The hot-pink clues arrived, scattered across Halifax’s north end, on the morning of Thursday, May 11. There were no concert announcements on the recipe-card-sized papers, just the words “Gottingen and Cunard,” cryptically laid over a photocopy of wood grain. Signs were everywhere: stuck with masking tape on Staples’ glass doors, the old legion building on Cogswell, the Salvation Army, eyelevel Gallery, pay phones and other seemingly random locations.
Like an urban scavenger hunt, another clue appeared at the vacant lot of Gottingen and Cunard, beside the Galleria furniture store, on the same morning. A small white welcome sign with frosting-pink painted lettering is propped against a shin-grazing fence. Inside the grass lot, erected in the middle of a bare footpath, is a large triangular structure of painted wood. Across the top of each of three panels, are questions, posed in the same pink type: “Are we happy in our space?,” “Draw your ‘community,’” and “What is our community?” As mysteriously as the sign first appeared, answers to those questions are now filling the board.
Jennifer Pritchard and Clara Stewart-Robertson, architects of this project, examine the community’s answers to their queries, taking photos with a digital camera, pointing out a drawing of people holding hands around a tree, a thoughtful response about fostering happiness in physical space and several calls for affordable housing. “Someone had responded to what I wrote. That’s really inspiring,” says Stewart-Robertson.
This idea germinated in an assignment for her International Development class at Dalhousie—both are students in the Community Design program—to initiate a local project that demonstrated a low level of civic action. Some wrote letters to their MPs, but after attending a public hearing for the Spring Garden and Queen Street vacant lot, Stewart-Robertson was struck by a conversation about the effects of segregation in the community, an issue that has long plagued the north end’s diverse population.
Together, she and Pritchard, also roommates living around the corner, developed the idea of using art to initiate community dialogue. First, they cleaned up the lot, owned by a private developer. “We knew we wanted to do it on this street, and we thought about that one there,” says Pritchard, pointing to the larger, weed-filled field across the road, “but it’s so big and not very intimate. This is a well-traversed corner and we just thought that there was some potential with the mural. It had a good feel to it.”
After spending about four months on research and working out the details—what colours to use, how to stitch up a waterproof bag to house markers—they took bus trip for building supplies, and with the help of a friend, built the panels and dragged them onto the lot. “Going into this, we just knew we wanted to start some kind of dialogue and get people talking in the community. They’re not doing it face-to-face, but they are doing it in a written form. It’s like a glorified bathroom stall,” says Pritchard, laughing.
“Maybe people just needed this kind of space to talk,” says Stewart-Robertson. She and Pritchard came back from a party late one night, and discovered people writing. “Some people like being private and alone about it, so for them to come out in the middle of the night and do it, it’s subversive.”
Since the panels appeared two weeks ago, there have been other changes. Someone planted flowers, and there’s new, unrelated graffiti on a nearby wall. The guerilla activists also noticed people digging and taking bags of dirt, presumably for planting elsewhere. Most surprisingly, the markers only disappeared once, and the only graffiti to appear on the panels is a single tag on the backside. “People have respected it so far, and we hope that it continues,” explains Pritchard. “It can’t stay up forever because then people will vandalize it.”
The Spryfield community, where Stewart-Robertson works as part of the Healthy Housing, Healthy Communities Project, is interested in reproducing the project. The duo also proposed a session on their findings to the national Planners for Tomorrow conference in Vancouver, where they will present in mid-June. They have more plans for the corner too: Says Pritchard, “We’re going to do something fresh with it. Something else will be up here soon.”