Thursday, February 21, 2008

Roadmap to a Vital Community

Invitations had been sent to every school, church, political and community organization in the area. But people arrive home weary from a days work and a long commute to the suburbs. And, of course, it was girls night on American Idol. Given such adversaries, would anyone come to hear a talk on community development by Toronto's Poet Laureate?

Millie, at Sister's Restaurant, had donated her party room for the evening and attended the event herself.

People trickled in and time raced toward the 7 pm start of the meeting. In the end, 25 people turned out in a room set for over 60. City Councilor Ron Moeser, MP John McKay and representatives from MPP Margaret Best attended, but no teachers and only one church sent two people. From that point of view it was a disappointment.

Pier Giorgio arrived, tired emotionally and physically from officiating at the burial of a friend. Although the Poet Laureate of Toronto, Giorgio was once a Brother in the Order of St. Augustine and is now a Roman Catholic Priest. The City Planner of Toronto had died suddenly and Giorgio had been asked to preside over his funeral. He had come to our meeting directly from that, dressed in his black suit and roman collar, the normal flamboyant clothing of the poet laid aside for his somber duties.

He went from table to table, engaging each individual in conversation. Who are you, why are you here (when so many others stayed in the comfort of their home), what do you want for your community?

Then he went to the lectern and waited patiently during his introduction. And then he began to speak. Hesitantly at first, struggling to find his way into his message. But then finding the heart of what he wanted to say, his voice gained strength, lifting the audience out of the drabness of suburban life into the promise of a vital community, where people spoke to each other, where artists found each other and contributed to the public space, where political will encouraged innovation and risk over safety, where messiness was tolerated and fears laid aside.

Here is the essence of his message: "Let's say an artist creates a piece of public sculpture, a red boot. You will find there are two reaction to this red boot--"Oh look, someone created a red boot and set it here on the sidewalk. Why would they do that? What a fun thing for someone to do!"--or "Look at that stupid red boot, someone's going to stub their toe on that. We better get in touch with our City Councilor and have that removed."

You can have vitality or safety, human interaction or safety, growth or safety, a healthy community or safety. But you can't have both. Creativity is a messy and risky human endeavor but joyful and hopeful for all of that.

The meeting went on for two hours, with Giorgio having another two hour drive back to his home north of the City.

As we left the meeting, a lunar eclipse was nearing the 3/4 mark. Attendees stood in the cold winter night, warmed by the meeting and the vibrant exchange of ideas that followed and watched the moon turn red. Like the statue of an old boot sitting on a sidewalk, just waiting for someone to stub their toe.

No comments: