That children in the burbs of Miami are being offered a trip in a Hummer to McDonald's as a reward for being top fundraisers at their school is enough to make us gag on our lattes while exploding in laughter. Tell the story to your Canadian kids and watch them crinkle their faces into expressions of sadness, or, simply emit a sustained: "Euwwwww."
Overbloated and overscaled, the suburbs in the United States are doomed, and not even the trim, fit mind of President Barack Obama can make it right. But, on this front, Canadians should resist feeling overly smug and self-righteous. The suburbs in Canada are a piece of madness, too, and only draconian measures can help inject some humanity and grace into these zones of wounded streets and crush of ugly condominium towers. Face it: The suburbs have colonized our minds, and our bodies.
Artists and architects treat the suburbs as a no-man's land - a dreaded place of formula they'd rather avoid. Admittedly, there's no art in the suburbs. I know this when aiming my camera at the patched, potholed sidewalks, photographing the narrow, mean space allowed for people to manoeuvre, heads down, against the harsh wind created by the tunnel of towers at Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue in one of Toronto's suburbs. Other than Wimpy's and beleaguered-looking sushi joints, I'm unable to find fresh food. Dark chocolate at the gas station doesn't actually count. They may not be exactly alike but Canadian and American suburbs definitely share the Jenny Craig factor. Live there and resist no more: Your life will be confined to a car so as to access work, groceries and trips to the fat-reducing farms located in the suburban malls.
So it was with considerable glee that I happened upon the Leona Drive Project, a wacky and often poignant unearthing of suburban life that takes place in five vacant postwar bungalows located just east of Yonge Street, directly south of Sheppard Avenue in northern Toronto. The art intervention opened Friday and is part of the Toronto International Art Fair. One of the most compelling interventions is by artist An Te Liu, an associate professor in the University of Toronto's faculty of architecture, landscape and design. He sealed the windows and doors of the bungalow at 19 Leona Dr. and then painted the entire structure in bright green, the colour, in fact, of one of those little plastic houses you can purchase with a roll of the dice and some paper money from the Monopoly board game.
In this case, a roll of the dice has meant these bungalows have been bought by a development company that's planning on ripping them down and replacing them with a series of 21st-century townhouses that will likely look as if they belong to the Victorian era. Architecture follows a continuum of time, but it's rarely of its time. Buildings, even houses, shift dramatically from one decade to the next, depending on available materials, the will of developers, marketers and what's considered good taste. The prim little bungalows were built in the mud flats of a new subdivision in what before 1967 was called the Township of North York. That version of affordable housing is currently undergoing a massive overhaul, meaning owners are replacing the brick structures with larger faux castles clad in prefabricated stone. It may be curious to look at but it's considered part of the march of progress.
Not long ago, during the 1950s, artist Ryan Livingstone recalls how his grandmother engaged in the "dizzying, mind-boggling ritual of changing into a dress for dinner." And, he remembered his mother's recommendation that "a penny saved is a penny earned." In response, Livingstone transformed a small dining room at 9 Leona Dr. into a "dizzying, mind-boggling" array of 14,000 nails banged into all four walls, every one of them topped with a penny painted white. It's the ultimate polka-dot dress, and it's just one of the many works that should be taken out dancing rather than being demolished along with the house.
In the kitchen, Shana MacDonald and Angela Joosse, Toronto filmmakers and doctoral candidates at York University, have mined the books of Ruth Gillespie, a long-time resident of 9 Leona Dr. Gillespie lived in the house for 40 years, and the filmmakers uncovered stacks of her quite personal books in the basement: a yearbook, a shorthand exercise book, an autograph book with hearty, enthusiastic greetings to Ruth such as "save a piece of wedding cake for me." It seemed only right to pay homage to a woman's life before the wrecker's ball demolished her home and her handwriting. In the kitchen cupboards, the artists have arranged several back-lit shrines to Ruth, as well as a video of her autograph books projected from the oven. Upstairs, in the bathroom, artist Christine Davis has scrubbed the tiny space clean and painted it entirely in bright-red lipstick. The lipstick, donated by MAC Cosmetics, matches the colour of "Victory Red," which Elizabeth Arden issued postwar for women. It's now impossible to separate the image of returning veterans to their suburban front yards and their young, lipsticked wives.
The Leona Drive Project is not always pretty - the homes, once designed as places of pitched-roof convention and suburban decency by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) for young families in the late 1940s, have been abandoned and squatted in over the last several years. When the co-curators of the Leona Drive Project, Janine Marchessault, an artist, associate professor and Canada Research Chair in art, digital media and globalization at York University, and Michael Prokopow, an associate professor at Ontario College of Art and Design, first descended on the site, along with dozens of artists, filmmakers and designers, they discovered piles of rat and raccoon feces, soiled shower curtains and sheets, and condoms everywhere, even in the trees in the backyards. Once conceived as places of brick-clad modesty and affordability, as places where children could grow up in safety and a lifetime of memories could be stored in the basement, the houses have morphed, most recently, into crack houses and sex stops.
The members of Arbour Lake Sghool, a collective of artists from Calgary who have delighted in growing barley in the front yard of one of their suburban homes, have taken on the hard, physical work of demolishing part of 17 Leona Dr. so as to expose its rawness inside. Through the debris and excrement, there are layers of paint to be seen and vestiges of linoleum tiles on the floor. Maybe it's possible, in the filth and squalor, to see the wallpaper in the kitchen with its pattern of china dishware. Families passed through this house and lived here, and knew the intimacy of being closely set next to their neighbours. Now the wooden fascia boards are being ripped off, the bricks are being thrown to the ground and new, temporary structures are being built by the young members of Arbour Lake: a tree fort, a sunken pit house, a speaker's podium.
A word of thanks must go to Hyatt Homes, the owner of the five bungalows, for indulging the Leona Drive Project, and allowing the show to be launched in the first place. Many of those participating are acclaimed artists: Filmmaker John Greyson continues the quirky story of a couple of gay penguins who, in this scenario, are uprooted from their "starter" home on Leona Drive; Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak have created a Hollywood Hills-inspired sign called "Junction" that lights up at night. The curators secured several sources of funding, though about $15,000 still needs to be raised.
A hundred years ago, this is where farms spread their fertile yawn and the wreckage of the land was never considered. Postwar, the march of progress meant endless tracts of buttoned-down suburban bungalows in a community once known as Willowdale, every one of the houses given the same freakish attention to sameness: two steps leading up to a front stoop, a peaked gable over the front door, brick cladding over cement-block walls, two or three bedrooms upstairs. Drive through the neighbourhoods of what's now known as North York - you have to drive, sidewalks are rare - and see the CMHC stamp of dreary affordability everywhere. What else lurks there? That's the question undergoing a serious shakedown for a week along Leona Drive, where art has arrived - finally, crucially - in the suburbs.
The Leona Drive Project continues until Oct. 31, with daily artist talks at 1 and 6 p.m. For more information, visit www.leonadrive.ca .
A round table on art and place making in the suburbs takes place at the North York Central Library, 5120 Yonge St., on Wednesday, 6:30-8:30 p.m., featuring Spacing Magazine's Matthew Blackett, York University environmental studies associate professor Roger Keil and artist Robin Collyer, hosted by city councillor John Filion (Willowdale).