The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. - Marcel Proust
Last Saturday I discovered a great new neighbourhood. Again.
I took the kids on the six-block-walk to 118th Ave to experience the 'Rising Up’ Pop-Up Market. This annual event is a new initiative from the Alberta Avenue Business Association to drive customers to shop The Ave.
I’ve spent a lot of time on The Ave, but along only a small section of it – from The Carrot at 94th street and the four blocks orbiting that spot. Oh, and Batista’s Calzones, of course, way down on 84th street. But between 84th and 90th, I haven’t ventured far. But between 84th and 80th was right where the action was on Saturday.
My experience Saturday reminds me what makes Alberta Avenue uniquely beautiful. It’s not the artists–but the intangible quality that draws the artists in. It is down-to-earth humility. It is unassuming authenticity. It is interesting, kaleidoscopic diversity. It is cheap rent.
And so you find mom-and-pop shops that may not be sustainable in other places. Doors to these shops are most often closed, and the timid are unlikely to investigate. The timid like myself. For those of us on the outside of ethnic communities or specialty niches, the front door is a thin barrier reinforced by fear. Assumptions. Perhaps stereotypes. Or the unknown. But on Saturday, those doors were flung open.
Business owners set up tables to hand out business cards, free gifts and food samples. Ethiopian flat bread. Cooked cabbage. Delicious cake. Papusas. Spices. Fried rice. All so good. All so interesting.
This special day, shops are open for tours. The boxing club is nowhere near as scary–or dingy–as I imagined. I can almost picture myself wandering inside another day to watch two trainees sparring in the practice ring.
I discover a tailor, and if I need a tailor, why not this local option? I look into the long, crowded corridor of the cobbler, who must have been in this space for decades. I have friendly conversations with the owners of the hip-hop clothing store, where I’m not likely to shop due to personal style choices.
The kids feel welcome and safe. They have fun. There are balloon animals. My son gets an elaborate alien, propped on his shoulders in a permanent piggyback. There is free face painting.
Then there is one standout moment.
Ahead of a line up of kids, two men, looking homeless, are getting their faces painted. Most adults would at least wait for the kids to go first, since this tent is clearly for kids. Most face painters would politely tell these men to wait their turn, or that there is no turn for them here. But not on The Ave. On The Ave, these men get their faces painted. Free. Just like everyone else. And they are having fun.
This festival is not flashy. It is not that impressive, except for the roving mariachi band and the young, long-haired busker tap dancing over a looped guitar riff. The kids and I have a great time. Likely the best time of any festival this summer so far. We feel comfortable. We feel home.
The Avenue is not tidy. It is not commercialized. It is not big-boxed or hipsterized. It may be all of those things one day. But today, it is a place where a man can still fix shoes for a living. Today, on Alberta Avenue, you can share free pancakes with folks heading to the Hope Mission later on. And then with a young couple who have just moved into the neighbourhood for the positive vibe.
Alberta Avenue is ragged, diverse and surprising. It is beautiful and inspiring. It is authentic and refreshing. It is aware of it’s brokenness and full of a real, hardy hope for healing. And that, I think, is why Jesus likes it here so much. It is a bit like the Kingdom coming.
Alberta Avenue is a place where, thanks to Saturday’s event, I’ll be doing more business.