Indoor Public Space

is what we make of it.


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Studio.89 – A Café that allows itself to be shaped by its Community

Many businesses are parachuted into a community with a one-size-fits-all plan for extracting money.  Others emerge from a community organically, both serving and reflecting the people who live there.  Studio.89, a fair-trade café in Mississauga, didn’t start out as a business at all — it began as a student-run non-profit called Youth Troopers for Global Awareness.  In 2006, a group of students at John Fraser Secondary School came to the conclusion that their community needed greater awareness of local and global issues and their potential solutions.  YTGA was created to meet this need.  Members of the group quickly identified art as a way of amplifying their voices and sharing their knowledge.  As their work expanded, they identified a second, related need — people in Mississauga needed space for events (especially artistic and non-profit events) that was accessible, free and easy to book.  Recognizing that Mississauga also lacked places to buy fair-trade coffee and quick, environmentally-conscious meals, YTGA created Studio.89 — a space designed to meet a variety of community needs all at once.

Studio.89 provides free event space to students, artists and community groups and pays the rent by selling fair-trade coffee and affordable vegan and vegetarian meals.   I recently interviewed Jazzmine Lawton, the executive director of YTGA, about Studio.89 and the people it brings together.

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Inputs and Outputs

In terms of inputs, Studio.89 sells a lot of coffee, but it also makes use of grants and non-monetary inputs like volunteer staff and in-kind donations.  Studio.89 receives grants from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the City of Mississauga.  While it has some salaried staff, volunteers serve the coffee and the people running events keep it spick and span.  Volunteers come from local high schools, as interns from colleges, and through youth justice programs.  They gain experience in the food industry, but also learn about local arts and advocacy groups.  Many high school students have stayed on after completing their required volunteer hours because they found the space comfortable and the work meaningful.  Drawing volunteers from different places also increases the perspectives in the mix, strengthening Studio.89’s decision-making capacities.

Rent is Studio.89’s biggest expense, followed by admin salaries.  Fair-trade coffee is another big expense.  Studio.89 could have higher margins if it used cheaper coffee or charged higher prices, but either choice would undermine the space’s mission.  Running a business that also has social goals is challenging, but balancing economic and social imperatives gives the café its own eclectic character.  Fair-trade coffee at a reasonable price makes Studio.89 stand out from both franchise donut shops and trendy cafés.

Even when sales are buzzing, there are no profits to speak of — potential profits are funneled right back into the organization because a social enterprise’s real output is community well-being.  While competition between profit-oriented businesses may gradually find the most profitable use of space, there may be an even more efficient use of space to be found by balancing a variety of needs and goals against one another.

Challenges and Advice

Studio.89 is bustling and vibrant, but it hasn’t always been easy.  In fact, the hustle and bustle itself can be a challenge, as admin staff sometimes have trouble focusing on paperwork in such a lively, social atmosphere, even resorting to bringing their work home with them just for peace and quiet.  Having two bottom-lines, one monetary and one social, can feel like an unwinnable war.  When staff focus on the economics, they risk letting social programming slip, and when they focus on programming there’s a chance that business operations will falter.  But at other times, the two aspects work harmoniously — as when an especially popular event helps them sell a ton of coffee and food.  Or when a socially-motivated choice like using gender neutral washrooms leads to increased bookings and business from the local LGBTQ community.

For anyone thinking of opening a similar enterprise, Jazzmine suggests building wide-spread community support in advance.  Keeping an event space full and paying the rent can be a struggle and it helps to have partnerships and alliances laid out in advance.  Jazzmine also suggests taking the business aspect seriously out of the gates and working out a detailed feasibility plan.  Working with a non-profit budget and mindset, Studio.89 chose a space that was inaccessible to pedestrians and transit-riders because it was cheap — something they might not have done if they had thought of their initial expenses more like an investment.  As a result, Studio.89 doesn’t get many walk-in customers at their present location and has to rely almost entirely on events to draw people in.

