Today is the first of May and the annual signs of seasonal rebirth are everywhere. What miserable soul could fail to feel hopeful in springtime, with its budding blossoms, baby birds, gentle breezes and … potholes?
You heard me right. Those nasty gaps in the asphalt that make your car go thump are also the latest aesthetic battleground for guerrilla gardeners and conceptual artists everywhere. Okay, maybe not everywhere. But in quite a few places, which is a pretty astonishing coincidence in itself.
Take Steven Wheen, an avid cyclist and art student at Central St. Martin's College of Art in London. Earlier this year, Wheen went back to his native Australia for Christmas. When he returned to the U.K., he couldn't believe how bad the roads were. After a few near-miss wipeouts on his bike, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
No, he did not write a letter to his local MP. (He's an art student, for heaven's sake.) He got out his spade and bucket full of potting soil and started planting flowers in the potholes around his neighbourhood to draw attention to urban decline. The photo blog based on his experiment, www.thepotholegardener.com, became the basis for his master's thesis and has recently renewed British media interest in the practice of guerrilla gardening – gardening without permission on disused public land.
It turns out there are legions of guerrilla gardeners practising their unregulated hobby all over the world. And not only pothole gardeners (who exist everywhere from Montreal to Tijuana), but regular folks armed with little more than a green thumb and a stealth seed packet.
Today, in fact, happens to be International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day. If you don't believe me, look it up on Facebook, where, at press time, nearly 3,000 people had pledged to seed a rogue sunflower (or five) somewhere in their neighbourhood today.
The practice of guerrilla gardening originated in New York in the 1970s. According Richard Reynolds, author of On Guerrilla Gardening and operator of the site www.guerillagardening.org, what began as a whimsical pastime has become a much more politicized "loose movement" (his term, not mine).
Just last month, a group of student activists at the University of Victoria dug up a swath of campus land and planted a vegetable garden to protest the school's lack of communal gardening space and raise awareness around issues of food security. Campus officials repaired the damaged turf by cloak of night in a bobcat operation. Police are said to be investigating. Vandalism charges may be laid.
"Planting a flower is much more layered in meaning than it used to be," Reynolds tells me in an interview from an office where he practices his day job at an advertising firm. "Urban ecology and environmentalism is not just a fringe movement any more."
As a result, Reynolds notes, guerrilla gardening is on the upswing. "In some cases, it's so popular that it's not even really guerrilla any more," he says, citing Incredible Edibles, a U.K.-based communal gardening group that works with municipal governments and private citizens to find land on which to grow local food.
But let's get back to the pressing social issue of potholes, shall we? Oh, I know, the polar ice cap is melting, the Maldives are sinking and the Kardashians just ordered the very last blue fin tuna at Nobu.
But declining urban infrastructure remains a serious concern – particularly for Montrealers, those beleaguered folks who not only have to endure their cars being randomly towed three blocks away all winter, but later must contend with puddles the size of the Ngorongoro crater blighting their streets.
Enterprising artists Claudia Ficca and Davide Luciano decided to do something about this blight after their 1996 Jetta had to have its suspension replaced a few years back. Mypotholes.com is a photo blog of scenes staged around potholes around the world (including, so far, Montreal, New York and Los Angeles). In one, a sexy peasant woman washes her laundry; in another, a vintner squashes a load of grapes. There is, of course, a lovely flower garden. My personal favourite features Alice chasing a white rabbit down a hole in the middle of 30th Street in New York. It's part of a series that will be shown at the city's Agora Gallery later this year.
Unlike her pothole-gardener associates, though, Ficca claims the experience has made her revise her opinion of potholes. "It's about taking something negative and making people see it in a positive light," she told me.
Wheen, for his part, still hopes to eradicate the treacherous gaps and make the road safe for cyclists. He feels that his random acts of gardening may actually be getting somewhere. Just the other day he went back to plant in some potholes he'd spied around the corner from his flat but they were already filled in. Then again, he wonders, "someone might've called the city's toll-free number."
I can't help but wonder if he hasn't tried this himself?
"I prefer my method," he says. "It makes people smile."