Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Ottawa

This past week I had the opportunity to speak to a small group of grade eight student taking part in the mini-u week at local universities. I was asked to speak about my research in the context of youth culture. Occupational hazard:  I fear I bored them, but it was definitely a fun morning for me. More importantly it gave me a lot to think about the day before the annual Jane’s Walk in Ottawa.

Jane Jacobs offered persuasive arguments against the 1950s American urban renewal policies, which heralded in the dawn of administrative amalgamation and highways in spite of how people ‘come together’ in urban spaces. Her activism and writings consistently posed the question: do we build cities for cars or people?

Certainly the expansion of the car culture of the 1950s - propelled by style and status - saw the bulldozing of city parks to make room for highways and drive thru’s.

Meanwhile, back in the classroom of 2011, I wonder: are cities are built for people or for ‘security’?….

Trendy teens listened semi-patiently to me rattle on about ‘crimes of style’- watching  Elvis, The Clash and Janis. Later on,  we took a short walk over to the House of PainT legal wall.  Students asked Mike a flurry of questions about the legal productions, while others milled about taking pictures and scratching their own names on rocks and edges. 

Upon our return to campus, I overheard one student say: “yeah it’s nice, when it’s legal…”

This important commentary reminded me how law that governs public space can also shape what some of its citizens come to understand as ‘nice’: deeds and aesthetics become one.

This exchange also marked the challenging reality facing those of us passionate about graffiti in this city (legal or not):  It is VERY difficult to decreases social control once it has gotten underway (remember how taxation in Canada was supposed to be temporary?) Certainly, it is difficult to convince citizens on the benefits of less laws when an industry emerges directly tethered to these laws. 

Currently the City of Ottawa maintains that is it spending one million dollars a year on what it vaguely calls “graffiti management”. These costs, however,  are directly related to the creation of bad policy. 

There are companies in town that rely on the city’s graffiti management program (businesses that are called by other businesses to buff tags that the city has outlawed). Bi-law enforcement hires someone to “look” for graffiti for the city to manage. There are business improvement grants to be given to BIAs related to graffiti management. There is fencing to install, signage to put up and repair over and over again…

Fighting ideological wars on something that can be found in practically every city on the planet  is BOUND to start running up costs. 

When the city first began attempting to manage graffiti in 1999 - before amalgamation - organizers had a hard time getting business owners to cooperate with buffing or removal. Clearly, graffiti was not as big of a problem as some counselors thought it would be. Indeed, it has taken about 12 years, a lot of fines, signage and fencing to convince many citizens that graffiti is ‘not nice’.  Perhaps the people who started to wonder about how to manage graffiti never realized that the costs of managing would grow the way it has.  But here we are….

I would argue that our municipality is taking this strategy one step further: they want you to believe it should be feared.

The Tech Wall, Ottawa. (Photo credit: Mike Young)
The Tech Wall looks like a prison compound these days, not a welcoming LEGAL wall. The signs that the city post, warning writers suggest to other citizens that something ‘scary’ is happening here.

In her later work, and at the risk of gross simplification, Jane Jacobs warns of a kind of urban cultural annihilation: beware the power of ideology to make us blind to those things we ‘really’ need (Marx would call this false consciousness). Given we live in one of the safest cities in the country, do we  NEED to be scared of such a normal urban activity?

Certainly, the citizens of Ottawa do not NEED to support an ‘industry’ of graffiti management that the city has created for itself.

The municipality DOES need to justify the expense or their management strategy. Thier current approach suggests they want citizens to believe that the environment and security are the reasons to continue an absurd ‘eradication’ strategy that does little more than eradicate scarce public funds. 

That is hardly very nice looking to me...

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