Photo of Shamez Amlani by Yvonne Bambrick.
Restaurateur, bike activist, and petanque enthusiast, Shamez Amlani is the most recognizable member of Streets are for People!, the organizing force behind Pedestrian Sundays Kensington. Amlani is a seriously playful advocate for car-free attitudes. Since the group’s first parking meter party in 2002, Pedestrian Sundays and other car-free statements have become a downtown tradition.
Torontoist spoke with Amlani over an espresso at La Palette, the French bistro he co-owns, where he shared his views on retrofitting the cityscape, the cultural mix that is Kensington Market, and how to deal with The Man.
Torontoist: What led you and the other Streets are for People! members to found the group, and how would you describe what you do—activism, lobbying, insurrection?
Shamez Amlani: We were sort of accidentally founded. I had this idea of doing something good for the world, and the idea was right over here in front of the restaurant: feeding the meter, and through that technicality, taking back some of those parking spots. It was just a one-off event. After that we put this vague idea out there to imagine a car-free neighbourhood. That was five years ago. We worked with different groups and got the official permit to close one block of Augusta Street for World Carfree Day that September. After that there were deputations at City Hall, and we did some surveying that led to people indicating that if we were to have no cars in Kensington, then Sundays would be a good day to do it. There are fewer deliveries, and people would understand that every once in a while things can be different in the Market. So we did that in 2004 for the first time, and it was once a week. By 2005 the city didn’t have any more funding for it, so we did it ourselves—we only did four, and it was spread out more. We finally hit it with this once-a-month thing. That way, merchants who don’t necessarily gain from it enjoy the cultural aspects of it and the public space becomes alive and vibrant, and it brings a lot of flair back into Kensington Market. So Streets are for People! was just one thing that we did.
Pedestrian Sundays, as an event, has proven popular, but these things have a way of petering out. How do you keep the momentum going?
We like to take a multi-tier approach. One tier would be using the pen and the computer, using your voice and making deputations, writing letters to councillors, and there are enough people advocating for that approach. But you have to work in spite of the system as well—you have to do things like get a car driven to the parking spot, cut it open, fill it with earth and plant a tree in it.
You have to be in-your-face, and we do in-your-face things like have a parade on Carfree Day because the city does nothing at all. We take 200 revelers down the street. It’s not an angry protest. It’s fun, it’s lively, it’s humourous, it speaks on many levels. You have to work in spite of the system, and sometimes The Man can’t do anything. When the city does nothing for Carfree Day and CityTV is showing it on TV, they didn’t want to look bad, so they just let us do it, without a permit or anything. You can make the revolution that way.
The third way is to work to spite the system. Because there are enough people working at City Hall on our behalf, and it’s good work they’re doing, but their voices aren’t being heard. Activists end up getting put on the payroll to talk about how the city should be run, but Ford and ExxonMobil are running the city, right? Not people, not citizens. So the third way is to be really in-your-face and take crow-bars and sledgehammers and fix places that are broken in the city, liberate trees, and have people who are spray-painting bike lanes where they should be. Hats off to them, because they’re fixing the city and showing City Hall how it should be done.
Photo of a Pedestrian Sunday by Miles Storey.
There’s been some grumbling about the impact of Pedestrian Sundays on Kensington Market, mostly about the lack of involvement in the decision-making process. Some people have characterized it as a closed shop—a clique that excludes anyone who doesn’t agree with the direction your group is taking in the Market. What’s your response to that?
It’s definitely changed from year to year. The first year we instigated Pedestrian Sundays we were smaller members of a larger group, the PS Kensington Working Committee. That was formed by the city, which brought in people for consultation. It was an ad hoc committee—there were a lot of local groups like KMAC, there were many people who would come out to public meetings, and the city councillor was involved as well. So Streets are for People! itself is just a smaller core member of a bigger group that helps to run this thing. The second year, 2005, and in 2006, there was a group of about 25 people that would meet once a month to figure things out. That group shrank, but it was always an open door. Any member of the public could come and they often did, which was a way of addressing lots of complaints. Anyone who could be bothered was invited. We’re certainly not a closed shop, it’s completely open. The whole idea is that now this top is already spinning. There is no organizing committee. We’re just getting used to once-a-month Sundays. Merchants have gotten into it, residents have gotten into it, people have figured out how to organize activities, and they’ve gotten to know their neighbours as a result, so they keep each other informed. The thing is more organic.
