Toronto district seeks audible harmony

Speakers attached to a lamppost on St. Clair Ave. West in the Corso Italia neighborhood in Toronto, Canada.

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: The main drag in any urban neighborhood is its moneymaker. So naturally, those areas are always trying to figure out how to make their moneymaker make more money. Beautification is a big part of it -- planting flowers, picking up trash. And in one little neighborhood in Toronto, Canada -- an area called Corso Italia -- the beautification is of a more audible variety.

Marketplace's Sean Cole just moved there, and he wanted us to hear the scenery.


Sean Cole: A day or two after I first moved here, I was strolling down the main drag in Corso Italia, St. Clair Avenue West. It's a real old-timey, Mediterranean-y marketplace with cafes and bridal shops and a gelateria. And I thought to myself "Wow, somebody's really pumping the music in their car. You can hear it everywhere." And then I looked around and realized, that's not a car.

["Next Plane Out" by Celine Dion playing from a lamp post speaker]

It's a lamp post. In fact, every lamp post for about six blocks has a speaker attached to it, playing the same song. We're talking about half-a-mile of unsolicited tunes, from eight in the morning to 11 at night.

[Opera music]

And I couldn't help wondering, who's DJ-ing this little dance party? Turns out it's an initiative of the Corso Italia BIA, or "Business Improvement Area." There are dozens of BIAs all over Toronto, each with its own board made up of local merchants.

Cole: Hi! Connie?

Connie Lamanna: Yes!

Cole: Great to meet you.

Connie Lamanna is the chair of our BIA. She also runs an upscale fabric shop around the corner from my apartment.

Lamanna: The speakers, which is something new in the city, we think we're the only ones to have this. That was an idea that I put forward.

Cole: You did?

Lamanna: I did.

And why?

Lamanna: I just thought, you know, why not? We need some atmosphere. We need something. You'll go into a mall and they'll have music in the mall.

Cole: Although St. Clair West isn't a mall.

Lamanna: Well, we're an outdoor mall.

Or at least a very dense commercial strip. And the BIA figured a few tunes might make shopping here more pleasant. They wanted to get the music going as soon as possible, so the board basically threw together a crazy mix tape from their personal CD collections.

Lamanna: So right now, it's a little bit ad hoc. You know, we just have an iPod there with everybody's music, you know, donated. So there isn't a program in place, but that's what we're working on now.

Cole: Wait. So all the music coming through the speakers comes from one iPod somewhere?

Lamanna: Yeah.

An iPod in a cupboard in the local Community Recreation Center. Still, Connie says the feedback's been great so far.

[Sound of door knock, door opening]

Richard Goddard: C'mon in.

Though she hasn't heard from the likes of my landlords: Nicola Luksic and Richard Goddard, a young, urban and professional couple, who've lived here for five months.

Nicola Luksic: I just don't understand why our lives need to be enhanced any more by outside stimuli.

Goddard: If it was something more complementary to the actual flair of the neighborhood maybe that would be better somehow.

Nicola Luksic: How 'bout silence?

[Goddard laughs]

Luksic: That would feel good.

I put this to Connie Lamanna.

Cole: Maybe some people would wanna just stroll down St. Clair unaccompanied.

Lamanna: Ah, they could do that. Side streets.

Cole: Side streets!

Lamanna: No, but I think we could also make it a little more gentler. So it's kind of a hum. Like I said, we're still working out the bugs.

And I would have pressed the issue further, but my landlords -- and frankly, I -- are roundly outvoted on this one. I walked up and down Corso Italia for an hour-and-a-half asking everyone I could about the music.

Donna Santoro: I love it.

Cole: You do!

Santoro: I do.

Aziz Doucheh: Hopefully, we can get a couple of nice lookin' girls dancing around. That would be nice.

Mike Bossa: We like it.

There were a couple of complaints. One woman gestured up to the speakers with her cigarette.

Connie Rapini: Well, we were actually just sayin', for having them there, they should be a little louder. You can't even hear them.

Cole: Louder?

Rapini: Yeah, you can't hear them.

Another woman was upset that the speaker outside her shop didn't work. And Connie Lamanna says this is what it's all about: People, in a busy, vibrant setting, having a collective experience.

Lamanna: If you improve a community, and if the business community does well where you live, your property, your livability, is better. If you have vacant stores with questionable businesses, your quality of life goes down. You don't want to go on a street like that -- that's dark and dingy and, you know, dull.

And while the music hasn't had a discernible dollars and cents impact on the neighborhood yet, Connie says other communities have asked about it. So who knows, maybe soon, more of Toronto will be beautified.

["Livin' Together" by the Bee Gees playing from a lamp post speaker]

In Corso Italia, Toronto, Ontario, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.

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