Street Legal

by Maggie Helwig

Maggie Helwig has published six books of poetry, two books of essays, a collection of short stories and three novels, Where She Was Standing (ECW Press, 2001), Between Mountains (Knopf Canada, 2004), and Girls Fall Down (Coach House Books, 2008). A human rights activist as well as a writer, she has worked for the East Timor Alert Network in Toronto, the Women in Black network, and War Resisters’ International. She lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.

In a small park near the street, a buried tape recorder broadcasts the voice of a man reading poetry, and people cluster around it, kneeling with their ears to the ground, so they can listen. In the Don Ravine, another poet reads to a group of people eating at folding tables, as bats and swallows fly around him at sunset. In the allotment gardens in High Park, we sit on the ground and eat potato chips and read texts about fear and death and strangeness, or climb trees and drop twigs down onto the heads of the readers.

Beside St. James Cathedral, hundreds of people gather, chanting “We are the 99 percent,” and they set up tents, and they stay for 40 days, cooking and serving hot meals, meeting and talking, performing, arguing, having psychotic breaks, producing political manifestos, and the attention of the city spins around us. There are young activists and political veterans; there are people who have no home except this park; there are artists and teachers and nurses, people who visit and people who stay, and kids who’ve given up their jobs and apartments to be here. Some people from the city bring sleeping bags and blankets, some people demand police action, some people walk big white fluffy dogs through the mud as a gesture of solidarity. For 40 days no one is sure if all this is legal or not, or who owns the space, or what the space means.

Carrying a baby in my arms, I come with a small group to plant a garden in Queen’s Park, and everyone is immediately arrested. Fifteen years later, I come back with a different group. This time, the garden is allowed to grow for almost the whole summer, and I water it through the summer and make green tomato chutney from our tomato plants, but just before the fall harvest, it is destroyed by city workers, who apologize for what they’ve been told to do. The next year we plant again, but the garden is dug up and covered over right away with grass seed, and we scrape it off and try to plant again. We put up a sign that says, “No garden is illegal,” but the city does not agree. By the third year the garden is nearly erased, but its outline is clearly visible in the grass, and herbs and garlic and onions keep breaking through, indomitable.

On a large flat rock in a city park by a housing project, I break consecrated bread, which we have just baked in the outdoor bread oven, while Krista swings incense in a thurible. In another park, in the basin of a dry wading pool, we bless dogs and cats and plastic toys. We eat honey and almond butter, and tomatoes harvested from a rackety little garden at the side of a church, a garden without fences.

Who owns the space for poetry, for protest, for gardens, for prayer? Who owns the space where people sleep when they have nowhere else to go? Who owns the walls where people paint? Who owns the park? Who owns the street? It is odd, perhaps, that my literary and political and church work have all kept coming back to this question, orbiting around it—that whatever I do, I keep wandering into public spaces and testing their boundaries.

“ ‘No garden is illegal.’ ”

Privilege buys space. Because I can spend money if I want to—and because I am visibly a person who can spend money if I want to—I am given access to the spaces of malls, coffee shops, cultural institutions. Because I am—and because I look—white, middle class, and educated, because I am able-bodied and my social behaviour is more or less typical, I can walk undisturbed through university buildings, hotel lobbies, banks, office towers, courtrooms, hospitals.

This is, of course, when I walk on my own or with someone much like myself. When I go into public space with my autistic teenage daughter, things change, and I must expect obstacles, suspicious or hostile looks and comments; I must expect all interactions to be more difficult; I must expect that sometimes we will be told to leave a space because she is troubling other people. But still, we are white, I speak English well, our clothes are clean, I have cash if I need it, and there are always places we can go. We are not nearly as marginalized as we might be. We have more space than many.

If you do not have money or privilege, the space that you are allowed to occupy in a city can become very small. A public library, for a while. Maybe a church, if you can find one that’s open. An overcrowded shelter, during the night. A park, if it’s not in a “nice” neighbourhood. In Toronto, a ravine sometimes. Or the street, always the street, the semi-legal omnipresent street.


You can try to regulate the street, but the street will defeat you. It will defy all principles. It is a mess. It is commerce and traffic, social space and criminal space, a space where people weep and walk and fight and sleep, sit down to rest, play music badly, sell things on bits of cloth, hand out flyers, wait for enlightenment. The street is corrupt and violent, creative and utilitarian, and it is the last place you can be when you can be nowhere else. It is as complex as the wilderness, but it is a wilderness created by our own desires and delusions. People with privilege mostly pass through this wilderness without paying much attention. Some people can do that, if they choose. But others cannot. Some pay attention because they must; and those who could choose otherwise must learn this attention, too.

“You can try to regulate the street, but the street will defeat you.

And so it is into the parks, and the ravines, and, most of all, the street that poetry and prayer and protest have to go, with the outcasts and the passers-by. To intervene. To step into the chaotic flow of energies and try to move, to create currents which run against violence and commercial exchange. To play a part in the strange evolutions of our common life, we must play it, at least in part, in the streets.

So I will say first, go and find the street. Learn the street, with humility and care. Work in the street, and let the street work on you.

And maybe you will bury a tape-recorder in a park, and someone will come and listen to the voice from under the ground, and this may or may not change a thing. But it will be a part of the city’s body.


Maggie Helwig has published six books of poetry, two books of essays, a collection of short stories and three novels, Where She Was Standing (ECW Press, 2001), Between Mountains (Knopf Canada, 2004), and Girls Fall Down (Coach House Books, 2008). A human rights activist as well as a writer, she has worked for the East Timor Alert Network in Toronto, the Women in Black network, and War Resisters’ International. She lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.

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