My icy attitude towards the ‘burbs began to melt one wintery Friday evening as I stepped into the Robert McLaughlin Gallery for the first time. I had heard that there was a nice gallery in downtown Oshawa, but I didn’t really believe it. (Okaaay, city snob.) What brought Wes, my husband, and I to the locally dubbed “RMG” was the launch party of an online ‘zine playfully called OshaWhat. We walked in from the cold night, and I immediately felt my perspective shifting. “Hmm, nice space!” I was in a modern, light-filled, beautiful gallery, with not a whiff of box-store or strip-mall architecture. The vibe was . . . well, it was buzzing with conversation, music, glasses clinking, and people (kids included) enjoying the art and the space itself. Wes saw some old friends from high school, and I even met someone I had previously known only from Twitter. Assumptions were being reassessed. Fun was being had. I was enjoying myself and wanted more.
I discovered that I could do this every first Friday of the month as part of RMG Fridays. Better yet, I soon learned that the Whitby Station Gallery had an event in the summer called Wave, which was similar, just with an outdoor patio and a little more intimate.
These two events are now a regular fixture in our life. They are a part of our “happiness formula”. But WHY do they make us happy?
As Charles Montgomery proposes in his book, The Happy City, “If you accept the key message from happiness science, which is that absolutely nothing matters more than our relationships with other people”, then the answer to my question can be found in the spaces and events where people – family, friends, and complete strangers – connect, such as the family dinner table, the volunteer crew of a local charity, a place of worship, or the city gallery.
The problem is that our lives are so dispersed out here in the ‘burbs; we hardly have the time to make these connections. We spend so much time in our cars for work, our activities, and even getting to our friends’ houses, that we have little time left over for eating together, chatting with our neighbours, volunteering, or chance friendly encounters with strangers. The result is that we trust people less, and this social poverty makes us unhappy.
Montgomery calls suburban sprawl “the dispersed city”. More so than high-density urban centres, this is the modern city; we have to accept this fact. So, he says, “the journey to the happy city must begin out here, in the landscape of the infinitely repeated form, on the plains of dispersal.”
The roots of a healthy social network are like a tree, dense at the middle, and then get thinner as they spread out to other contacts. What we are developing in the dispersed city is a social network that closes tightly around spouses, kids, and parents, with fewer strong roots stretching out. Family is important, but Montgomery points out that “every arborist knows that that a tree with a small root-ball is more likely to fall over when the wind blows.”
No doubt urban planning can and must address this dispersal, but what can the individual person do? We can’t wait for the next municipal planning cycle to fix our happiness. Rather, we need to get out and explore. When we find a gem of an event or initiative, we need to go regularly and mingle with strangers, invest the time that we do have, and invite friends to share our discovery.
Erin Elliott, Communications Director at the Station Gallery, captured this phenomenon in action when I asked her to describe the social scene at the Wave. “Wave is an awesome night for us because it brings in totally different parts of our community. We see fans of the musicians, we see neighbours stroll over from the condos across the street, we see our donors, Town councillors, parents of kids at summer camp looking for a night out… a real mix of our community. It’s nice to have cold drink and some amazing food in such a unique atmosphere: you can sit inside a historic building and chat with friends, look at the art, meet our Curator and ask him questions, or you can sit in the open air and just enjoy the tunes. People come for the vibe and to socialize in an environment that’s classy, but totally relaxed and casual at the same time. It’s just hard to find those spaces anymore”.
Ready to (re)connect with family, friends, and strangers? Here are some more details on my personal faves, plus one exciting new opportunity:
Thursday, July 24: Wave @ the Station Gallery Patio
Bring a date or a gang of friends to enjoy music from Tim Watson and Heather Luckhart, gourmet nibbles, and cold drinks on the patio next to the boxcar. $10
Friday, August 1: Country Cottage Weekend @ the RMG
This time the RMG Fridays event travels outside of the gallery. Bring a lawn chair and enjoy the summer evening air! RMG is partnering with the Oshawa Public Library to bring local psychedelic country act, Billard Blossom, and melodic singer-songwriter, Sacha. Expect a summer cottage atmosphere complete with face-painting, balloon twisting, canvas tote bag printing and much more! In the event of rain, RMG Fridays will be held indoors. FREE
And one more I’m really excited about . . .
September 19-27: Oshawa Space Invaders
The second year of this arts festival will invade the vacant commercial spaces and parks of Oshawa with visual art, installations, music and other entertainment. It’s free, too. (They need volunteers y’all.)