Saturday, December 4, 2010

Welcome to Maple Leafs Square! (Post #1)

"Who controls the natural and built environments? Whose designs are adopted and naturalized? Whose meanings gain prevalence and whose benefits are maximized? What parties are in contention on these issues, and what are the stakes for these struggles as well as the outcomes? What processes empower or disenfranchise different groups in these processes?"

- Ann Tickameyer from "Space Matters! Spatial Inequality in Future Sociology." Contemporary Sociology. Vol 29, no 6, 811. (page 17 of the course kit)

This is Maple Leafs Square, the new area built right outside the Air Canada Centre. If you Google "Maple Leafs Square", the first description reads "Maple Leaf Square is a unifying place, connecting people through passionate, pure experiences". While I don't believe this is untrue, I think there is much more to the story. Maple Leafs Square is primarily owned and operated by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, better known as MLSE, or, to most Toronto fans, the money-sucking company that owns Toronto sports teams. Lanterra Developments and Cadillac Fairview are also managing and developing partners.

Before Maple Leafs Square existed, there was nothing. The iconic pillars were surrounded by a parking lot and it was rather clumsy looking for such a nice new arena.

The space is technically private but is meant to act as a public space when sports are involved. At the start of this NHL season, the NHL held what it called "Premiere Week" with a slew of games across Europe to attract their out-of-market fans. Back on this continent, they held a huge "kick-off" party at Maple Leafs Square with literally thousands of fans - the capacity is 5,000 - screaming as Hedley played a few tracks prior to the puck drop just 50 feet away inside the Air Canada Centre.

But we can only kick off a season once a season, so what about the other days? Maple Leafs Square is home to a variety of enterprises, including Real Sports Bar & Grill, Hôtel Le Germain and e11even (MLSE's very recently opened high-quality eatery) as well as the Maple Leafs Square Condominiums.

Real Sports Bar & Grill was recently named North America's Best Sports Bar by ESPN, which the pride and economic equivalent of winning a Grammy and then signing a 3-album deal on the same night due to the sheer number of sports bars in a gastronomically obsessed country like the United States (the home country of ESPN). I personally follow Real Sports on Twitter where they do a very good job of interacting with their followers and constantly post pictures of what's happening inside the restaurant and what that night's events are. I've also been there to eat and I can say, it's a great place to watch the game even though I found the chicken wings to be good but nothing mind-blowing. The Hôtel Le Germain literally opened up in the past few days (as of November 18th). From the website, the pictures look rather nice but I think it's more about the experience than anything else. e11even also opened this past week and despite its proximity to Real Sports, they cater to a pricier clientele. A quick comparison of the menus reveals most items at e11even are between $5-7 more than at Real Sports.

So we have a mix of residential space (which based on location and other factors is relatively expensive), as well as two eateries - both of which have received a lot of media coverage - and a downtown hotel right next to a stadium owned by one of the most profitable companies in North American sports and Torontonians are supposed to be happy about a new space for them to enjoy the game? I would have say no but according to the Toronto Sun, that's exactly how they felt during the kick off game. They felt like "true fans" while those inside were just the "suits"; considering tickets went for $300 each and watching the game outside was free, I can see that argument but what about when it gets cold? Will people still be willing to brave the elements to watch the game on a giant screen or will they go grab a beer and a burger inside a warm restaurant while Maple Leafs Square remain an empty shoveled piece of pavement with Maple Leafs symbols painted on the ground? I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Maple Leafs Square Condominiums + Restaurants (Post #2)

"There is especially true of the antoganism between the rich or the so-called cultured class and the poor or the servant class, which try to obstruct and destroy each other. It is this contrast which, according to Plato, gives the 'city' its dual character and makes it divide in itself."

