Thursday, October 30, 2008

Prairie Artsters: Sprawling Community*

Driving down the windy Whitemud freeway and taking the exit just off Southgate, you turn into a stretch of mini malls, clustered in standardized awnings in a sea of paved parking stalls. There are no pedestrians except for those walking to and from their cars. There are no bicyclists. No public transit stops. Cars periodically and frequently stop in front of the old movie theatre to drop kids off or idle to pick them up. There are no sidewalks connecting store to store as each awning sits like a fortress surrounded by a cement moat. It’s only one of dozens of isolated mini malls in Edmonton, one of hundreds in Canada, thousands in North America—all resulting from urban sprawl.

Given with what we have already created in one of the worst sprawls on the continent, there are things we can do and steps being taken to overcome the destructive effects of sprawl that decimate a city’s sense of identity and community. In this specific Whitemud Crossing complex in the said old movie theatre, the Edmonton Public Library stepped in seven years ago to take over the former alternative discount theatre as its Whitemud Crossing branch and has since grown into the premiere library serving the ever-expanding South Edmonton.

“The city, especially the south, is expanding so much that we are getting enormous traffic, more so than the downtown library now,” says Benjamin Janke, one of Whitemud Crossing’s library assistants. Looking at the map of the libraries, with the concentration of branches in the central-north area, it’s surprising just how sparse the south seems in light of its hyperdevelopment. Between a branch in Millwoods and another in Riverbend, most visitors logistically have to drive on and off the Whitemud to get to their closest neighbourhood library. A far cry from the basic necessity of being able to walk to your public services and amenities like a library or post office or grocery store, the Whitemud Crossing EPL is nevertheless programming community events by using what they have and serving their community as best as they can.

Janke, who lives nearby and can walk or bike over during the summer months, has started programming artist talks in the 120 capacity theatre—the only remnant from the former movie complex. In addition to the new artist talks, they’re planning a healthy adult programming schedule that includes drop-in “Movies in the Suburbs” screenings as well as musical performances from local musicians and future possibilities of other live performances.

Contacting art professors from the University to see if they would be interested in giving a free public lecture about their work, artists ranging from Sean Caulfield, Royden Mills, Julian Forrest and George Miller have participated since this spring.

“I wanted to see if there were artists who wanted to connect to the community and the general public,” explains Janke, who has been working for the EPL for close to five years, most of which have been spent at this location. “I also wanted to be here and hear the talks,” he continues, as he shares that the general connection to the University was made through his girlfriend, who was taking art courses. “It’s a magical connection to hear them speak live, to explain the process,” he maintains, “especially for art forms where people may have difficulty in understanding it.”

Dropping in on the Sean Caulfield lecture back in the summer, the audience consisted mostly of students looking out of place in this suburban summer setting, but there was a scattering of faces new to the work. As Caulfield spoke eloquently about his processes, inspirations and upcoming projects as a fine art printmaker, the lecture dissolved from any sense of a formal academic talk into an engaging general interest presentation about a local artist and his work. He was under no obligations to share his thoughts and insights, but given the venue, communities and passages are built through generosity.

Although Janke is only beginning to expand the programming and open it up to reach his community, he wonders if it’s part of the mandate of the library. He knows that there is potential, but like all public institutions and services strapped for cash, the public investment of community programming remains underfunded like a distasteful public subsidy. From the sidewalks that don’t connect to the bus stops that don’t exist, there is at least some beacon of reason for people to come gather, and people simply need to connect, whether in the core or in the ‘burbs, in order for a city to function and sustain itself.

*First published in Vue Weekly, October 30 - November 5, 2008

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