and on the other hand, the negative stories casting shame on those who use these public spaces instead of staying indoors. The city rules and regulations that have eased around, notably, larger patio spaces and the freedom to drink alcohol in parks serve certain demographics without correcting the disadvantage to those who are already hit worst by the pandemic because they are homeless or otherwise lack safe private spaces to spend their days.
For their opening remarks, each panelist was asked the question: What has become of our streets and the lives we lead in public in them, in the pandemic context? What can we do to keep the public in public spaces, and what are the trade-offs with health, safety, creativity and democracy?
Journalist, The Tyee
Chris Cheung answered this question by telling a story from the experience of Stanley Woodvine. Stanley had lived without a home in the Fairview neighbourhood pre-pandemic, but the various impacts of the COVID-19-related closures forced him to move on. He found a space to sleep, for a time, outside the Burgoo restaurant on Main Street in Mount Pleasant. Stanley is an active public storyteller on social media, but the business and public facility closures have made it hard for him to continue this during the pandemic, because he often finds himself unable to access wifi.
Shifting his focus to Surrey, Chris told the story of the Sikh gurdwara that maintained its mission of public service in public space by feeding people drive-through-style meals when it was no longer able to invite the public inside for food.
Chris puzzled, too, over our lack of action to make large public spaces, including suburban shopping mall parking lots, available to other uses during the pandemic, such that the majority of them sat ominously empty. Chris asked: If city streets are the living rooms of the people, what is the cover charge, the dress code, and who is the host?
Journalist and Executive Director, BC Civil Liberties Association
Harsha Walia spoke next, referring to Glenn Coulthard’s concept of urbs nullius, the notion of urban space as devoid of Indigenous imprint and presence—an extension of the doctrine of discovery that has underlain the colonization of the Americas. This expectation of a city that could be returned to a safe state by emptying it of people who occupy its public spaces helps to explain the hardship that many people in streets and public spaces have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many poor and precariously housed people, as well as those who are street homeless, have become more visible to those in the middle and upper classes during the pandemic, because even more restrictions have been placed on the spaces they can occupy. We have seen crackdowns to sweep the city of tents and encampments. Increased visibility and surveillance have compounded the crises of opioid addiction and the poisoned drug supply that existed before the pandemic, and the crisis of the pandemic itself, which has not only put these demographics at greater risk of disease but has also made it harder for them to access daily necessities, including health care.
Harsha also spoke to changes to protest politics during the pandemic, making the intriguing observation that in some ways, the ubiquity of face masks has been a positive way to shield some demonstrators and protestors from the watchful eye of authorities and the antagonizing eyes of racism. This has not entirely made up for the challenges that civil demonstrators have faced during the pandemic, and we have continued to see racism exercised in the demonstrations that are permitted and prevented from taking place—protests in solidarity with farmers in India being an example of the latter. Harsha offered the maxim that for everyone to be safe on city streets, each one of us needs to feel safe in city streets.
Visual Artist/Curator and 2021 Koerner Artist in Residence at UBC
Germaine Koh offered a beautiful and moving compilation of public and performance art works as backdrop to her initial remarks (see below for a list of links to many of the works she included).
Germaine spoke to a few of her own public art projects motivated by the pandemic, including a project called “Crowd Shyness” that generated a pattern seen in tropical forest canopies, in which tree foliage canopies maintain a certain distance from their neighbours in order to allow light to penetrate to the forest floor, as a metaphor for the good that we must now find in the physical distancing measures imposed on street and social interactions.
Germaine noted the heavy lifting that local communities of artists have done to offer inspiration, mutual aid and a sense of social and cultural resilience during the pandemic, and the generosity of the arts communities in this respect, given that many lost all hope of making a living with the imposition of pandemic restrictions. Perhaps this will result in more transparent and clear acknowledgement of the social and cultural value of arts and culture communities to urban public life.
Germaine acknowledged another silver lining during the pandemic: the way in which it may have pushed local governments to contemplate certain moves to broaden thinking about what does and does not belong in streets and spaces, that were unthinkable pre-pandemic.
Dance Performer, Urbanist and SFU Shadbolt Fellow in the Arts 2021-22
As a dancer herself, Alana Gerecke spoke to the particular challenges presented by the pandemic to performing artists, and to dancers specifically, as the performance of dance typically depends entirely on the co-presence of spectators.
