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If he could spur a makeover of Toronto's public face, there would be no better place for Dave Meslin to start than here, on the subway platform at Union Station.

In this, the most public of spaces, private interests harangue him from all sides.

Posters line the tunnel walls, urging Mr. Meslin to watch this show and that on Global TV. Near the ceiling, an array of video screens tries to sell him chewing gum.

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And of course, the subway cars themselves: Already plastered with ads on the inside, they've begun to sport full-body paint jobs, suggesting how cool he might look with an iPod, or perhaps how uncool he looks without one.

"I call it incremental intrusion," says Mr. Meslin, 31, who founded the Toronto Public Space Committee five years ago in a bid to wrest public decorating rights from the busy hands of advertisers. "It all happens really slowly and you don't really notice it. It's like a child growing up."

By that analogy, Toronto has some growing up to do. From Mr. Meslin's perch, the city's logo-laden public face looks decidedly adolescent, pimpled over by another new product pitch every time he turns around. Worse, it has become the face of places that are supposed to belong to all, but have been sold by the people's own representatives for much-needed cash.

Along with the gum, the cars, the TV shows and the iPods, Mr. Meslin isn't buying the financial justifications for advertising in the transit system, school playgrounds and parks.

"The whole notion of advertising funding public projects is really a scam," he says on a TTC bench during a lull in subway traffic. "When a company pays for advertising, that's money they got from us when we bought their products."

Mr. Meslin calls it the AST -- for Advertising Sales Tax -- the unofficial 10 cents of each consumer dollar we spend that typically gets funnelled back into marketing. That's a lot of dimes, but when advertisers cart them by the sackful to city hall or the school boards, offering fiscal relief via trash cans and transit ads, he says officials are too bedazzled to realize where the money really comes from: the people who already pay real taxes that are supposed to fund trash cans and transit.

"They're recycling our own money and then giving it back to us in the form of ads, and then telling us it's a gift," Mr. Meslin says.

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In a world where those who pay usually get the say, we end up looking at ads instead of, say, public art that would reflect a more grown-up and accurate image of Toronto.

"Billboards have no diversity and they're all in English," he says, pointing out one white face after another staring out from the Global posters.

"That's not Toronto. I mean, that's shameful."

In its continuing quest to snap the city out of its ad-induced stupor, Mr. Meslin's group, which counts about 20 committed volunteers and a mailing list of 1,000, has started a magazine, Spacing, and launched a website, http://www.spacing.ca.

It also has created a collection of one-inch buttons portraying each of the city's subway stations with depictions of the tile colours and other design cues.

Its newest campaign, called The Better Way -- a cheeky appropriation of the TTC's venerable slogan -- asks artists and transit riders to "re-imagine the TTC without any commercial advertising."

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By Oct. 31, the committee hopes to collect scores of photo illustrations, sketches, paintings, animation and sculptures of ad-free bus shelters, vehicles and subway platforms.

For inspiration, a few samples of funked-up buses and subways are already on display at http://www.publicspace.ca.

Mr. Meslin plans to invite transit commissioners and managers to a gallery show of the submissions early next year, in hopes they will see not only aesthetic, but economic, opportunities.

"Our proposal is to take a nickel per fare and pay to take down every ad," he says, and use the leftover money to fund public art projects." (A five-cent fare hike would raise an extra $10-million a year for the TTC, says Marilyn Bolton, a spokeswoman for the transit system.)

In the process, Mr. Meslin contends, the city would more than make up for the lost ad revenue as tourists and locals alike ride the rocket to view the art.

"I don't think that's a business idea," says a dubious Nick Arakgi, general manager of Viacom Outdoor Canada, now in year two of a seven-year deal as the TTC's exclusive provider of advertising.

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"It's very nice for people to say, 'Just raise fares,' but who's going to make up that $93-million?" Mr. Arakgi says, referring to the sum his firm will fork over to the TTC over the life of the contract.

"With all due respect, I live in the real world, and so does the city."

Real, maybe, but not necessarily a world that Torontonians would choose if they could see viable options beyond the ads, Mr. Meslin says.

"I think our biggest obstacle is that people are just used to it," he says.

"I think it's hard for people to imagine a street or transit without billboards, without ads."

When he makes presentations at schools, Mr. Meslin says he often asks kids what they would do if someone walked into their living room and hung up posters. Often, they answer, "I'd call the police."

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He suggests that the rest of us think of public spaces in the same way.

"You'll never see the name of a couch company on a couch," Mr. Meslin says, sitting on a TTC bench that, for now anyway, is logo-free. "What we're trying to do is get the city to take that approach to couches and apply it to our whole city.

"The city is our living room."

areinhart@globeandmail.ca

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