Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Summer Street Festivals - Open Streets, Buskerfest, Kensington Market, Distillery District

Toronto is a fun place to be in the summer, with a plethora of street festivals that turn high traffic volume roads into pedestrian playgrounds.  This year marks the second annual "Open Streets" festival which occurs on two separate Sunday mornings towards the end of the season.  From 9am-1pm, Bloor Street is closed from Parliament Street to Spadina Ave (extended to Christie Street on the second Sunday) and Yonge Street is closed from Bloor Street to Queen Street.  People are encouraged to stroll, cycle or roller blade up the middle of these usually busy roads, while entertained by buskers, musicians, aerobics and dance sessions, children's games, sports activities and more.  We really enjoyed the energetic brass band in front of Holt Renfrew, who played popular songs like Michael Jackson's Beat It and Cee-lo Green's Forget You (or F*** You if you prefer).

At Christie Pits, we tried our hand at archery using arrows with round plastic heads.  We learned that the company Arrow Storm runs games of archery tag, which they describe as being like paintball with arrows.  Although the representative insisted that the arrows don't hurt and even offered to let us shoot them at her, I personally had my doubts about this whole concept.  As we rode our bicycles past Honest Eds, we stopped to sign a petition requesting segregated bike lanes on Bloor and Danforth, and rode along a temporary lane for about a block, just to get the feel of what it could be like.   The theme for open streets is physical activity, which we witnessed as we passed by people doing yoga, zumba, kickboxing, skipping rope, playing road hockey, ultimate frisbee and square dancing.

A four-day Buskerfest saw the closing of Yonge Street from College to Queen from Thursday through Sunday at the end of August.  Clowns, jugglers, acrobats and contortionists performed their acts surrounded by huge crowds, occasionally enlisting audience members to participate in some of the tricks.  For the more popular acts that were already in progress, it was difficult to see over the multiple rows of people.  That's when you wished you were a cute little kid who could squeeze between the legs of adults to get to the front, without incurring any bad feelings.  We attended Buskerfest with a friend and her three young sons, who had no trouble finding their way through the crowd to get a front-row viewpoint for each performance.  Hats were passed around at the end of each show in order to collect money for the buskers, who encouraged people to donate bills ($5, $10, $20) but would gratefully accept whatever was offered.  From the looks of the hoards swarming up to contribute, it seemed like these entertainers did quite well at the event.

The living statue buskers had a tougher time since they relied on money being tossed into their buckets as people passed by, or when people wanted to pose for photos with them.  But these days with everyone having a phone or camera that could capture a snapshot from afar, I would imagine that the haul for these buskers was significantly less, even though they had to stand around all day while the performing buskers only had shows at scheduled intervals.  Scattered throughout the streets were examples of balloon art made by the Balloon buskers, whose creations included a giant minion, Spiderman and a dragon head.  The results were quite impressive and you wouldn't know they were made of balloons until you got up close to them.  This was definitely a step up from the twisted balloon dogs that are usually made.

The Wii Video Dance Game sponsored by Best Buy (to promote their TVs?) was very popular with kids, who lined up for the chance to dance along to popular songs.  The boys seemed to like "What Does The Fox Say" or Pharell William's "Happy" while the girls usually went for "Let it Go" from Frozen.  It was fun watching them joyfully try to follow the movements of the Wii game.  The stage at Yonge-Dundas Square featured various musical acts throughout the weekend.  We got there just in time to hear the end of a set of songs sung by the cast of "Full House the Musical", inspiring us to purchase tickets for the show.

On the last Sunday in the months from May through October, the streets that make up Kensington Market are closed to vehicles for "Pedestrian Sundays".  On these days, the area is even busier than usual as food vendors hawk their offerings from tables set up in front of the stores and entertainment can be found in the middle of the roads.  We came across a giant scrabble game being played by guys on rollerblades.  We did not realize until we saw the schedule afterwards, but there was also a giant dominos game, jenga, and an aerial acrobatic act.  Next Pedestrian Sunday, we will make sure to check out the agenda first on Facebook so that we don't miss anything.

As we strolled along, we spotted performers holding yellow balloons demarcated the locations of acrobatic and contemporary dance numbers.  In one case, as the dancers traversed down the street, the balloons moved along with them.  Music could be heard everywhere as we passed by one musical act after another.  There was a booth where poetry buskers offered to write you a poem or haikku on a topic of your choosing, for a small fee. Another area was advertising for the Toronto School of Burlesque with offers of demonstrations and lessons.

Timed to correspond with the Kensington Market Pedestrian Sundays is the Kensington Market Art Fair where artists displayed their drawings, paintings, photographs, pottery, textiles, screen prints, woodcuts, jewelry, clocks made out of gears, and other crafts for sale.  One booth that caught our eye displayed the whimsical but politically satirical oil on birch bark paintings by Tony Taylor , depicting politicians and bureaucrats with animal heads.  Great captions like "Tyrannosaurus Trump" for a big-mouth dinosaur in a suit and tie, or "Time to Take Out the Garbage" with two raccoons clearly conveyed the message or issues behind the works.  We also took note of the anatomically correct, ethnically diversified crochet dolls by Chason Yeboah.  In a popup pottery shop across from the Art Fair, we spotted some bowls that we liked by Guelph potter Chris Hierlihy and will consider contacting him to see if he makes serving platters in the shape that we are looking for.  Finally there were a series of sculptures on display, using various parts from cars and other metal scraps to create large-scaled monster-like creatures.

One could argue that the Distillery District is a permanent, fenced-off car-free zone, spanning multiple streets.  This historic area with its cobblestone streets provides year-round access to shops, restaurants, caf├ęs, and art galleries and is often hosting festivals and entertainment.  On Labour Day weekend, the annual Artfest Toronto took place here, with the streets lined with canopy tents from which a variety of art, crafts, souvenirs and foods were offered for sale.  Scattered throughout were offerings of free samples including iced tea, shortbread cookies, tastings of jams and iced coffee.  The regular art galleries were still open during the festival, and provided a nice, air-conditioned respite from the hot weather.

It has been so much fun being able wander around and enjoy the various downtown areas without worrying about motor vehicles.  Having some streets temporarily or periodically closed for a festival is a good start, but Toronto should have more permanent, pedestrian-only areas in their downtown core, emulating districts in many European cities including Dublin's Grafton Street and Vienna's Innere Stadt, or North American ones like Manhattan's Broadway and Boston's Downtown Crossing.  Such areas are great for businesses since they are easily accessible by transit and allow people to amble around and spend their money.  Toronto should consider making the roads forming the touristy downtown shopping areas of Kensington Market and Yorkville to be permanent pedestrian-only streets, or at least pedestrian-only for longer periods of time.

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