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Creative Margins: Cultural Production in Canadian Suburbs

By Alison L. Bain

Review By Ginny Ratsoy

July 29, 2016

BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017  | p. 215-216

Alison Bain, an associate professor of geography at York University, begins Creative Margins with David Gordon and Mark Janzen’s assertion that “Canada is a suburban nation (3),” noting that our population, like that of the US and Australia, is decentralizing more rapidly than ever. Although the relationship between Australia’s suburban cultural spaces and artists’ creativity has been well documented, such has not been the case in North America.

After tracing the rise of Vancouver and Toronto as “world class” cities against the backdrop of the neoliberal movement to commodify urban culture, Bain makes a “pit stop” (27) at Arbour Lake, an outer suburb of Calgary where a cul-de-sac has been transformed into a communal creative and activist space. She then moves to the suburbs that form the bulk of her study — Etobicoke, Mississauga, North Vancouver, and Surrey — one example each in Ontario and British Columbia of inner and outer suburbs. Thus, those studying British Columbia receive both detailed information about the province and germane comparisons.

This logically organized book, written in an accessible style, is rich in fact and anecdote, making it engaging reading for varied audiences. It is the result of extensive interviews with cultural producers — practicing artists of virtually every medium, arts administrators, and cultural planners. Bain closely scrutinizes cultural spaces — from “top-down” suburban multi-purpose flagships constructed to mimic, and reproduce the effect of, their urban counterparts to “from the ground up” community centres generated by suburban cultural workers in less likely locations such as strip malls and head shops.

Bain dispels stereotypes of suburbs as cultural wastelands propagating conformity, mediocrity, and repression. Close to nature and city, suburbs offer isolation and community, rural simplicity and urban complexity. Cultural workers select these “spatial buffers” (104) for similar reasons as their neighbours: they offer quality and security — sufficient space at an affordable price. The other side of the suburbs as “nowhere” is the suburbs as frontier. To the cultural-worker-as-pioneer, suburbia’s limitations are challenges that encourage greater effort and community making.

However, Creative Margins acknowledges suburbia’s disadvantages. Some interviewees report isolation: connections with colleagues, audiences, resources, and venues may be in short supply. More critically, the aforementioned flagships, products of “civic elites” (149) damage their communities by focusing on branding and tourism in the service of business.

Bain provides compelling evidence that planners should shift efforts to promoting and sustaining creative practice within their communities. For example, Etobicoke’s Franklin Horner Community Centre, established in the 1980s, has a large intercultural membership, is a home for fifty-two groups as diverse as a narcotics anonymous chapter, a barbershop quartet, and various dance troupes, and aspires to be an arts teaching facility. North Vancouver’s Presentation House Arts Centre houses the non-profit Creative Dominion Society, which runs a multi-disciplinary creative-process facilitation program that fosters cross pollination and a program that provides select performers with free one-on-one feedback and an on-site public performance venue. Concluding that suburban cultural workers succeed with smaller projects that “embed the arts in everyday routines and spaces” (184), she encourages planners to foster community networks.

This welcome addition to the study of Canadian places will interest cultural practitioners and researchers, as well as urban and cultural planners and urban and small city researchers. Although not a textbook, Creative Margins should also attract those who teach social and cultural history more generally. I am struck by both Bain’s use of “margins” in the title and her characterization of suburbs as “places in a continual process of becoming” (5). Canada has frequently been similarly described; perhaps ours is a suburban nation in more ways than one.

Creative Margins: Cultural Production in Canadian Suburbs
Alison L. Bain
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. 294 pp. $32.95 paper.