Victoria Park is one of the most idyllic public places in Waterloo Region, a waterfront sanctuary in an Ontario city uncharacteristically far from the Great Lakes. In the middle of the park sits a restaurant called The Boathouse. It features a cozy interior and an exterior patio complete with Muskoka chairs and shaded picnic tables, where patrons enjoy fancy food and specialty beverages, and a fine view of the park.
Yet, all of this shouldn’t be. As citizens in a democratic society, we have a right to true public spaces.
Full disclosure: I have, on plenty of occasions, enjoyed the privilege of drinking cold craft beer while sitting in those laid-back chairs. And what a privilege it is! Delightful. But this past summer, on my many strolls through the park, I gazed upon the revellers in that demarcated space and couldn’t help but feel a certain uneasiness.
One of the defining characteristics of a public space is that it is open to any demographic, a place where anyone can go to relax, to spend time with others, or even to protest. Unlike private spaces, where our presence requires an explanation or a purchase, we can feel free to spend a day in public spaces—like parks—without fear of being bothered to move along.
Further, public spaces are those rare spaces where one finds refuge from the consumerist messages that saturate day-to-day life. These messages try to convince us to keep buying new things and new services, lest we miss out on living a meaningful and up-to-date life. One of consumerism’s most persuasive tools is the promise of social status, artificial as it may be, for those who can afford it. Many aim to escape this bombardment of information in public spaces like Victoria Park, which offer some reprieve from the cacophony of voices trying to sustain the endless cycle of production and consumption.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, restricting private enterprise in public space helps make genuine political concern—the actual opinions of individuals and groups—distinguishable from the interests of private enterprise, which can usually be boiled down to profit.
All this political theory leads to the main problem with The Boathouse: its location, smack dab in the middle of Victoria Park. Not at the edge of the Park, but within the public realm itself, sits this upper middle class restaurant where those who can afford it enjoy the privilege of fancy chairs, fancy food, and most surprisingly, fancy alcohol.
Here is the marketing of consumerism in one of the few places that it’s not supposed to be: public space. And, naturally, its presence is busy creating class distinctions. When we stroll past the patio we realize that certain park visitors can afford luxury, and others cannot. We are not equal, and suddenly we feel as if we’re missing out, as if our visit to the park is somehow incomplete without spending money.
The consumption of alcohol in this privileged patio is especially concerning because, as we all know, alcohol is strictly forbidden or regulated in public spaces. Considering that the patio is separated by a mere three-foot high ornamental fence, and that tipsy patrons exit essentially into the park, it is a contradiction to say that one is allowed to consume alcohol here but not there.
Victoria Park could be an oasis of public space in a city that, by and large, doesn’t have much of it. Yet, it presents an unusual contradiction, one that may not seem so nefarious at first glance—it is, after all, just a restaurant. But, considering its profit-interested mandate, and its capacity to create class distinctions, I propose sober thinking about the whole enterprise. What is good public space? What makes a park special? Because of its location, when we gaze upon The Boathouse, we encounter more than just another restaurant. Rather, we encounter yet another opportunity for consumption, demanding our time and money, offering a forbidden fruit in the park. All it takes is a little cash, then, to have a special seat with the pretty view. Need another drink?
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