Making Space for Free – and Distinctive – Events

Studio89’s event space — in a loft area above the café — is the heart and soul of the enterprise.  Last year, they hosted 673 events — about 1/5th were planned by the program coordinator with the rest reflecting the diversity of local interests and ambitions.  The artademic centre hosts open mic nights and documentary screenings, but it also provides meeting space for non-profits and small businesses.  Unlike many city-run facilities where booking space can be a procedural nightmare, turn around time at Studio.89 is usually within 24 hours.  Bookings are done through an online form and reviewed by the program director.  Studio89 approves almost all events — though a few events have been cancelled or denied because they made the space unwelcoming to others.  Balancing as many community needs as possible, while also holding space for those who are most often excluded, is the programming rule of thumb.  Booking the space requires a credit card — but it’s only billed in case of a cancellation or clean-up fee.  Charging to cancel a free service weeds out people who don’t take a service seriously just because there’s no price attached without burdening those who really can’t afford to pay.

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In our interview, Jazzmine discussed Studio.89’s nuanced response when they noticed that small businesses were dominating their booking calendar.  Small businesses are a key component of a thriving community and provide valuable connections for other participants in the space.  Studio.89 didn’t want to exclude them, but they also wanted to make sure that those groups they had initially identified as needing better access to event space got their time to shine.  The Studio.89 staff made a few changes to their policies: strongly encouraging, but not requiring, donations during regular hours and charging a fee for bookings before the café’s regular hours, a time period that was popular for business meetings.  Since then, they have reached a healthier balance between business and non-business bookings.  Those businesses that got the most value out of the entire Studio.89 package have stuck around, while those who who were just looking for the cheapest option have moved on.  And the early morning bookings are a new source of revenue.

How A Loose Vision leaves Space for the Local Community

Jazzmine explained to me that Studio.89 began with a loose vision of their future.  They knew they wanted to sell socially-conscious food and drink and provide a free space where people from Mississauga could connect with one another and speak out about global and local issues — but that conception includes a wide horizon of possibilities.  A detailed vision can give a space direction, but it can also cloud one’s gaze, preventing you from looking closely at the texture of your local community.  Studio.89’s loose vision has served them well.  As they have connected with different resources and needs in an omnivorous way, they have brought together groups and individuals who might never have met under a more tightly planned arrangement.  Having found that artists and students are mainly looking for space in the evenings, they are reaching out to seniors’ groups to see if they need free space during the day.  Outreach to seniors is a connection that a high-school social justice group might not typically make — but it is one that reflects the reality of the local community.  By adapting to the needs and opportunities that surround it, Studio.89 more and more closely mirrors the demographics of Mississauga.  The space also helps to draw the community itself together, weaving new connections and knitting new friendships.  People getting coffee hear about local poets; entrepreneurs get to know high school students; comedians meet activists and vice versa, creating considerable cross-pollination between groups.  Volunteers report that learning about new groups and activities is one of the biggest perks of working at the café.  And Jazzmine and her staff are always working to strengthen these connections, pitching in with marketing efforts for causes and shows that need assistance.

As the years have passed, Jazzmine has been amazed by the way that the community has shaped Studio.89.  What started out as a loose vision has gradually become a distinct image that draws energy and character from the people of Mississauga.  An open-minded outlook lets Studio.89 react honestly and directly to the people around them — rather than focusing on a predetermined model.  Having deep roots in the community has also made the space unique.  Cookie-cutter chains feel the same everywhere, because their brand is cooked up by a transnational marketing company, rather than being seasoned by the many different people who walk in the door each and every day.

Stephen Lewis Workshop

All photos courtesy of Studio.89

 

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Hobbies let us connect publicly if politics must be kept private

 

I am currently reading Bonds of Civility by Eiko Ikegami.  It is fascinating.  But one claim is particularly timely right now.

In Pre-modern Japan, under the shogunate, political associations were forbidden.  But this was a market economy, leisure and cultural consumption were on the rise and very profitable.  Japanese people at this time connected with each other around poetry, tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging), and many other cultural pursuits.  The shogunate allowed this — because entertainment was considered a private concern.  Poets were able to travel across Japan by staying with people they met through these cultural networks.  She compares this with the ‘public sphere’ that Habermas identified as an important factor in the formation of modern democracy.  Importantly, journals from participants in these networks show that while these networks were outwardly and publicly about entertainment, their internal spaces allowed people from different classes and social backgrounds to enjoy these hobbies AND ALSO TALK ABOUT POLITICS.

