In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs writes, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” As Jacobs emphasizes, the active participation of citizens in building a positive urban environment is essential to creating dynamic cities. She believed strongly in local residents playing a role in how their cities and neighbourhoods develop.
Though cities have the potential to, “provide something for everybody,” it is all too easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of an urban environment and feel disconnected from fellow urban dwellers. From street art such as JR’s Inside Out portrait project to public pianos, public art can provoke a sense of social connectedness through art and play. It takes art out of traditional gallery spaces, and invites people to participate in decorating the streets with sound and colour while creating dialogue amongst friends and neighbours.
A holiday tale of creating connectedness
As darkness falls on a chilly night in Montreal, it is tempting to cozy up at home with a warm cup of tea or cocoa. In the city’s Mile End neighbourhood, some people are doing completely the opposite. Each evening, they are following a tale told line by line, lit up in the windows of their neighbours’ homes. At the end of each line is an address to another stranger’s window where the next line of the story is unveiled the following day. The person behind this illuminating story is Montreal’s very own urban fairy, Patsy Van Roost.
Now, it’s not every day you meet someone who writes “fairy” as her occupation when she fills out forms. Then again, it fits. Patsy thrives on creating magic in people’s lives. Her mission is to create a sense of social connection through public art. She quit her job as a wedding invitation designer years ago because she felt isolated working at home. She decided to take a year off to build art projects that create a sense of community and encourage people to have spontaneous encounters with strangers. Now, it’s been over three years, and she spreads magic as her full-time job.
This holiday season, Patsy was overwhelmed with projects in other parts of town and felt incredibly guilty that she didn’t have the time or money to spread holiday cheer in her own neighbourhood. She decided to give a gift to the Mile End called The Décompte de Noël, or Christmas Countdown.
After thinking about how she could pull off a project with no funding and very little time, she decided to use the power of friendship and good will along with materials she already had to create a story walk.
She called out to friends and supporters, asking for someone to write a story that could be told in 25 lines – one line for each day leading up to Christmas. One of her admirers responded, and created a story that took place in the Mile End.
The story follows a lonely count who wants to give away 1000 gifts to 1000 different people on Christmas day, but is struck with panic when he realizes he has nowhere to host so many guests.
Patsy had already been collecting shoeboxes from her neighbour, Mile End Kicks, for a year. She knew she had to collect them, but she didn’t know why. This provided the perfect occasion to reuse the old boxes and give them a new life. Using a simple push pin, she punctured each line of the story into a shoebox and hung a light bulb behind the box to light up the letters.
She then dropped 50 letters in the mailboxes of Mile End residents, asking if they would be willing to host a line of the story. She received 24 responses, but was missing a window for the very last line. Patsy believes it ended up being a blessing in disguise. The missing window created an opportunity to bring people together at at a local institution, Cafe Olympico. This gathering place hosts the final line of the story, an end point of a magical story that transforms strangers into neighbours.
The holiday season is meant to be joyful and a celebration of togetherness with loved ones. This is not the case for everyone. Walking down the Mile End streets of Esplanade and Waverly on any given December night, you could see families with children discovering the story, couples holding hands and people exchanging and learning together. The Décompte de Noël shows how one person’s invitation to collaborate on a collective gift for a neighbourhood motivated people to contribute and participate towards creating a sense of belonging in their community.
Coming back to Jane Jacobs, this spring, Jane’s Walks , a global movement inspired by the influential author and urbanist will bring strangers together to explore their cities through the stories and perspectives of their neighbours, allowing them to connect and learn from each other through urban exploration. It gives people living in a city to share their expertise and passion in an accessible way, honouring Jacob’s vision to see the active participation of people in planning and transforming cities for people.
To learn more about Patsy Van Roost’s other public art initiatives, visit http://patsyvanroost.com/.
The Christmas Countdown lighting up windows in Montreal’s Mile End concludes today January 6, 2016.