Please look away from the spikes

Taste being subjective, maybe you like the puzzle piece crosswalk and wall art at Yates and Douglas, or maybe you don’t. Or maybe you really don’t like it, because the crosswalk art makes it hard for some people to know where the roadway begins. I’m not going to critique the art as art, but I will judge the project’s goals.

“stART on Douglas” project at Douglas and Yates. 

stART on Douglas” project at Douglas and Yates. 

The art is part of a $180,000 project that was supposed to “bring vibrancy to one of downtown’s busiest intersections” and “restor[e] Douglas Street as one of downtown’s grand avenues.” Much like the chairs in Odeon Alley, the art is an exercise in pretending Victoria’s downtown is a fun, welcoming place for everyone to enjoy. The art might even draw your eyes away from the multiple attempts to police and exclude people from the same space. Hiding in plain sight next to the art are security cameras; signs telling people they’re not welcome; and metal bars and spikes designed to keep anyone from sitting down. 

Spikes, signs, and security cameras at 1280 Douglas. Bonus defensive architecture: the window ledges on the second floor have spikes, but they’re for birds, not people.

Spikes, signs, and security cameras at 1280 Douglas. Bonus defensive architecture: the window ledges on the second floor have spikes, but they’re for birds, not people.

If the art was supposed to welcome people to downtown Victoria, it’s hard to justify the signs at 1280 Douglas telling people that loitering is forbidden. No trespassing, soliciting, or camping, either.

Sign and spikes at 1280 Douglas: “Private Property No Camping No Trespassing No Loitering No Soliciting.

Nobody was ever going to camp on those narrow ledges, with or without spikes, so the signs are clearly referencing the sidewalk. But sidewalks are public space. If the sidewalks don’t belong to the building, then why is the building policing them? I’m told there are some buildings on Yates where the property line extends up to two feet into the sidewalk, so perhaps they do own a little chunk. But these signs don’t say “no camping, trespassing, loitering, or soliciting on the two feet next to our building,” and most people won’t know about the possible distinction. At best, it’s fake public space: you think you’re on a public sidewalk, only to be told that loitering there could be an offence, and you’d best move along.

The signs quote B.C.’s Trespass Act and threaten arrest if you break the rules. My reading of the law (note: I’m not a lawyer) is that if you loiter, solicit, camp, or “trespass” on the sidewalk beneath this specific sign – or perhaps two feet away – you are not trespassing. You can still be made to leave, because the city’s anti-homeless bylaws don’t allow “squatting, kneeling, sitting, or lying down” on downtown sidewalks between 8:00 am and 9:00 pm. But if you’re not on the building’s property, wherever the line might be, I don’t think you’re trespassing.* These signs could mislead people into thinking that if they’re close enough to read the signs, then they must be on private property. Implying that public space is private is a ridiculous encroachment on people’s right to be in the world.

While 1280 Douglas may have been the first building at Yates and Douglas to block their ledges – they’ve been doing it for at least 68 years – they’re not the only ones in the window-ledge-policing game. Right across the street, the Bank of Montreal’s spikes put those at 1280 Douglas to shame. In a vain attempt to protect their fat stacks and make BMO great again (#MBMOGA), the bank has redesigned itself over the years to look like a fortress. I take it the planters weren’t enough to keep people off their ledges, so it’s a good thing they added metal fences, and spikes for days.

Defensive planters and spikes at the Bank of Montreal.

The art at Yates and Douglas tells you to look at the pretty colours as you walk past spikes designed to harm human bodies. But all the art in the world won’t change the fact that Victoria has been designed to exclude certain people. Archival photos show that before the Bank of Montreal got scared, the building looked a lot better. Grander, even. If the city wants a “vibrant” and “grand avenue,” they should reflect on whether or not spikes, cameras, and threats of arrest should be part of that vision.

*If I’m missing something about how B.C.’s trespassing laws apply to sidewalks outside a building’s property line, please get in touch.

Stephen Harrison