Freedom of speech is still mostly a reality in America and, for now, people should continue to use social networks to organize politically in explicit and public formations.  However, just in case things get worse, or if you are already concerned about the police tracking activists through social media (which certainly does happen), consider organizing hobby networks with activist and progressive friends which will allow you to use social networks for planning spaces that are publicly cultural, but privately political.  Dinner parties.  Book clubs.  Poker groups.  And while you’re at it.  Make those dinners and read those books and play those board games because we could all use some self-care on the side.

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A Winter Festival of Fun and Culture

Toronto has plenty of festivals in the spring and summer, but come February, when we’re all desperate to get out of the house, the city feels like a frozen expanse of closed doors and people hurrying home.  And yet, at the very same time, businesses are looking for ways to get people out of their houses after the Christmas rush and bustle.  To kill two birds with one stone, I’m hoping to organize a new type of festival, for this February or next, but I will need a little help.

The basic idea is this:

Businesses and institutions — anything from a barbershop to a coffee shop, a clothing boutique or a library — will make space available to people with good ideas who want to run free events.  People — artists, parents, teenagers, teachers, whoever — will find participating businesses and pitch their idea for an event.    

And that’s virtually the entire plan.  Individual businesses would agree to participate, and they would get posters and materials and be listed on a central website, but they will largely control how they choose and schedule events.  People could approach them directly or be put in touch through a central organizing committee with a list of participating spaces and their size and specifications.  An open-mic night?  A lecture?  A photo exhibit?  Let’s make it happen.  A dance class?  A wrestling tournament?  A mini-rave? Some shocking performance art I can’t even imagine?  We’ll give it a shot, if we can figure out the logistics.

The idea isn’t quite as unusual as it might seem at first: the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival does something similar, but with a focus on photography.  The main difference here is that we don’t want to limit events in advance to a specific category (the best ideas might be something no one has ever thought of before) and we want business owners and local people to meet face-to-face and talk about what should be done with their underused space rather than having some form of central festival planning.

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Photo Credit: Flickr user Bobbi Vie (and bboy Nasty Ray)

The concept behind the Festival: Trying to say ‘Yes’

Urban space is one of our most valuable cultural resources — it’s both a site and raw material for new cultural practices, community-building and human fulfillment.  We’re pretty good at using urban space efficiently in our quest to grow our economy — but when there’s no profitable way to make use of a space it just lies empty, because most of our planning and management revolves around turning a profit.  And that’s a real shame, because people can connect with each other in a million and one ways outside of the market — religion, politics, art, learning, subcultures, sport, being silly, just hanging out. So we need to start doing a better job of making space for non-business activities in our neighbourhoods.  Businesses aren’t really the problem here, but the way in which they exclude other types of activities is.  The upside is that business owners are people too, they’re not only interested in profits, it’s just that we’re bad at thinking and planning for other types of activities, because we rarely practice this type of planning.  Yes, businesses need to make money, but space is a wonderful thing, because two things can, and often do, happen at once.  The festival would provide an infrastructure and logistical support to make alternative events happen, business owners would provide space and local people would provide good ideas and inspiration.  This festival is based on one of the Foundation for Indoor Public Space’s key concepts.  The public-ness of an indoor space is on a gradient: a space becomes more public the more the people managing the space try to say ‘yes’ to the ideas and needs of the people around them.  As this would be a festival of public space, events would be free and businesses wouldn’t be allowed to require that participants buy something — but, in most cases, the increased foot traffic at a slow time of year would be good for business.

