Published: yesterday July 12
At the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival on Tuesday afternoon, a man who smelled of alcohol touched my arm. He didn't grab me. There was no aggression in his face or in his gentle contact. I was carrying my 18-month-old daughter on my shoulders, though, so I was somewhat alarmed. "Hey," he said. My friends were ahead, and I didn't want to lose them. "Hey," I said, as I walked away.
"Yeah, I have clothes for your son." Not sure if I heard him correctly, I asked him to repeat. He was with four other men, poorly dressed and sleepy. One was shoeless. Years of hard living were evident in their eyes.
I knew the man wanted money, but this was a novel approach. "Twenty dollars," he said. "I have clothes for your son." "It's a girl," I said.
He smiled and winked. "Ten dollars." It was a perfect afternoon, sunny and in the low 20s. Parents and small children and tourists with cameras wandered about Sir Winston Churchill Square. The poor and the homeless and the lost wandered among them, seamlessly. Some toddlers were accidentally knocked down in the crowded circles around the acrobats in Soviet short-shorts.
A young couple had a very public, very loud and very profane argument, yielding their cigarettes like bull whips. But despite these incidents, it was an utterly safe environment for everyone. Safe yet undeniably uncomfortable.
Festivals are festivals, and no one wants to be reminded -- among the laughter and amazement and joy -- that Edmonton is plagued with serious poverty and homelessness. To our great collective shame, the problem is especially visible among the city's urban aboriginal population.
Of course, this isn't strictly an Edmonton problem. It's an urban problem. Vancouver's troubles are far more acute, and it's a major issue in the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics. For next summer's Olympic games in Beijing, authorities are reportedly demolishing shantytowns and transporting the poor out of the city, so that poverty is invisible while the world is looking.
If indigence was easy to solve, it would have been taken care of thousands of years ago. Governments and organizations can help alleviate suffering, but a certain percentage of every population will always live in crushing poverty. The mark of a good and successful society is its spirit of compassion, plurality and inclusiveness.
"I think in a sense it's a big part of the show," says Shelley Switzer, artistic director of the festival.
"For 10 days, we're really a guest in someone else's home. And we try to be the best guest we can be. It's non-ticketed, and available and accessible to everyone, whether you're brand new to the city or you don't have any money. After each performance, the artists say, 'Please put what you can in our hats.
If you can't afford it, please come and say thank you.' " Switzer says she doesn't hear complaints about the street people mingling among the street performers. It's the modern manifestation of one of the world's oldest art forms, and its appeal is universal.
"That's part of what makes it unique. When you're standing in the circle, watching a performer, you're connecting with an artist but you're also connecting with your community -- sharing laughter with your community.
I love watching an office worker coming down in a suit during lunch hour to watch a performance, and there he is standing next to a homeless person, both of them sharing the same laugh." In most cities, the idea of a perfectly clean and shiny, upper-middle-class downtown is a fantasy.
The majority of Albertans live outside urban cores, where life is apparently quieter and safer. Yet when they come together with some of the downtown east side's residents, there are rarely any problems outside esthetics and perhaps guilt. If anything, a stranger offering to clothe my daughter in boy's clothes for $10 only makes my life richer.
Instead of seeking to move street people away from festivals and arts districts, to hide them from tourists and children, it seems far more humane to welcome them; to welcome everyone who doesn't have a Facebook page.
The Downtown Business Association is working with The Works International Visual Arts Society to bring permanent artistic expression from the city's multicultural, new immigrant and aboriginal communities to the square. Until Aug. 13, artists can submit images for the metal banners that will arc around eight poles.
There are alternatives to feeling embarrassed or outraged by the bare facts of city life. Switzer is philosophical and pragmatic about the square and its multiple faces. "Some people need to laugh a lot more than others," she says.