The Art of Downtown – Part 1

I left a rural home to live in the big city of Toronto when I was just 17. In those days, downtown was the stretch of Bloor St. between Yonge and University. The Colonnade had just been built and it was radical. I gravitated there because it was a public space and it was beautiful. Up the sweeping spiral staircase and arranged in a circle on the second floor were the specialty shops: Yousuf Karsh had his photography studio, there was a photo developing booth, a coffee shop, a Hungarian deli and a store with imported furniture.  My passion for design and craft was born at that store which carried reproduction antique Mexican furniture completely out of my price range, paper flowers in hot pink, orange and purple, art posters, India prints, handwoven rugs and filigree brass lanterns. And I got my first job by chatting up the guys in the photo booth.

In his seminal book on humanizing architecture, the book which should be dogeared by every builder,  A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander writes of the importance of windows on the street, of  “a place to wait,”, “light on two sides of every room”, “a half-hidden garden”, “stair seats”,  of intimate and of public spaces “with something roughly in the middle”, of the need for a town square and cafes in each neighbourhood where generations can congregate, “a place where people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by…

The  final draft of Peterborough’s long awaited Municipal Cultural Plan states “Strategic Direction 4: Strengthen Downtown as a Cultural Hub – reinforce City policies and initiatives to increase quality of life downtown, improve the pedestrian environment, and emphasize downtown as the ‘cultural hub’ or  focal point of cultural activity and creative entrepreneurship incubation in the community.”

Sadly, at present, our square, the heart of our downtown, is a rag tag of fast food stores, cheque cashing chains, financial institutions and a pharmacy that don’t fit the criteria of cultural. Stroll along George or Water and you can find a few choice places to congregate like Nata’s, the Spill, St. Veronus, Planet Bakery, and the patios on the Hunter Street strip – and you can usually see some local artwork on their walls as you share a bite with a friend. But our prime asset, the river gets lost behind a fast food restaurant, a grocery chain and a sprawling motel and only the seasonal Silver Bean Cafe draws us close to it. And where is the public place where you can just sit and people-watch? I remember hearing an interviewer ask Mike Holmes what town in Canada he would like to do over. His answer? Peterborough.

The announcement of the closing of Titles Bookstore on George brings this into focus once again. Yes, we have some lovely, classically musty, dusty used bookstores, but what can match a small browsable indie bookstore as an indispensable element of any downtown? Local writer Jonathan Bennett tweeted, “I launched two books with them. They really supported local authors.  Really sad to see them close up.”  No e-reader can replace the love affair that begins with the chance encounter with a book in a tiny store on main street.

But it’s a process, isn’t it? How do we nudge, encourage, demand that the landlords of our precious downtown honour our municpal plan?  I wish I had the power to let the century architecture speak. I’d like a downtown in a human scale, with a heart and make it chock full of odd cafes and shops; beautiful and unapologetically imperfect. Throw in a dash of street art and music for good measure. Don’t worry about the money.  The money will come.

We need a downtown we will miss when we are away. We need to extoll its uniqueness to others. We need to want to spruce up for it,  long for it when we’re lonely, we need to get excited about going downtown at night. Peterborough, we need a downtown we can fall in love with.

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