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Taking public art to new heights

Councillor wants to turn Church Street into open-air gallery

Kristyn Wong-Tam wants business owners in Toronto's gaybourhood to imitate San Francisco's Latin Quarter, where expansive murals illustrate the cultural tapestry of the neighbourhood. Credit: Kristyn Wong-Tam
Kristyn Wong-Tam is dreaming big for WorldPride in 2014. She envisions giant murals that document the story of Canada’s sexual liberation movement covering buildings up and down Church Street.
 
The Ward 27 councillor made the proposal for the makeover at the Church Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area (BIA) annual general meeting Dec 10 at Church on Church.
 
“There’s been a number of criticisms of the Village,” she says. “People say the neighbourhood is tired, it’s dated, the architecture is not inspiring. There are too many multinational brands.
 
“Church Street has this amazing history and a rich culture. But unless you live in the community, what is there to tell that story?”
 
Rather than do a costly street redesign, which neither the BIA nor the city has the money set aside to do, Wong-Tam says she is looking for the support of business and property owners for an innovative idea, “something that’s never been done before in Toronto.”
 
The clock is ticking and it’s important that the Village be ready to welcome the world, she says.
 
“We should make a splash for 2014,” agrees Matthew Cutler, director of development and community engagement at the 519 Church Street Community Centre. “But the splash is only so valuable as it makes a legacy for the long-term.”
 
Wong-Tam hopes to enlist the help of local queer artists and storytellers to paint colourful murals and transform the street into an open-air art gallery. “I want to bring the street art out of the laneways and alleys and put it prominently onto the buildings,” she says. “There is no one neighbourhood in Toronto that has embraced mural art. Not one.”
 
To offer an example of what she has in mind, Wong-Tam shared photos she took on a trip to San Francisco in 2008. Throughout the Latin Quarter, expansive murals illustrating the cultural tapestry of the neighbourhood adorn several buildings.
 
“I came back from that trip incredibly inspired, thinking this is where public art can go,” she says. “The murals in San Francisco are very political. They show people of colour, all ages, all shapes. There are political slogans. They speak to issues like worker rights, racial equality, migrant worker rights, deportation and self-determination. That stuff is powerful.”
 
Wong-Tam says she is not interested in using the murals as a place for advertising. “Now, if businesses want to paint a bottle of beer, please don’t call me. I’m not interested in further commercializing the spaces.”
 
She says the idea does not need city approval and it comes at no expense to taxpayers. “Property owners just need to be on board. It’s no different than painting a door,” she says, noting, however, that no property owners have yet stepped up to offer the façades of their buildings.
 
Xtra asked some Church Street business owners if they support the idea. Jimmy Georgoulis, owner of The Vic Public House, loves it. He says he would gladly offer his pub as a canvas. “An amazing and fantastic idea,” he says. “It would bring the community together and make the street come alive.”
 
Georgoulis says he hopes the mural project is planned in conjunction with a partial street closure, similar to last summer’s Celebrate Yonge, which saw Yonge Street from Gerrard to Queen closed to two lanes, creating additional pedestrian space, green spaces and sprawling patios.
 
At Progress Place Rehabilitation Centre, manager Criss Habal is also supportive of a public art project if the rest of the community is on board. “It’s a really good idea,” she says. “I’d like to hear feedback from the rest of the community first. It could be a problem if the murals are permanent. [Murals telling the story of the gay movement] might not appeal to all our clients.”
 
Zahid Somani, owner of the Village Pharmacy, says that while the idea is innovative, “the devil is in the details.” He hopes each business will be able to maintain its own distinctive look, even if that means a separate mural for each retailer. “Unless each business has its own mural, it would be hard to tell one storefront from another,” he says.
 
Wong-Tam says she plans to meet with local property owners to talk about her idea in the coming weeks. In the meantime, she’s interested in hearing from local artists who would like to get involved in the project. Email her at councillor_wongtam@toronto.ca.