As I write this, there’s sourdough rising on my kitchen counter. The recipe, my mom’s, is the one I grew up with. In half an hour, I’ll stuff the loaf with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and — brace yourself — low-fat Thousand Island dressing and pop it in the oven. I’m getting better with yeast, and I’m confident it’s going to rise.
I’m spending part of my weekend working on this editorial from my apartment on Kent St because I left work early on Friday. Midafternoon, I met my roommate Hayley and the two of us set off on a bit of a mission.
The first stop was at gay graphic designer and Village-advocate Glenn Crawford’s home office, tucked just around the corner from our local laundromat. With the help of city councillor Diane Holmes, Glenn has crafted a two-sided fact sheet about the proposal to fly rainbow flags on Bank St.
Hayl’s and my project, then, was to talk to owners and managers of stores along Bank St about the flags.
The handout rehashes a lot of things we already know. It says, among other things, that gay people have a lot of disposable income. It also says that gay travel is big business, because gay travellers are twice as likely to take an out-of-town trip compared to the general public. It quotes an Ottawa Citizen editorial that says the flags would be “good for tourism, for the gay community and for the vitality of downtown Ottawa.”
Glenn also gave us a pile of purple stickers that say, in both official languages, “proud to support The Village.”
Off we went. Friday’s route was both sides of one block — between James and Gilmour. By the time this editorial reaches you, Hayl and I will have to talked to folks on two more blocks (Gilmour-MacLaren, MacLaren-Somerset.) Other volunteers will tackle the three blocks between Somerset and Nepean.
What we found was a mixed bag. Most business owners — surprise! — have bigger fish to fry.
“Life’s too short,” says Ali, the owner of Shawarma King, the second vendor we approached, once he understood that we weren’t looking for money. He let Hayley put up the sticker on the door herself.
The businesses on either side of Ali’s — Silver Snail and Miga (selling comic books and Korean cuisine, respectively) — have also mounted the stickers on their window fronts.
The dough is rising. I surprise myself sometimes; I really am getting better with yeast. Could it be that I’m getting better at waiting, that I’m getting more patient?
While rounding up volunteers, I was reminded by one of them that our work should have started two years ago. Why wasn’t support from the businesses on Bank St shored up a long time ago? Why do they still have lingering doubts?
It’s a fair question. The answer is, I think, that there was misplaced trust in the process that was underway. After a public consultation in 2006, gays were promised a spot on the Public Advisory Committee (PAC.) It was 18 months before that committee was ever called. We should have been using that time to lobby the businesses and the Bank St BIA (business improvement area.) We sat on our hands thinking that when decisions were finally made, we’d have a seat at the table. Unfortunately, we overestimated the scope of PAC and underestimated the clout of other players.
After Glenn’s work on the PAC was ignored by city planners, we unleashed a polite fury on the public unveiling of the redesign plans. It caught the city’s ear. It caught the BIA’s ear, although it’s unclear how closely they we paying attention to what we were saying.
Here’s what we do know. In the aftermath of the March meeting, the BIA commissioned researchers to poll the Bank St businesses. We know they asked a sole question, delivered coldly by a surveyer: do you support identifying Bank St as gay? Yes or no. Capital Xtra, who is a member of the BIA, was never polled. Other organizations, we know, who are not members of the BIA did get asked.
Judging by the reactions of the business folks Hayley and I chatted with so far, an open-ended question would have yielded rich results. Our conversations ranged from the enthusiastic to the puzzled. People who work on Bank St are curious about the kind of neighbourhood we want to work and shop in. Our conversations paint a picture of community in flux, anxious not to offend, respectful and accepting — exactly the neighbourhood I already knew about. My neighbourhood. Our neighbourhood.
On our soft sell, most people seemed open to the idea. We’ll begin seeing more little purple stickers on Bank St in the weeks to come, I’d hazard to guess. Shawarma King and Miga have already been joined by others. But don’t take my word for it — see for yourself.
Another word about the sourdough. The ingredients were all purchased on Bank St. Heck, even the baking tin was picked up here. I was reminded of that when I read one of the final points on the handout: We support businesses who support us.
At this stage, here’s what I can say. We need to listen to the businesspeople of Bank St. We need to take what they say seriously. We will spend the summer listening. But the BIA’s survey will not stand. Folks will not express their position on The Village by whispering it in a surveyor’s ear. This is a civic project, and no one will vote by secret ballot. That’s why the stickers are being distributed.
The other point is that we’re playing catch-up. Our public support for a rainbow designation has not wandered. Not at the public consultation, not in demanding a seat at the PAC, not in any of the PAC’s closed-door meetings, not at the March open house. However, in securing the comfort of those whose livelihoods depend on the street, we have done precious little and we will do more. And in that process, of coaxing the Bank St business community into agreement, we must have patience over the course of the summer.