What do I mean by ‘Trying to say yes‘ ?  Public space is about difference and being in public space is about learning to be comfortable with, and even enjoy, difference.  Trying to say yes is about thinking deeply about difference and what you might learn about yourself and other people by saying ‘yes’ to something that seems weird or slightly uncomfortable at first.  Trying to say ‘yes’ requires you to think about what your most basic principles are, about which things are so important to you that you would have to say ‘no’ to another human being.  It doesn’t mean to abandon one’s principles, only to put them up for consideration and negotiation.  By trying to say ‘yes’ the people who own and manage businesses in our neighbourhoods will have the chance to grow and rethink the way they relate to their community — it might even lead to a new weekly poetry night or free tutoring that runs all year round.

A Festival Needs a Name!

I have yet to come up with a satisfying name and I’m entirely open to suggestions.  We would need something short and satisfying that communicates a little bit about the idea of publicnessand being open to new ideas and activities.  I see some potential in a play on the double-meaning of ‘premises’ (such as Open Premises or Shared Premises), but I’m not sure it’s catchy enough and might work better as a slogan or explanatory phrase.  Send me name ideas by email (contact@indoorpublicspace.org), blog comments, twitter or facebook!

Logistics?

Organizing the festival would likely have two phases.  The first phase would involve getting spaces to sign-up and publicizing their participation in-store, online and through the media.  There would have to be an application form where potential participants explain their ideas and how much time and space they will need.  There would be a specific date, maybe a month before the festival, where we would cut-off applications and businesses would choose and schedule as many events as they wanted.  The second phase would involve promoting the chosen events and helping people choose which ones to attend.

To do this city-wide would be a huge amount of work, so it might make the most sense to do the first festival in just one neighbourhood as a pilot project, possibly with the help of a resident’s association or BIA.  How we do it, will depend a lot on how many people are willing to volunteer their time and skills to help organize it.  I know that I do not have the event planning, project management and web development skills to make it happen on my own.  If you’re interested in getting involved, please send me an email:


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Ten Inspiring Indoor Public Space Moments — Pt.1

Human beings are social creatures.  We can socialize with friends and family at home or in a bar but to play our part in society we need opportunities to express ourselves in public.  In order for culture to be open to ordinary people we need public spaces.  Generally these spaces are outside — think of a parade or a march or a busker entertaining a crowd — but people should also be able to express themselves culturally and politically in indoor spaces. Spaces that welcome spontaneity allow us to entertain each other and make strangers laugh, they allow us to voice our concerns about justice and governance, and, most importantly, they let us come together and explore what it means to be human.  This two-part blog post highlights ten videos of people expressing themselves in unexpected ways in indoor public spaces.

On the subway we tend to look at the floor and ignore our fellow citizens, but great things can happen when we flout these (anti-)social conventions.  When we turn these daily encounters on their head, we are reminded that we share our cities with millions of other living, breathing, thinking people, all of whom want to experience new things.  Sometimes these shared moments come in the form of a couple of amateur musicians surprising a whole train of passengers — and each other — after a night out:

1. New York City Sax Battle

A spontaneous jam session is awesome, but an elaborate, carefully-choreographed performance designed for the sole purpose of weirding people out can really leave your head spinning:

2. Improv Everywhere Human Mirror

Improv Everywhere has been orchestrating events that inject huge doses of absurdity into otherwise ordinary urban spaces for many years now.  Their Youtube channel is definitely worth checking out.

But we can do more than just entertain and perplex in indoor public spaces; we can also makes statements about the type of city we hope to live in:

3. Breast-feeding Protest in Costa Rica

Sometimes we can only change the conditions of our daily lives by living the life we hope to live in the face of the social pressures that make it difficult.  If we do so in sufficient numbers, we can begin to change the shape of our society and our cities.  A protest like this recalls the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political.’  These people are doing ordinary daily activities, but, by doing so collectively, they are sharing a meaningful experience and creating new cultural norms.

4. Protest at the Guggenheim Museum

This protest is about labour conditions at the construction site of a Guggenheim spin-off in Abu Dhabi.  What is so interesting about it is that it is both a theatrical display and a political protest.  It creates a strange and eerie experience for museum-goers — not unlike the human mirror — but it is also highlighting a serious political issue.  Two aspects of cultural creation are bound up in a single moment.