She turned our minds toward the idea of informal choreographies, such as those that all urbanites conduct when they walk on city sidewalks, the scores for which have now changed with pandemic requirements for physical distancing. She referred to the pandemic, in this way, as a “crash course in the kinesphere” for many on the street.
Alana introduced the way that she will be examining these informal choreographies of urban public spaces in her upcoming fellowship dance research project, and how the pandemic has changed and inserted new ideas into her initial plan for this project.
Following the panelists’ remarks was the presentation of a short film produced by the City in Colour (CIC) Cooperative, a new group of urban studies students and alumni who came together during the pandemic, spurred by their own sense of frustration with the massive changes to the city and public life, and their commitment to finding the means to keep our eyes on the street for one another. As one of their first projects, CIC designed and launched a photo submission contest as a community reflection piece, #2020in3words. Two founding members of CIC, Dionne Co and Aman Chandi, introduced their short film from this project for its premiere screening. The film can be seen here.
The panel discussion returned to the missed opportunity to build more publicness and more equity into the city’s public spaces during the pandemic. There was general disappointment with the City of Vancouver’s efforts to close some residential streets to car traffic in order to provide people, restricted to their home neighbourhoods, space to be outside in the street safely. The cones and signs installed by the City appeared not to have much impact on drivers’ behaviours, and the streets chosen for closure also raised suspicions of a middle-class bias. Some talked about the debates raging about cycling in cities and street closures to vehicles in parks, like Stanley Park in Vancouver, and Lakeshore Drive in Toronto.
One participant proposed, as a new public art project to bring awareness to the need to change the way public spaces are designed and used, that residents could install signs reading: “There could be/could have been a public plaza here!” in a host of missed-opportunity locations. This, along with other arts-based activism, was pitched as means to carry forward a tiny echo of the pandemic experience into the future of urban design in the city.
Another main theme of the discussion revolved around the class-based, gendered and racialized dimensions of changes in the uses of public space in the city during the pandemic. The apparent increase in street homelessness, for example, was attributed to the fact that the indoor spaces in which people who are poor and unemployed would normally spend their days—libraries, coffee shops and community centres, for example—were closed. Even for centres that kept their doors open, capacities were cut down to a fraction in order to stay COVID-safe. The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, which normally has a capacity of 200, could only serve 50 women with pandemic restrictions. The spate of Anti-Asian racism was discussed, as was the new etiquette around which people do and do not move aside when approaching one another on a sidewalk, and what the pandemic has exposed about the insufficiency of space for passage on sidewalks for people with mobility aids or people with children.
With all the restrictions on travel, and public health authorities imploring that people stay in their home neighbourhoods, the importance of people’s home neighbourhoods has never been felt more, for some. The discussion included stories of the new routines that panelists and participants had developed to use public space. While some were excited to see the public spaces around their homes used more fulsomely—with neighbours setting up lawn chairs in traffic circles, for example—others felt the need now to avoid parks because they had become so populated during the pandemic. Some found themselves choosing new alleys and different walking routes in order to add variety to their days. The new kinds of connections, as well as aversion to strangers, were touched upon, including the new range of ways to connect in a neighbourly way behind a facial mask, when smiles do not show up on your own face.
Here are links to many of the works shown in Germaine Koh’s presentation:
- Germaine Koh’s website
- Adad Hannah, Social Distancing Portraits
- Ivan Cash and Dan Addelson, PARKED
- Blue Ridge Chamber Music Festival, 19 Waltzes for the Distanced
- Vancouver Mural Festival, #MakeArtWhileApart
- Sonali Ranjit and Vaishnav Balasubramaniam, Window Swap
- Mitchell Rose, Exquisite Corps (42 choreographers, 1 dance)
- Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, a crack in the hourglass
- Germaine Koh, Crowd Shyness
- Natalie Purschwitz, Experiments in Living
- Lou Sheppard, Murmurations: Scores for Social Distancing
- WePress Community Arts Space
- VALU CO-OP
- Germaine Koh, Home Made Home
- Lanefab, Tiny Townhouse Prototype
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Financially supposted by the Initiative in Urban Sustainable Development