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Wide urban spaces

[Correction appended]

“If you erase the people of downtown America, the effect is bizarre, not to say disturbing… the familiar urban landscape without a soul in sight: streets empty, buildings empty, yet everywhere there is evidence of recent life and activity.” – Julian Biggs

This quote comes from the synopsis of 23 Skidoo, a short from the National Film Board archives recently posted on the local blog Spacing Montreal. Haunting footage of an abandoned Montreal in the late 1960s drives home the point that a city is not merely a backdrop for our daily lives – it is the dynamic relationship between the space and the people who share it.

The phrase “urban landscape” often evokes the image of vacant metropolitan scenery, and it’s this static perception of the city that Spacing Montreal is trying to fight. The blog is dedicated to exploring the interactions between humans and their built surroundings. “Our goal,” says contributing editor Chris DeWolf, “is to provide a critical conversation on streets, parks…everywhere people come together and share.”

The conversation is already lively. “It’s not a one-sided thing, people are contributing to the entries that we post,” says DeWolfe. “We have a regular block of readers that post comments on almost everything.” Since its launch a little over a year ago, Spacing has attracted 2,500 viewers per day. DeWolfe notes that there seems to have been a pent-up demand for the blog; although other web pages touch on similar issues, Spacing stands apart as a frequently-updated site focused exclusively on shared urban space.

“People have always been concerned with the city,” says DeWolfe, “but I think what’s happening now is that suddenly information has become more accessible. People who might otherwise have had only a passing interest in Montreal or other cities see a blog like Spacing and are able to have an outlet for their interest.”

From public art to public enemies to public services, the blog broaches a range of subjects. “We cover a lot of things that aren’t necessarily recorded in the mainstream press, or we try to give another angle to it,” notes DeWolfe.

One of my favourites was an article on neighbourhood bylaws restricting drying laundry on outdoor clotheslines. The blog explored the environmental and socioeconomic implications of this common feature of many neighbourhoods throughout the city.

Another highlight of the blog is its “Avant-Après” section – updated almost daily – where two photos of the same location are juxtaposed against each another to show the city’s development over time. Whether it’s three, 53, or 103 years, the changes are clearly expressed through visuals. The section further explores the animated quality of the city rather than representing it as an unchanging landscape. “This is a really big part of what Spacing is doing, taking a look at historical Montreal not as a calcified museum object but as something that was as living and dynamic as Montreal is today,” says DeWolfe.

Spacing makes connections across space as well as time, helping readers understand Montreal’s development by putting it in context. Articles from its sister site, Spacing Toronto, as well as pieces written by Beijing corespondants about the Chinese capital city, add extended perspective to the site. Regardless of whether the articles relate to Montreal or another city, they further dialogue by exploring the relationship between people and their urban environment.

Spacing Toronto has been around for almost five years, and has provided the template for Spacing Montreal. Spacing Magazine provides hosting support for both cities’ blogs, and facilitates their technical and financial aspects. However, Spacing Montreal does retain editorial independence: “It’s almost like a franchise,” says DeWolfe.

He explains that the blog has been bilingual since its creation. Being a spin-off from a Toronto based magazine, however, the majority of contributors are anglophones. At times, the blog flows seamlessly from English to French within a single article. An English post may quote another news source in French, for instance. “We tried to avoid the whole translation aspect where you have two separate discussions going on, and we just sort of throw it all together,” says DeWolfe. This approach is fitting for a bilingual city, because Montreal cannot be translated; it is a city that is simultaneously both francophone and anglophone. Nonetheless, the blog still predominantly features English writing, and dialogue on the urban environment would almost certainly benefit from the addition of more francophone voices.

The appeal of Spacing’s “Language & Signs” section, which highlights quirky and unique happenings around town, is largely to do with duality of French and English in our city. Signage is one of the most visible representations of language, and our urban space is chock-full. “Montreal is a very multilingual, multicultural city, so you have these overlapping layers. On one hand there are commercial and cultural aspects, and on the other hand legal and political aspects. All of this is visible in the city’s signs,” explains DeWolfe.

Looking ahead at the future of Spacing Montreal, DeWolfe hopes that the blog will gain the influence and steady body of contributors that Spacing Toronto has achieved. “Blogs still don’t have the same authority as print publications,” DeWolfe notes. He adds, however, that Spacing Toronto has a certain influence. “People pay attention,” he says.

Spacing Toronto has also attracted a large number of contributors who specialise in unique issues, from city hall to trees. The younger sibling still needs to consolidate a broader base of writers for this to achieve this. DeWolfe adds that Spacing Montreal should cover politics in greater depth.

Although its sister site can certainly provide a good example for Spacing Montreal to emulate, hopefully the blog will not become a mere imitation of its Eastern relative. A conversation about Montreal’s urban space should strive to maintain the valuable uniqueness of the city itself.

Spacing Montreal will face some changes this fall as many of the current contributors leave to pursue other projects. DeWolfe, however, confirms that the blog will definitely continue. Look out for their call for writers this fall if you are interested in entering in the conversation on Montreal’s urban space.

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The original version of this article misspelled Chris DeWolf’s name. The Daily regrets the error.