For our fifth video, we return to the world of transit.  Listen as an Icelandic band sings an ancient hymn in a train station in Germany:

5. Árstíðir Flood a Train Station with Celestial Harmonies

Listen to those acoustics!  Honestly, this video gives me chills.  Can you imagine walking into that station to board a train and encountering this otherwordly sound!

We hope you enjoyed part one of our two part series.  In part two you can expect to see dancing! singing! rollerskating! and more protesting!


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100 in 1 Day – Toronto

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100-in-1 Day is an international, citizen-led festival that coordinates a plethora of mini-events and festivals called interventions all across a city, all on the same day.  Part of the fun is helping people to see just how easy it is to take action and make change happen.  The first 100-in-1 Day took place in Bogota, Colombia in 2012 but it has rapidly spread across the globe.  This year 100-in-1 Day Canada is June 7th and it’s taking place in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Halifax.

Hundreds of fun, thought-provoking grassroots interventions will be popping up all across Toronto this Saturday — and many of them are indoors!  While that might not normally be a particularly exciting feature of a public event, it certainly makes them stand out to us.

Here are just a few of the events that caught our eye:

Convenience Stories and Space That Gives A Sense Of Place celebrate the ordinary, indoor spaces that make a neighbourhood feel like home.  Convenience stories is a walking tour of convenience stores that will ask participants to share memories of convenience stores throughout their lives — surprisingly rich soil for emotion and nostalgia!  Space that Gives a Sense of Place will provide maps and tours of local spaces that bind together three Toronto neighbourhoods — the Junction, Cabbagetown/St. James Town and Leslieville.

Covenience Stories

We also noticed three intriguing interventions taking place on the TTC:  Sharing Languages on the TTC is going to hand out buttons that identify people as willing conversationalists in various languages; Go Nicely is seeking to bear witness to polite and pleasant behaviour on the TTC throughout the day; and our personal favourite is the Streetcar Back Pack — roving teams of transit heroes will be hanging out at the back of streetcars making them as attractive as possible — with snacks, cushions and music — in order to encourage people to move on back.

Streetcar Back Pack Project

Nellie’s Women’s Shelter is having an open house with live music and refreshments to introduce themselves and publicize their workshops on topics like transphobia, voting and take-back-the-night marches.

The Children’s Book Bank is having a book drive.  Some environmentally-minded Torontonian are opening a Free Store at York University where you can pass along things you no longer need and maybe pick up something you do.  Free Stores are such an important and valuable service and we should do our best to find a home for them in other indoor spaces.  Finally, the Toronto Carpet Factory is launching a Little Library — which will be an ongoing project.

children's book bank

There are also tons of awesome outdoor events — live music, public conversations about important topics like mental health, guerrilla art — and some other indoor events that we didn’t have time to cover.  You should definitely check out all the interventions and see what’s going down in your neck of the woods!


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If you Pitch it, They Will Come

Some spaces which seem inaccessible to the public may actually be open to great ideas — you just have to get the conversation started.  In this post, Judy Verseghy of Trade School TO talks about what she has learned about negotiating use of space instead of paying for it.

Trade School Toronto organizes classes which allow potential students to barter for knowledge.

Trade School Toronto organizes classes where students and teachers can barter for knowledge.

Indoor public space is something that I hadn’t considered much prior to 2012, when a group of five Torontonians (including myself) launched Trade School Toronto – an education-for-barter initiative riffing off of the iconic Trade School New York. The five of us all knew that public education without the exclusivity that goes along with cash payment was a great idea – we just weren’t sure where we could host our events. After all, we had no cash, and traditionally venues require payment for their use. Little did we know that soon enough, building managers and store owners all across Toronto would be jumping on board, allowing us the opportunity to bring our classes to the masses.

You see, the thing is, people across the city and beyond have fabulous ideas, but nowhere to launch them. Lack of affordable space is a huge problem in Toronto, both in terms of living space (which is another – very important – discussion altogether), but also in terms of community space where people can come together and create grassroots change. So how do you acquire the necessary space to manifest your fabulous idea, when you have no money at your disposal?

