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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Working in public space

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Working in public space I have a day job. I have my own little spot in the corner of the office on the fifth floor of a building, and I have my own desk. If I was the sort of person who had pictures of pets or relatives, I could put pictures of pets or relatives on it. If I knew how to care for plants, I could put a plant on it. If I felt like it, I could decorate it with swimsuit calendars or pictures of precious kittens or with a “four more years!” campaign poster, because it’s my space and I can do whatever I want with it.

Every day on my way to my job I walk past Wayne. He sits outside my building at Carlton and Yonge and asks people for spare change. He’s good at his job, and has a far better work ethic than I do. He’s there every morning before I get there and he’s still there when I leave, and he hardly ever takes a break. Wayne toughs it out through rain and muck and rush hour, and has lately sat stoically through the interminable apocalypse of College Street construction.

Wayne’s little post on the sidewalk has been subsumed by rocks and machines and cement trucks and arc welding equipment and men and women who swear and spit and tear things up. When it started, I figured Wayne would get up and move — maybe somewhere quieter and where there was less of a chance of being decapitated or electrocuted. But he remained: that’s where he works. His sidewalk square is as much his as my desk is mine.

The city is where we live and work. For most of us, this means that we live at home and work at work, and so the city is what’s in between those two places: it’s what we have to move through to get from one to the other. But for thousands of people in Toronto, the city is the office. Instead of a cubicle mouse-maze there’s the city grid, and while we flirt around the water cooler, they skirt around puddles on the sidewalk. On my bike ride to the office each day, I pass by and through the workspace of hundreds of public space employees.

Work in public space ranges from the highly regulated (taxi drivers, TTC staff, the men and women digging up the ground around Wayne) to the totally unregulated and even unlawful (drug dealers). It ranges from the neat and idealistic (letter carriers) to the grimy and dystopic (panhandlers), from the people who do this by choice (barefoot-in-the-park laptop execs) to the people who do it by necessity (prostitutes and squeegee kids), and from the weird (street evangelists) to the weirder (silver-painted Elvis-mimes) to the really rather boring (metre readers).

A lot of these jobs are invisible or discreet, but try to imagine Toronto without them. People who work in public space not only cover the spectrum of employment, but they influence the city on every level as well. We depend on them to take care of public space from the top down: there are those who use and exploit the space, those who embellish and improve it, those who design and plan it, and those who actually, literally, create it.

City workers and landscapers lay down the roads and the lawns that make up public space. Their jobs are so much a part of the infrastructure that we hardly notice they’re there — sort of like a beating heart — and they lay down the ground that the city stands on. Cops, crossing guards, and lifeguards try to keep it safe and sound. Road crews, gardeners, street cleaners, and garbage collectors come along to maintain and improve this space, keeping it quietly underfoot, making sure it lives up to the standards we don’t even realize we’ve set.

The next layer of workers puts a gloss on the city and makes it something worth writing about in a magazine. Downtown intersections are brought to life by the buskers that install themselves there — Bloor and Yonge is as famous for its karaoke star as it is for its office towers — and the crowds that converge around these performers are distracted, momentarily, from the rush they thought they were in. Street prostitutes add colour to their corners, and a well-loved panhandler can be a landmark as well as a local celebrity. Street vendors — whether they’re selling street-meat to frosh boys drunk on bottles of Rev or fresh bok choi grown on their own balconies — bring the bustling masses to a halt and let them see their city in slightly slower motion.

There’s always that one guy in the office who refuses to make fresh coffee when he drains the pot, who plays solitaire all day with the sound effects turned on and farts as he walks past your cubicle — these guys exist in the public space work world too. Drug dealers, for example, though they provide a valuable service, aren’t always as scrupulous or as sensitive as we’d like and often make the space they take up dangerous or unfriendly.

Even worse are the corporate employees who’ve invaded public space to do their private bidding: we don’t need another foam-faced mascot throwing flyers and coupons at us, and we don’t want our public poster poles covered in the gaudy promo-colours of the same companies that have video billoards around Yonge-Dundas Square. Overzealous cheerleaders shoving free Diet Pepsis under our noses and loudmouth Listerine-shaped idiots knocking over children on the sidewalk are unwelcome on our paths. Public spaces, and public space jobs, belong to the people who don’t have corporate headquarters.

For better or worse, work is what most people do most of the time. It’s one of the ways we identify ourselves, and it’s how we bring home the bacon or the mock-bacon or the quinoa.

The city’s workforce churns and toils away in its office towers and stores and restaurants and factories, and the engine of progress gets oiled. But there’s a vast workforce outside these property lines. Public space workers bring the city to life in ways we all get to see and experience. Sure, they’re more likely to get shat on by pigeons than the rest of us, and to get wet when it rains and cold when it snows. But their office is huge, and it has a really fabulous view of the city.

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