Where the streets are too tame

It wasn’t Carnival, but it was as close as this beer-swilling, hockey crazy city has ever come. Opinions about the politics of the Olympics aside, the force that enveloped Vancouver over those two weeks was both unstoppable and undeniable.

Whether people were doing keg-stands in the middle of Robson Street or having spontaneous boom-box dance parties in the street while dressed like the Blue Man Group, something bizarre was going on.

In Spacing editor Shawn Micaleff’s essay about the importance of street festivals, he stresses the word “liminal.” The word evokes an idea of openness, ambiguity, and a disorientation that occurs during the transition from one place or headspace to another. Street closures, he espouses, can have this effect on a city.

Vancouver’s downtown integrates commercial, business and residential spaces remarkably, but has always lacked public social spaces. A shopping district with wider than average sidewalks is a sorry excuse for a public space, and parks can be limiting at best. The European concept of the town square has not yet immigrated into the North American consciousness, and cities like Vancouver are used for their explicitly functional purposes, while the divisive celebration and partying happens exclusively behind closed doors.

As Micaleff proposes, street parties and festivals have the astonishing ability to “change the basic function of a city, temporarily, and open space for new interactions and understanding of our place in the city.”

The camaraderie of being surrounded by thousands of new best friends after Canada wins gold must be an elating experience. The atmosphere in Vancouver during the times of triumph for the athletes is clearly unmatched in any conventional house party. There is an excitement in the fact that the people you are sharing this wide open space with our total strangers. Anyone could be there and anything can happen – and social order, by and large, remains.

The key is to harness the elements that gave Vancouver two weeks of mind-boggling street parties and apply them in a more permanent way, so that this sort of public celebration can happen for other events. New Orleans is known for Mardi Gras, and Rio de Janeiro is Carnival. The uniting power of street festivals is unmatched by private gatherings.

Micaleff refers to Toronto in his essay, which invites an easy comparison to Vancouver. He mentions that Toronto’s “boring” reputation (a label Vancouverites should be familiar with as well) makes it especially interesting to see what happens “when the streets are given over to people.”

Currently, the most public of spaces in Vancouver are based around commercial interests. Malls can be seen as public spaces to a certain extent – they require no entrance admission, and entrance is also non-discriminatory (if you follow the rules). There are events to partake in sometimes, and young and old can spend the whole day there if they want to. However, a mall's purpose is always unbridled consumption.

The only current permanent pedestrian area in Vancouver has a similar problem. The Granville Entertainment District is based around an expensive bar and club scene, that has appeal to a very specific demographic as well as a reputation for excessive negative rowdiness. In 2006, city police acknowledged that “Granville Street has descended into chaos,” according to CBC article.

By most accounts, the majority of the daily celebrations downtown during the Olympics were family friendly – this seems to be important to people when determining the value and acceptability of an event that takes place in public. While liquor pour-outs were staggering, and the Liquor Board forced liquor stores to close early on several days during the parties, tragedy and chaos were notably absent.

The central question is now what will inspire Vancouverites to take to the streets in droves again, and whether this will be possible. Road closures are key to this type of public celebration, and perhaps a taste of a real street party will make the city hungry for more.

// Natalie Corbo

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