The space of the century
Remember? We all assembled downtown. There were politicians of all stripes, bands, a parade of veterans, Indigenous representatives, vehicles, lots of kids running around in the streets and rows of seating spilling out from the curb. The police had to cordon off our main intersection of Toronto and Brock streets. There must have been 500 or 600 people seated, standing, passing by or gathering to witness the unveiling of the L/Col Sam Sharpe memorial sculpture in May 2018. That evening, as I organized my MC notes, a friend from out of town poked me in the shoulder. We shook hands.
“Wow, what an event!” he said.
I smiled and nodded, but then he added a comment and a question that cut me to the quick.
“You’ve got a hell of a town here, Ted. But how come we’re sprawled all over the street? Don’t you have a downtown square for this?”
The answer is: “No, we don’t” have an outdoor focal point for events, music, markets, recreation, unveilings, meetings or just about any kind of gathering of more than a handful of people. Unlike other Ontario towns, such as Niagara-on-the-Lake, Picton, Stratford or Port Hope, we don’t have that place where when somebody asks, “Where should we meet?” the answer automatically is, “At the downtown square.” And as a result, in many ways, we are a town with no heart.
Oh, we’ve got plenty of attractions. There’s Lucy Maud Montgomery and her beloved manse and church site (both located in Leaskdale). You can gather at the Thomas Foster Memorial, but you wouldn’t tell your friends, “Hey let’s meet out of town, up on the Seventh,” would you? In town, there’s the York-Durham Heritage Railway station, but if you gathered there you’d either be shooting a movie scene, or lining up to see Thomas the Tank Engine.
Don’t get me wrong. Attractions are vital. They spark commerce. They draw visitors and generate buzz. And if we ever get out of this pandemic, we’ll need as many buzzing visitors and tourist dollars as possible to get this township, this province, this country back to some sort of normal. But Maud, the Foster, the railway station, are attractions, not meeting places. They’re not downtown, multi-purpose focal points where both tourists and regular Uxbridge citizens can collect, converse and celebrate community. Jane Jacobs, the legendary urban planner who helped change Toronto into a livable city in the 1970s and ’80s, said building a vibrant downtown community means having “feet on the street,” at gathering places, where citizens go – almost like a reflex, by rote – while they’re shopping, taking in a concert or farmer’s market, participating in a regular, repeating and anticipated event, or just hanging out with friends.
Build it and they will use it. Why? Because it’s on everybody’s way. For many months, the Downtown Revitalization Committee has considered plans to do just that – revitalize downtown. The township ran ads in the Cosmos inviting readers to submit ideas last summer. Uxbridge’s own Wynn Walters, who never stops thinking, planning and projecting images of a sustainable community in his art and design, says that a vision of a town square in Uxbridge has been prominent in every planning study going as far back as 1983.
But what did the vision always need? A place to put it. Now we have it! It’s the township-owned property under which we’ve just built a multi-million-dollar culvert to protect us from the storm of the century. Now we have the space of the century to transform a parking lot into the downtown gathering spot we’ve before only artificially created for one-off occasions. The space over and around the culvert – as a downtown square – offers Uxbridge a permanent, defined place for regular events, right in the part of the town that seems emptiest right now. A town square would create the heart our downtown has generally lacked.
What will it take? Money, sure. But good ideas attract investment. And it will take Uxbridge citizens and the civic representatives who represent them to be braver than they’ve ever been before, to consider a town square on which to build a future of habit, practice, interaction and identity.
Then, one day I’ll be able to call that out-of-town friend of mine, and tell him, “Hey, come back and visit again. Meet you at our town square.”
For more Barris Beat columns, go to www.tedbarris.com