As an art student in Toronto, I used to gaze at the double high windows along the Queen Street strip and up Spadina to Chinatown. I wanted a loft in one of those buildings, even though the rattle and squeal of the Queen Street cars and rowdy shouting after the bars closed could keep you awake at night. Sometimes I would visit a fellow artist in one of those coveted lofts, so artfully decorated, with their high ceilings and truly ugly, rust-stained little bathrooms. There were also the industrial buildings along King or Front that had illegal housing and freight elevators, but a clever guy or gal could hook up a rudimentary bath and kitchen, build a sleeping loft, refinish the floors and still have acres of yummy bright work space unfettered by annoying things like furniture – lots of room for a drum kit or a loom or an 8′ canvas. If you needed furniture there was always the street or the Good Will.
I lived in one of those spaces on Toronto’s King Street for awhile. It had a bathtub on wheels, a wood stove and an outdoor shower, right around the corner from the St. Lawrence Market. Although the entrance had been bricked over, you could still see where a horse and carriage could drive into this former hotel for the night. Of course most people wouldn’t want to live in a space like that, but they would most likely find it cool to hang out in one. It was drafty and slightly dingy, but very, very romantic.
These spaces were special in part because of their provenance. A storekeeper’s family or a small manufacturer had looked out those industrial windows a century ago and now you could too.
Here in Peterborough, I was walking along George last week. It was night time with an icy edge in the air. The street was kind of empty and lonely. But suddenly I looked up and saw one of those lofts. The lights were on. I could see artwork on the walls. And I felt that stab of jealousy and joy I used to feel. Even though I would never have that space myself, it held the promise of magic and interesting lives. Someone had scored that space and turned it into something special.
There are a lot of buildings in downtown Peterborough that could provide that kind of housing and studio space for artists. It saddens me to see them derelict and used for storage. To an artist that’s like covering a precious jewel with mud.
I would argue that even if the public doesn’t always see the inside of these artist spaces, they feel them – the fact that they are there adds value to the city. I would argue that having this kind of interior space will trickle down to improve the quality of public space. When artists live in a neighbourhood, they frequent the coffee shops, they shop at the local hardware and used record stores, they play in the bars, their kids take dance or drumming lessons nearby, and they start little businesses that are unique and wonderful. What they will not do is create ugly, sprawling cookie-cutter malls and big box stores. They will do much more with very little. They will treasure and preserve the Victorian architecture. In fact they will likely make the neighbourhood so hip that they will have to move out.
So open up those old 2nd storey offices and apartments and make sure you get a local artist to move in.