It’s become more self-organizing over the years?
Yeah. I was in New York City, and there’s a street called Orchard Street where every single Sunday there’s a pedestrian mall. There’s permanent signage and all the merchants spill out onto the street. There’s no insurance, no cops, no barricades. That’s not something I would find controversial about Pedestrian Sundays here. There are other things—for example, implications of permanent pedestrianization going hand-in-hand with words like “gentrification.” That’s where I would see controversy.
So what exactly are you going for with Pedestrian Sundays?
What we’ve been doing is trying to sell the model of Pedestrian Sundays, which itself has several parallels worldwide. One hundred cities in Italy have a thing called Ecological Sundays where different cities choose to do it once a month or once a season. There are things like that in Paris; in Bogotá, Columbia; in Brussels; all over Europe; all over South America. PS Kensington is the only festival that I know of that’s completely non-commercial, that’s sponsored by nobody. There’s no branding, there’s no bank handing out keychains, there’s no local real estate agency trying to bring in their hot air balloon, there’s none of that crap. Community ecology is one of the important things too, there’s a consciousness-raising element to it.
Top photo, of Streets are for People’s petition car, by David Topping; bottom photo, of Kensington’s garden car, by miss_michelle. Both from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
So it’s fair to say that Pedestrian Sundays Kensington is part of a world-wide movement that is trying to change how people understand urban space. How do you see Streets are for People! and PSK in the context of what other like-minded groups are doing, like Streets Renaissance in New York City or San Francisco’s Rebar?
One of the good results of the internet and globalized culture is that nobody lives in a bubble anymore, nobody is really isolated anymore. Something that happens in Halifax can have repercussions in Los Angeles or Toronto. Like those guys painting bike lanes—they’d already done that in Los Angeles, and now they’re doing it again. The internet’s not necessarily causing things around the world, it’s linking things around the world. In Sao Paulo, lawyers, activist, doctors, families came out and started painting bike lanes, and at first no one removed them. They even put up their own signage. They did it openly and in public, it wasn’t guerilla at all. As the city removed them, they put them back. Meanwhile in places like St. Petersburg, in Russia, it’s more underground. But things like that were happening all at the same time—for example, the Towards a Car-Free Cities conference was going on in Istanbul, in Turkey, where people sat around and gave thought to cycling infrastructure and implemented it themselves. Something like Carfree Day has proliferated to the point where there might be a car-free week or car-free days several times a year. What started out in one city has spread itself around to many places in the world, permanently. And beyond that, like I said, Ecological Sundays in Italy were happening at the same time we were doing Pedestrian Sundays.
How did Pedestrian Sundays spread to Baldwin Street and Mirvish Village?
We took the model of Pedestrian Sundays to Mirvish Village and Baldwin Village and they said they’d love to do it. In Baldwin Village, we had a one-pager outlining what we did in Kensington and asked if there was any interest in doing it there. There was an ad hoc committee formed with local players including the Chinese Presbyterian Church, local bar and restaurant owners, lots of local residents. With Mirvish Village the BIA was newly formed, and as soon as it got into the BIA’s hands there was a public meeting and everyone agreed it was a great idea. So there it was the BIA. And each one has a distinctive, different flavour. The whole idea is to go anywhere in the city and just get your neighbours’ consent, and on the Sundays that you choose, there are no cars in your neighbourhood. Get to know each other, have a block party, let your kids play hockey. It could be a residential street, a commercial street. In Baldwin Village it gave them a rich opportunity to explore the history of their neighbourhood, what makes it unique.
Are there any other neighbourhoods where you’re trying to get Pedestrian Sundays up and running?
