After nearly two years fenced off, Cabot Square, or as many know it, that park you run through to catch your connecting night bus at Atwater, is open to the public once again. It looks different, and by all indications, it will be different than what it was before.
As someone who, for years, saw this space as a stopover on my way home but now lives very close to it, I am definitely interested in what it has become and what it will be. More importantly, what will happen to the largely homeless native people who lived in the park for years?
On The Surface
The new Cabot Square, located between Atwater and Lambert-Closse, Ste-Catherine and Tupper, feels bigger. The sidewalks surrounding it, where people wait for busses, seem wider. There are also plenty of new bus shelters around the square.
A good portion of the park is now paved with stones gelled together and treated to form a somewhat smooth surface for walking or cycling. There are new benches, some standing alone and some integrated into decorative concrete dividers.
As for actual nature, it is somewhat sparse. Islands of grass and other sorts of vegetation surround the trees in the park. There is also a garden of flowers and other plants covering most of the south of the square, right up to the sidewalk.
The entrance to Atwater Metro (via tunnel to Alexis Nihon) is where it always was. The small kiosk that was once a restaurant on the northwest corner is now being called the Vespasienne and will be used again in the redesign.
There are also water fountains, a giant chess board, freestanding historical slide viewers and free WIFI. In the brief time I was able to check things out yesterday, it felt like there really was life in the park.
The revamped Cabot Square will play host to cultural activities, quite a few of them, in fact. There will be swing dancing, yoga classes, movie nights and even Shakespeare in the Park.
I’m trying to imagine catching a flick or enjoying the Bard as people wait for or run for their bus just meters away and coming up short. This is, after all, a major transportation hub, day or night. I also wonder how yoga can work in a space that isn’t exactly the mountain or even a regular park but rather a glorified large traffic island downtown with people criss-crossing through it all the time.
That’s the skeptic in me speaking. I honestly hope it works. The city is looking to host three such events a day, so maybe they know something I don’t.
First Nations Included
This project initially seemed like gentrification designed to evict native people who had been living in the park for years. They will not be excluded; at least that’s the plan.
Friday night is aboriginal night in the cultural programming of the square. There will also be soapstone carving workshops.
Meanwhile, half of the Vespasienne will be a coffee shop called the Roundhouse Café run by L’Itinéraire and employing homeless and at-risk people. The other half of the building will serve as an office for an outreach worker to help natives in the park going through difficult times.
Making this happen was a bit of an uphill battle at times. Nakuset Shapiro of the Native Women’s Shelter told CKUT’s Native Solidarity News (Cabot Square discussion starts at 46 minutes) how the city needed to be encouraged and assured that this support plan would work.
Regardless of what brought us here, Cabot Square is now re-open and it promises to be an interesting addition to Shaughnessy Village and the city in general as well as a development that respects the people who frequented the original park.
Will that turn out to be the case? Time will tell. For now, all I can tell for sure is that now we can once again cut through the park to catch a bus.
* photos by Jason C. McLean