Sparks and recreation

Some years ago while walking down Bank Street I was confronted by a pair of German tourists. I knew they were German, because they looked like this. I knew they were tourists, because in their quest to find the “action” in Canada’s capital, they asked the following question: “Please can you tell us where Sparks Street is?”

It’s a question no local would have asked. Certainly not after 5 p.m., which it was. To Ottawans, the question when it comes to Sparks Street has long been not so much where, as why. Why, for example, were pedestrian streets in smaller communities such as Burlington, VT, populated noon and night while Sparks was transformed each evening into a ghost town?

Les Gagne, the Sparks Street Authority’s executive director, offers some explanation for the real and perceived weaknesses of the promenade past.

“The public,” he says, “has to realize that we’ve got all the buildings on the north-side owned by Public Works, then you’ve got the NCC floating around, then you’ve got Parliamentary security issues, then you’ve got the private sector and the City of Ottawa… To most people you go, ‘Wow, that’s a headache.’ That’s why people tend to stay away from Sparks Street. We know physically it’s an exciting place — and think of the potential! — but what’s involved in making all those groups think and read from the same page? It’s a lot of work. That’s why we’ve been in the situation we’ve been in for so many years.”

It’s also, he adds, why “some parts of the city get a lot more hand-holding and support (from the City of Ottawa). The City goes in a says, ‘All right, we want to do this. Get it done!’ It’s easy.”

Gagne and his Sparks Street posse, however, have been working to change that. Perhaps you’ve noticed: dance nights; a poutine festival; a farmer’s market; classic cars; ribs and more ribs; street art; street hockey. This weekend, it’s the return of the Buskers Festival. Soon, there will be a beer market and a zipline — always a winning combination — added to the mix. Sparks Street is working hard to change its image. And, Gagne senses, it’s working. Hence, an ever-expanding program to add animation to the mall. Gagne freely admits this evolution comes with a substantial element of throwing everything at the public to see what sticks. But some things are already proving to be sticky — in a good way.

German tourists, you are welcome.

News of the latest innovation came late last week, with word of the mall’s plan to join the Walk of Fame revolution. As early as this fall, pedestrians dodging early morning cars and trucks on the pedestrian mall will not unlike Vancouverites and Torontonians — and residents of Old Ottawa South — be able to properly look down upon prominent Canadians. Sparks Street is calling it the Walk of Canada. Details are to arrive this week via the Sparks Street website.

There’s already a logo and everything.

This walk, an article in a local newspaper reported, will not be like the others. The Walk of Canada will recognize people who have made a contribution to our city. And others, who have not. It will pay tribute to humanitarians rather than celebrities. And celebrities. It will not be like our Folk Walk of Fame. Though there may be some Bruce Cockburn content.

Indeed, the rather unfocused feature that declared Sparks Street’s latest plea for attention suggested the idea may not yet be fully formed. Contenders, including first recipient Max Keeping (a man who is indeed both famous and a humanitarian), are for the most part still with us and therefore may be able to attend the requisite ceremony that will accompany the unveiling of a tile sporting (wait for it) a personalized maple leaf. Again, not unlike other Canadian commemorative walks. Yet, names being bandied about for future walkability include Jack Layton and Stompin’ Tom Connors, two admittedly towering figures that are, alas, no longer with us. That, presumably, means populating the walk with past and present honourees, from Norman Bethune to Terry Fox to Steve Nash to Justin Bieber. So many names; so few blocks.

Fortunately, I work a few steps down the hall from the Sparks Street business office. So come with me now as I ask a few pertinent questions of Mr. Gagne — the man who plans to put the zip in Sparks Street, if you will. And the man who, with a committee of board members, staff and “maybe one or two outside people,” will decide which six or seven generous souls will be maple-leaved each fall.

“The big thing is we didn’t want to make it all about celebrity,” he assures us. “We wanted to make it about what people have done to help other human beings around the world and across the country, and in our own town. If they have celebrity status, great. I don’t think it’ll be a requirement.”

Ottawans, he adds, will be well represented; though, that too will not be a requirement. And he concedes that adding a politician — i.e., Jack Layton — to the honour roll could open a very partisan can of worms: “It may very well be we have to be careful. But there’s a certain degree of politics in all of these things.”

As for the ceremony, “We’d like obviously to have everyone present when they receive their maple leaf.” Dates may therefore need to be adjusted accordingly. The plan, though, is to announce honourees in the spring and leaf them come autumn.

It is, he enthuses, all part of bringing a bit of life to a city long given up for dead by the locals.

“The only thing that is going to allow people to keep thinking about Sparks Street,” Gagne suggests, “is the programming and the animation of the street. And as that grows, people will start thinking more and more about Sparks Street.

“I think by really animating the street and doing it organically, that’s where people are starting to say, ‘You know what? We’d like to expand the business that suits the programming they’re now doing.’ So now it complements as opposed to feeling artificial. You know, someone said we need a department store. Well, why do you need a department store? Just because the building’s there? This isn’t 1968 or 1972 anymore.”

It isn’t? Try telling that to the owners of the Green Dragon. Still, whether it’s Gagne’s enthusiasm or the mysterious presence of humans after dark, some of Sparks Street’s mad plan does indeed seem to be sticking. Maybe Sparks Street is not yet home to Ottawa’s “action.” But I’d be less reluctant today to direct German tourists there. Even after dark.

For now’s the time on Sparks Street when we dance.

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