Well my friends, money isn’t everything, and there’s a very good chance that you have something to offer the operators of stores, community centres, schools, markets, and other indoor public spaces. You probably just haven’t realized it yet. Consider even just the following areas of your life, and see what assets you have that you might be able to offer in turn for space:

  • Skills and expertise – can you barter your own skills as a (communications professional/community planner/nurse/whatever) in return for the use of space?
  • Relationships – can you create new interpersonal connections that might benefit the manager of the space that you wish to use?
  • Web space – can you offer free ad space on your website (if you have one)?
  • Advertising – are you writing a press release to get people out to participate in your group? If so, you can pitch free advertising to your potential space donor in terms of a mention in the release or in other advertising mechanisms.

One of TSTO’s best assets is that our classes bring in people — we have found that we can leverage that traffic in exchange for space. There are tons of spaces around the city that are constantly investigating new ways to become or remain animated – this strategy has proven to be particularly effective with art and design galleries.

Sometimes your mission is simply in line with the mandate of the manager of the space that you wish to use. For example, when searching for space for our upcoming dance themed series for TSTO, organizer Sylvia Yee contacted the Ralph Thornton Centre, who said that they were more than willing to provide space, provided that our classes were open to the public, which is exactly what we want them to be.

You have something to give, and people want to receive it. If you pitch it, they will come.

Looking for something to do on April 26th? Come to Trade School Toronto’s newest session: Dance!Dance!Dance! All classes, as always, are paid for via barter. Come get your groove on!

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Judy Verseghy has three children and a long history of involvement in Toronto non-profits, including Trade School Toronto.


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The FfIPS Rule of Thumb

The line between public and private space isn’t necessarily clear — especially when it comes to indoor spaces.  Is a library public space?  What about the fountain at a shopping mall?  There are several ways to analyze this question.  Ownership is one; access is another.  Sometimes these lenses give different answers.  Both a library and a police station are publicly-owned, but only a library really feels like public space.  A shopping mall is privately-owned, but it is very much accessible to the public.  These are important questions to ask oneself when thinking about public space — but we should also ask about public participation.  We at FfIPS believe that ordinary people should have a say in how indoor public spaces are used and we propose the following question as a tool for thinking about the extent to which a space is open to public participation:

If a stranger were to walk into a space with a fantastic, but slightly outside-the-box, idea, how difficult would it be for them to make it a reality?

The more detailed the imagined scenarios are, and the more accurate the imagined institutional responses, the more useful the question becomes.   Obviously, the answer will vary depending on the activity being proposed.  One might be able to hold a meeting for a new non-profit in a coffee shop quite easily, but you might have trouble hosting salsa lessons. There are good reasons for these variations, as sharing space is always a balancing act.  However, the more scenarios there are that result in a ‘go ahead’, the more open a space is to public participation.  It is of course still important to consider other aspects of public-ness — the FfIPS Rule of Thumb simply provides an additional angle of attack.  According to this standard, it may well turn out that certain independently-owned, open-minded coffee shops are more public than a library or a museum.  We feel that this question will also help people to understand the FfIPS project and why we are interested in so many different types of spaces.  We want to encourage any and all spaces to think about how they can say ‘yes’ to more fantastic ideas.  Shopping malls should consider the costs and benefits of opening their concourses to dancers and roller-skaters after hours.  Even an office building might consider offering inexpensive access to some of its facilities after regular business hours.

If you are the owner or a manager of a space, you might prefer phrasing it like this:

If a stranger were to walk into your space with a valuable, but outside-the-box, idea, how would they go about making it a reality?

It may also be worth considering these sub-questions:

Who would they talk to first?

Who would need to approve the idea?

What red-tape would they have to confront?

Are there any fees?

Would different people get different answers?  Why?

Are there people in the community who might not even know that your space exists?

How could you make your space more welcoming to new ideas?

If a stranger were to walk into your space with a valuable idea, how would they go about making it a reality?

If a stranger were to walk into your space with a fantastic, but outside-the-box idea, how would they go about making it a reality?