Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Town and City, Fairs and Exhibitions

Continuing from my thoughts about agricultural landscapes, I've been thinking about the places where agriculture intrudes directly into the city. From the point of view of Ottawa, and with the obvious exception of the Farm, the various branches of the Ottawa Farmers' Market are perhaps among the places where city dwellers contact farmers most directly.

Historically, while acknowledging the importance of the various traditional markets in Ottawa (the Byward and Parkdale being the two currently extant, though the Byward doesn't have a requirement for local produce) and the newer trend of Farmers' Markets, there's another site in the city that has hosted agricultural events: Lansdowne Park. In particular, Lansdowne Park used to be the site of the Central Canada Exhibition and the Ottawa Winter Fair, among other events.

 I'm not going to speak about the current redevelopment of Lansdowne past noting that neither of these exhibitions currently run and to further point out that the CCE had become less and less an agricultural event with its focus turning ever more increasingly towards the midway and concerts. (The CCE is officially on "hiatus" during the redevelopment of Lansdowne.)

I grew up in a town about 350 kilometres west of Ottawa and 150 km northeast of Toronto (by road, that is). We lived less than a block from the fair grounds and every September was marked by growing excitement as more and more motorhomes started to fill the northeast corner of the grounds, marking the coming of the annual county fair. Officially, the fair was only for the town as many of the villages and townships of the county had their own events, but being the county seat and only town meant we had the biggest midway and best events, like the ever popular demolition derby. (The villages also have some memorable events, for example, hay bail rolling competitions.)

The reason for the personal anecdote is that when I first moved to Ottawa ten years ago and had conscious understanding of the CCE (or "SuperEX" as locals call it), I was struck that it was missing the best parts. Yes people could watch the Rolling Stones from trees across the Canal, and yes the Midway was bigger than what I was used to, but where were the cows? The horse shows? The 4H demonstrations, arts and crafts competitions, and everything else that I had come to associate with the fair growing up.

It strikes me (and without much evidence) that demographics and geographic realities play a roll in defining whether you have (to put it crudely) a fair or an ex, that the urban population could probably care less (or perhaps be horrified by) which grocery store bought which cow in the barns, as signified by the chalk markings on their flanks. The context of the event seems to be an important determining factor in its content.

While not all urban fairs and exhibitions in Ontario's cities have eschewed their agricultural roots, with the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto being the most well known exception, I still find the subject fascinating and am excited to dive into it more in the coming years.

Note: This is based less on research, of which I've conducted but a little, but more on my feelings and experiences of Toronto and Ottawa in comparison to what I grew up with.