We talked to the West Queen West BIA about Carfree Day this year, and for various reasons we couldn’t do anything. But the city has said that they might just take this model themselves and promote it to other parts of the city. Rather than spend millions of dollars to create car-free zones that might fail, you can for cheap or for free dip your toe in the water, so to speak, in different neighbourhoods, and they could choose whether or not they’d like to do it again.
Photo of a Pedestrian Sunday by Miles Storey.
Earlier you mentioned a link between pedestrian zones and gentrification. Are you thinking that a permanently car-free Kensington would become a twee tourist zone, with mimes and caricaturists? What would some of the problems be with a pedestrian-only Kensington Market?
The point is that in Kensington Market, on the days we do Pedestrian Sundays, there’s no doubt that cafés, bars, and restaurants gain. A lot of the clothing stores and some of the food stores break even, so it’s basically the same thing for them. For the fish mongers and the fruit sellers, the butchers—it does nothing for them. It hurts their business. They’ll tolerate it once a month, but to mess with their livelihoods when they’re the backbone of the Market would be a horrible thing to do. And to permanently pedestrianize a neighbourhood like Kensington Market, which is so rebellious, which has so much free spirit, where cycling the wrong way down Augusta Street is a new religion, where even though the streets are congested with cars the pedestrians rule—why would you sterilize that rebellious spirit and turn it permanently into a car-free zone, which would require a lot of money, a lot of infrastructure, a lot of strain on the merchants in the neighbourhood while you perpetuate SUV culture everywhere else, while you keep building sprawl? Just to put it as a jewel in your crown—and I think City Hall makes this mistake a lot—to say, “Look, we have a car-free zone that goes from nowhere to nowhere”? It could turn the neighbourhood into a stupid place with mimes, but even before that happened it would hurt a lot of people. Some people would gain a lot disproportionately and some people would lose a lot, and they’ve all been here for a long time. Why fuck with that? Why not go into a place that’s already gentrified, like Yorkville, like Queen and Spadina?
That brings us to the idea of retrofitting the city with pedestrians and cyclists in mind. How do you think we should go about reclaiming the city from cars and making it, as you say, for people?
It’s about paint application! And a mind shift we have to make. Do what you feel comfortable doing, but do something.
Photo of Amlani at Reclaim Earth Day by Miles Storey.
Is your approach best described as anti-car, or pro-human-powered vehicles…?
I don’t think we have to be afraid of being anti-car. And it’s not like people should get personally offended, like all those folks who are losing their jobs in car factories. All those years when the provincial government was giving billion-dollar handouts to General Motors to save jobs—had they built windmill factories and tricycle factories instead, we’d actually have places for those unemployed people to work. It could benefit all of us. Why are you giving billions of dollars to a private, for-profit company? Why is our tax money going straight to corporate handouts? We’re putting endless amounts of money and effort into a dying economy. People in Ontario die from bad air quality every year. It’s serious and it costs money, and it’s our taxpayer money that’s subsidizing that.
So is the problem the car per se, or the polluting internal combustion engine? Or do you see it as the economy itself, which is tied to oil consumption?
It’s all those things. We can’t wait for The Man to do the right thing because he’s behind by decades. As citizens, we have to figure out that perhaps eating locally makes sense, that it’s better to eat the pig that died 100 kilometers north of here. We have to set up infrastructures—like in Havana, where they’re farming downtown. We could do that. We can grow green roofs too. We can start thinking about what we put in us, about what we eat and how that makes an impact on the globe. We have to rethink the hyper-individualism of owing a 5000-pound car that sits out there where kids could be playing or dancing.
Photo of a Pedestrian Sunday by Miles Storey.
How do you put this approach to work at your restaurant, La Palette?
Green practices at the restaurant include using cargo bike, trike, and rickshaw to make food, wine, and beer deliveries. It’s no accident we’re in the Market. It was planned that way to be convenient and auto-free. In fact, although it’s not a requirement, not one of the restaurant staff owns a car—they all come to work using foot, transit, and bicycle.
