Opinion
Mark Rendell

Keeping It Clean: Another Downtown Bench Gone

The City says it was too much work maintaining the latest vanished public seating. That doesn't bode well for big talk about civic revitalization

Another summer, another downtown bench unbolted from its concrete moorings and marched unceremoniously off to some storage room, far away from litter, cigarette butts and undesirable bottoms. This time, the bench in question stood outside Sutherland's Drugs until a few days ago, tucked into a shady nook on the corner of 50 St. and 50 Ave. And again, as in 2014 when the City removed the benches in front of the post office at the request of the building’s owners, the official reasons given for removal have to do with cleanliness and safety.  

“Every day we had to wash it down once or twice, everyday we had to remove liquor bottles,” says Dave Hurley, the City’s acting director of community services. “If I counted the number of liquor bottles we picked up, I could probably outdo the liquor store.”

By throwing in the towel on keeping a single bench clean, the City seems to be admitting a kind of operational defeat in regards to downtown revitalization.

This time around, it wasn’t in response to a request from a nearby business — “We came into work and it was gone. We had no input,” says Stephen Gwilliam of Sutherland's. But the City had received numerous complaints from people feeling unsafe around the bench, says Hurley, and staff had simply grown tired of moving sleeping bodies or cleaning up vomit, feces and garbage.

The move seems to have gone down with the street community exactly as you’d expect: poorly.

“It’s bullshit! Goodness, it’s summertime, there are tourists coming in, maybe they’d like a seat, have a sit down, have a lunch. It’s in the shade,” says Mimi Frost, sitting on the concrete ledge in front of the post office.“Is it because of natives around here? Is it because people are drinking? The whole city of Yellowknife is drinking. What’s the point in taking benches away?”

“There was a garbage bin there and they took that away too,” says Pauline Michel, standing across the street in front of the A&W. “So now we’re throwing butts and kleenex all over the place. What the hell else are we going to do with it?”

Both Frost and Michel pose some pretty compelling questions. Sure, it’s fair to empathize with the City employees — mostly summer students — tasked with the Sisyphean task of keeping the area clean, day in, day out. But, really, one has to wonder: what’s the point in removing another bench? It’s not like removing the ones in front of the post office did anything to prevent people from sitting there, sleeping there, you name it. It just made things less comfortable for people who often don't have too many comfortable things in their lives.

And while cleaning a bench may be an unenviable task, removing it seems like a clear case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. It ignores the role public architecture (or furniture, even) plays in revitalizing areas.

Municipalities have relatively limited tool kits to help bring ailing main streets back to full health. There's zoning, land acquisition, policing and tax breaks. Perhaps most importantly, there’s the ability to shape physical spaces to try to achieve certain public goods. Streetscaping, parks, public art, and yes, benches all play a significant role in drawing people, and potential customers for local businesses, into areas and shaping their behavior in those areas. For these things to be successful tools of revitalization, however, there needs to be the investment not only in the infrastructure itself, but also in the boring task of keeping it all clean and functional.

By throwing in the towel on keeping a single bench clean, the City seems to be admitting a kind of operational defeat in regards to downtown revitalization. And it calls into question, at least in part, whether folks at City Hall have the gusto needed to execute much larger streetscaping/public architecture projects for the sake of revitalization, like the one suggested last year for the empty City-owned 50/50 lot across the street. You can’t invest in downtown beautification and then remove it because it’s dirty or being used in ways that weren’t intended — at least you can’t while talking about revitalizing the downtown in any believable fashion.

Yes, this is only one bench. And there’s no doubt it sucks, being called in every day to clean the same space. But if the City isn’t willing to keep a single, solitary bench on the corner of 50/50 clean, how can the public be expected to take seriously any multi-million dollar schemes to beautify the downtown that may materialize again in the near future?