By Tooker Gomberg, Montréal, PQ.
A zany account of finding a couch, sitting in the street, having fun, and getting arrested. Reclaim the streets!
It was street theatre in the purest sense. Ange and I were simply improvising a performance piece. We never planned it – blame it on the gorgeous weather.
The day felt like the first day of spring. The sun and warmth brought hordes outdoors to celebrate the end of winter by ambling along St. Denis, one of Montreal’s great strolling streets. The sidewalks pulsed with peds. Along the gutter, winter’s last traces trickled toward the sewers.
As we strolled along, a discarded love seat grabbed my eye. The couch was waiting for the garbage truck. Lickety-split Ange and I put two and two together (her two arms and mine, that is) and the forlorn alley couch was suddenly metamorphosed into a cheerful and transformative road prop, just the width of the turning lane.
We settled in, soaked up some rays, and read the paper. Unexpectedly, the sofa had become a tool for liberating a small chunk of pavement from the cars, inviting people to gather and visit.
A “green onion” ticket woman (they’re dressed in green, and they make you cry) idled by handing out fines to cars parked nearby. She passed us with a glance; a couch in the street was O.K., it seemed!
St. Denis walkers snake along at a lively pace, heads bobbing and panning, taking it all in. Thousands slithered by. As their glance alighted on us, they smiled. Thousands of smiles. Many burst out laughing. Humour thrives on the unexpected.
The psychology of the street was subtly changed by the incongruous and intuitively appropriate scene. Some gave us the thumbs up. Parents chuckled and elbowed their kids to have a look.
One woman, loosened by booze, joined us and began heckling the people passing by: “Bring out your furniture. We need a kitchen table.” I joined in: “Anybody have any plants?”
Sitting in the street we observed how the hordes of pedestrians were herded onto the narrow sidewalks, while the vast majority of the space was hogged by two-ton tin cans speeding, honking and dangerously pushing their weight around. We gloried in taking back a bit of space and giving it back to people.
In England over the past few years, a movement has sprung up called “Reclaim the Streets” – spontaneous street parties where thousands of people play music, dance and even occasionally dig up the asphalt to plant trees.
Imagine mini “Reclaim Some Pavement” actions popping up all over the paved planet. A sofa here, a carpet there, a rocking chair. Little chunks of convivial, neighbourly space to hang out in can be found in any city. Tiny plazas, non-commercial people-places, liberated space. “Beneath the pavement: the beach” a Toronto graffitist once wrote.
A cop car visited. “Is this your sofa?” they asked? “No, we’re just sitting in it.” Confused, they drove off.
Photographers snapped. Kids jumped in. The limber and the hobbled stopped, looked and lounged with us.
We were there for a couple of hours; maybe we were having too much fun. A second cop car showed up as the sun dipped beneath the buildings. The officers were not amused. We were interfering with the traffic flow, they said. Someone shouted that the traffic was actually being blocked by the cop car. (In truth, we weren’t impacting the traffic: the couch was in the lane where parked cars usually squatted.)
Next thing I knew, my hands were forced behind my back and handcuffs pressed on. The crowd booed. Into the back seat and off to the station. Why weren’t the police dealing with the true criminals – speeding motorists and drunk drivers? A glorious day ended on a sour note with three hours in a holding cell and two $135 tickets. I left them with my fingerprints in their snazzy computer, and their camera framed a scowly portrait for the rogues’ gallery.
The stay wasn’t bad: I had three interesting (though smokey) cell-mates. One guy claimed that they arrested him for driving with triple the permitted blood alcohol level. The other two talked about how difficult it is these days to steal cars, given all the computer security technology. And there I was, detained for sitting in the sunshine on a couch on the road, provoking laughter and maybe some thought about how nice it could be if we took back the street and sat in the sun. Of all my years of activism, it was probably the most subversive thing I’ve ever done. And certainly the most enjoyable!
Over the decades, we have lost our cities to smog, noise, speed, and asphalt little by little: a road-widening here, a parking lot there. And we can restore cities to people in a similar fashion. A couch here, a rug there, a street party. A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and now – let’s take back the streets bit by bit. Why not try it: it’s fun, and all sorts of passersby will join in, reclaiming what’s rightfully ours.
My ticket says: “Couch in the street.” Maybe it’s time to put the street on the couch and analyze it: given the shortage of room in our cities, is parking a car really the best use for that space? Seems kinda crazy to me!
After they sprung me I put my shoelaces back on, hoofed to the Metro, and headed back to the scene of the crime. The couch had been moved onto the sidewalk. I sat on it for a few minutes pondering the flow. Shoe leather fluttered by on the sidelines, and all was back to “normal”: the main stage swirled with speeding steel and screeching rubber. The same police car cruised by again. I wasn’t occupying any asphalt. The cop just waved.