Our cuisine is French, inspired by Canadian produce, mostly from Ontario and Quebec. We’re also expanding our repertoire of very local food, like Georgian Bay rainbow trout with a risotto that uses barley instead of rice and aged Ontario cheddar, served with a cranberry glaze—the cranberry adds the zing that you would usually use lemon for, making it strictly Southern Ontario. This is paired with some great local wines from the Niagara region. Speaking of wine, when the US started boycotting all things French—remember Freedom Fries?—I encouraged other French restaurateurs to boycott American booze. Although I miss American microbrews and bourbon, my Niagara wine sales have quintupled since La Palette stopped serving American wine the day they started bombing Baghdad.
“Think locally” is an green mantra, and Toronto, as a city, is preoccupied with the local. How do you see environmentalism playing out here, on a local level?
It’s a tough question. I do think that Toronto is lucky in that we’re still saying, “Give us your poor, your tired, give us your freaks, your punks, your fags, your artists, give us everybody from all of Canada who feels somehow out of place where they are and come to Toronto and be at home.” It happens to be a cultural crossroads of the world as well. Somebody described Toronto as being Vienna inside L.A. Perhaps that culture is more prevalent downtown, and the behemoth that is Greater Toronto, that is ever growing, is something else. Kensington Market is Amsterdam inside Vienna inside L.A. So it’s kind of a bubble. Certainly there are pockets in the downtown where there are ripe testing grounds for lots of intercultural things. I don’t know. But it is a barometer for other places. We have to work with City Hall and hope they can do the right thing even if they’re behind the times, and we have to fix or make our own neighbourhoods and make them be the most they can be.
Photo of a Pedestrian Sunday by Miles Storey.
Speaking of which, how is Kensington Market changing? As a Marketeer, a resident with a business here, you have a good perspective on a neighbourhood that is always fearful that it will change too much, or for the wrong reasons…
I see so many good things coming out of the Market. For starters, the fact that it’s got no corporate presence, and that’s it’s ma-and-pa shops, I think is great. I’m certainly concerned about things going corporate in the Market, but it’s hard to say where a neighbourhood’s going to go. Who could have guessed, when it was the storefront, ragtag, Jewish marketplace, the push-cart economy that started Kensington and turned it into what it is, that was going on 100 years ago—who could have guessed then that it would be the place all the Portuguese immigrants would call home? Then they moved west and opened the road for a lot of Latin Americans. And it’s also so close to Chinatown. It’s where hippies and punks and freaks can rub shoulders with millionaires and bump into rubbies of every age group.
It’s hard to say where it’s going to go. I hope for the best. A lot of people here have their finger on the pulse, concerned about bigger development pressures that are going on right now in the Market, and they are getting involved in the process of how that develops. Adam Vaughan is hopefully on our side when it comes to that. I think it’s always going to be a place where Torontonians and Canadians will look to as an indicator of the cultural heart of the country. People who don’t live in Kensington Market or work in Kensington Market or have anything to do with it call it a spiritual home—a spiritual home of artists and punk rock and loafers and whoever. You can come here for many reasons. It’s beyond your textbook diversity. So I can’t see where it might go. Anyone who gives a shit about the neighbourhood stays involved and helps to shape what it is.
So what’s new for PSK this season?
This is our fifth year doing Pedestrian Sundays, and it will be better than ever. The street opening will be expanded to include more parts of the neighbourhood. The first PSK, a spring celebration, has some great goings-on confirmed, including a fashion contest—25 dollars gets you 50 Kensington bucks to assemble an outfit and walk the catwalk. There will be a piñata for kids to pull apart, an unveiling of a plaque commemorating Kensington’s federal designation as a historic site. Leaders from the Jewish and Portuguese communities will be there, as well as the mayor and maybe some higher-ups. This will be followed by a parade through the historic streets, in the evening a flirty swing around a maypole will get the crowds in a festive mood. And of course, as usual, there’ll be plenty of food, games, live music, and other fun. As PS Kensington season continues, watch for more piñatas and parades, community debates, food events, walking labyrinths, free dance classes, and lots more. Check out the website for details as they come up.