Mess Is in the Eye of the Beholder
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Mess Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Earlier this week, the Annex Gleaner reported that the Bloor Annex Business Improvement Area intended to end the prolific postering of the stretch between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue with specially made light pole covers that are supposed to repel both tape and staples.
Just like digital locks on CDs could never stop determined pirates, it’s almost certain that some street hacker will figure out a way to affix a poster to these supposedly poster-proof sheathes. It’s almost as if the BIA is challenging them to find a way.
Still, coming on the heels of the ongoing debate surrounding Rob Ford’s plans to expunge all traces of spray paint and sharpie marker from Toronto, the announcement by the Bloor Annex BIA raises concerns over the sterilization of the city’s surfaces. Not only is a certain amount of messiness and visual clutter to be expected in any city of a certain size, but it should be welcomed as a sign of vibrancy—to a point, of course.

Dylan Reid, in a piece from the Summer 2010 issue of Spacing titled “Bless this Mess,” wrote about Toronto’s messy urbanism, noting that it is the city’s hodge-podge of architectural styles and general visual disorderliness that makes it so appealing. Posters and flyers contribute to this messy urbanism by cluttering our visual landscape. As Reid says, “The instinct for order and beauty has its place; the problem comes when it is dominant. It needs to be constantly challenged and questioned by the push for vibrant messiness.”
Consider this ideal against a city like Vancouver, where posters are corralled into specially designed poles and removed every Tuesday afternoon. Vancouver’s manicured streetscapes lose some of that explosive spontaneity that can be found in Toronto.
Designated postering spots are coming to Toronto too, albeit slowly. The City drafted a bylaw restricting posters and flyers in 2006, but enforcement has been lax and will continue to be so until enough official posters boards and columns, provided by Astral Media, are installed around the city. A June 2010 report by the City [PDF], requested by Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) noted that 261 posters boards and thirty-four columns have been rolled out, but they are insufficient for the bylaw to be fairly enacted. Eventually, Astral Media will roll-out two thousand posters boards and five hundred columns across the city.

Postering and flyering have long been used not just by businesses, but also by citizens to advertise services, support political causes, or simply make announcements to their community. Today, when much of the community message board’s function has moved online to sites like Craigslist and Kijiji, it’s refreshing to walk down the street and see someone advertising their ugly, thirty-year-old couch, or their services as a piano teacher. If these anti-poster sheathes are put up all over the Annex—and if they spread elsewhere in the city— how will certain notorious gay porn websites, without the lure of those hot pink posters, entice men aged nineteen to twenty-six to audition? Won’t someone think of the porn?
No, not all posters are works of art. In fact, many are poorly designed, grammatically incorrect, written in Comic Sans bold, and rife with incorrectly used quotation marks and italics—but they are part of the neighbourhood. Posters are not just a form of community expression, but a sign of a lively, exciting place to live, of a city that has stuff going on and things to do and people with opinions to share. This city’s posters are like weeds: you can keep removing them one at a time, but they will sprout back if you don’t get at the root. And if the root is a community’s desire to express itself, do we really want to destroy that?
Posters and flyers can be found at varying degrees all across the city, but perhaps the best case is on St. George Street on the University of Toronto campus, where the posters cause light poles to bulge out in the middle, giving them the appearance of snakes who have only half-digested their meals. When was the last time these poles were stripped of their wheat-pasted second skins? One has to wonder at the layers of cultural history plastered to them. Peeling them back, one by one, would be an archeological dig uncovering concerts, roommates needed, and political rallies of days-gone-by. Imagine those same poles sans posters, empty and exposed and naked in their slimness.
There are worse things than a little mess.