Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A day on Alberta Avenue

For most of yesterday I first volunteered at, then attended events at the second annual Arts Alive festival. It's a festival with a fascinating history. It all began when a bunch of local artists (musicians, visual artists, theatre people, etc.) started growing past their bohemian phase and found themselves wanting to settle down somewhere. But unfortunately, they were poor artists, so the only place they could afford to live in this boomtown is the poorest and most crime-ridden area of the city.

The thing was, as more and more of them bought homes there and decided to raise their kids there, they found they wanted more than just a place to hang their hats, and started forming a real community. They created a volunteer-run community coffee house and an artsy neighbourhood pub, they turned the building that used to house the bicycle shop (before it abandoned ship for less gritty parts of the city) into a theatre, they put up an absolutely stunning art gallery in another abandoned building. Slowly, a couple of downscale but undoubtedly yummy restaurants moved in. And then came the festival, where the neighbourhood artists all banded together to put on an event where all the hottest artists could show off their stuff. And the best part: everything is free, and everyone is invited, from fellow artists to street people.

If you want to understand why I love this city so goddamn much, you don't really need to look any further than this sort of thing, you know?

Anyway, it was great. I spent most of the day at the outdoor music stage, warmed at first by the bright fall sun and then later by the massive fire pits strategically placed throughout the parking lot of the community league. The audience was a little suspicious and at times frankly a little weird--they sat attentively on straw bales and watched and listened, but rarely applauded. But by the time local heroes Captain Tractor took the stage well after sundown, everybody was joined together along the fires, hanging out, meeting new people. I talked at length to a guy named John who, although not a local, had been driving through the neighbourhood on his way somewhere else and pulled over, thinking: "wow, I want to be a part of that!"

As for food, I had my free volunteer sandwich and my free latte in the coffee house for lunch, but splurged on dinner at this restaurant, which is, I dare say, the first outstanding Mexican restaurant in this city (even if the place was hopping so much that the food took too long to arrive, it was definitely worth the wait). The coffee house is wonderful, and though I didn't have a chance to check out the pub, it looked really inviting as well. I'm actually wishing the neighbourhood weren't so off the beaten path for me, because I'm finding myself wanting to go back. I suspect that's the point.

One fascinating thing was that nobody seemed to be able to praise their own neighbourhood without reference (usually negative) to "that other Ave," i.e., Whyte Avenue, or the main thoroughfare through my own neighbourhood of Old Strathcona. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I must have sat through a dozen teardowns of my own local haunts in the service to their cause. If it had bothered me, I'd probably have said something about how I was a pretty die-hard Old Strathconan, and here I was volunteering at their festival, so they could stick all the posturing in their collective ears. But mostly I just found it hilarious, and at the same time kind of sweet, because apparently they want to be us, only better. Frankly, they may yet succeed in that--their own "Ave" really is reminiscent of a much more rundown Whyte Ave to me, but with more of a "let's put our boutique shop or ethnic restaurant here because it's where we live, rather than putting it here because it's where the whole city hangs out" flair to it.

Besides, both areas are strongholds for the provincial NDP, so can't we all just get along? *grin*

When I was manning the merchandise table, one smiling guy came by to purchase a membership in the community arts organization that supports the festival. Making conversation, I asked him whether he lived in the area, and he said: "no, but I'd like to." Then he filled out the membership form, including his current address. It was in Bonnie Doon, the upscale southside neighbourhood just to the east of where I live. I think that pretty much says it all.


kenchapman said...

Thx for the update. I wanted to be there but had business and other issues that needed attention.

I really enjoyed last year and this year sonded even better.

laura k said...

That sounds fantastic! Thanks for painting a beautiful picture of the festival and its roots.

KevinG said...

It sounds great! Local community at it's best.