- Ferdinand Tönnies from "Community and Society," in Jan Lin and Christopher Mele (eds.), The Urban Sociology Reader. New York: Routledge, 20. (pg. 117 of course kit))

As I mentioned, there is also a condo building there called Maple Leafs Square Condominiums. As imagined, these condos are pretty expensive - they range from $289k for a 484 square-foot 1 bedroom to a $900k 2 bedroom/2 bath 1,235 sq. ft. unit - and considering the location, I would venture a guess to say it's mostly young professionals who live there. Assuming this is true, having the Real Sports Bar and e11even literally right underneath makes a lot of sense. It caters to the clientele of its residents, not to mention the surrounding downtown area, and of course it will attract spectators flowing out of the ACC after games or potential spectators who couldn't land tickets but who don't want to stand outside in the cold watching the giant screen.

From MLSE's standpoint, this translates into a very lucrative cash flow that will fall right into their already fat pockets. From a equal society point-of-view, this is kind of embarassing and really puts sports at the centre of a much bigger issue. Sports are meant to be watched and enjoyed by any fan, regardless of physical or other differences. What has happened though is that rich fans enjoy sports at a much higher level, whether it's by buying or receiving tickets (usually through positions of power) to the game or to a bar or even having a nice TV in their home. Does it mean that rich fans are "better" sports fans? Not at all! It means they have more access to the types of activities that sports fans pride themselves on. On a personal note though, some of my favourite sports moments have been in a basement or living room surrounded by enthusiastic individuals who just want to see the home team win.

I can't exactly pinpoint the effect that this has on the general sports public of Toronto because that would involve large amounts of data that I simply don't have the means for but it creates a two-tiered system amongst sports fans. By no means is this exclusive to Toronto but in terms of hockey, we're probably the worst considering Canada's general passion for the game, the history of the Maple Leafs, the amount of wealth in this city and the fact that Maple Leafs are notoriously ridiculously overpriced. As a corporation, MLSE was valued at $1.75 billion according to a Toronto Star article from 2008 and this definitely plays into the notion of Maple Leafs Square being "for the fans"...but not actually.

A Few Answers (Post #3)

What shapes/limits/facilitates your chosen space, what shapes/limits/facilitates your relationship to it?

I think I answered these questions pretty thoroughly in the previous two posts but here's a quick recap:

My space, Maple Leafs Square is shaped by primarily commercial and high-end residential space, with the Air Canada Centre, two relatively nice restaurants and a nice apartment building. Money definitely limits Maple Leafs Square; if you don't have it, your options are severely limited in what you can do. If someone didn't have the money to go out to eat, or chose not to, they could by like Jeremy Moulton, who was quoted in the Toronto Sun article as saying his 39th birthday, the one he spent at Maple Leafs Square with his family, 5,000 "friends" and some food he brought from home, was his "best ever". I think money and location are the two factors that facilitate my chosen space the most. Money facilitates my space as the commercial space is far more important to the operation of the space than the actual square is. MLSE owns Real Sports and e11even and probably has a good stake in the condos and hotels as well. All the money they earn from those properties are used to maintain the exterior of the square, including the giant screen.

Location is an obvious factor. It's downtown where a huge amount of people live and where a huge amount of people want to be. Those in the second category are willing to go the extra mile (no pun intended) to immerse themselves in this exciting atmosphere and be part of the action. I'm one of those people. I live in the suburbs but I'm downtown between up to 3 times a week sometimes for various reasons. It's definitely not always to see a game from the inside of the ACC but sometimes I'll meet some friends downtown and we'll go out to a bar or restaurant to watch the game. It's about the atmosphere and Maple Leafs Square - and especially Real Sports Bar & Grill - is spectacularly conducive to creating a great atmosphere.

My relationship to the space is shaped by a couple of factors: my love of food and my love of sports. I have already been to Real Sports for a meal with my dad right after we went to a basketball game across the street at the ACC. Fortunately, we had the connections to acquire the Raptors tickets for free - a friend from my dad's work has season tickets and gave us a pair - and the money to go eat afterwards. I would say money is the primary factor in determining one's relationship to the space but preference is also factor. So is the weather; if it's cold outside, most Torontonians would probably rather stay inside a home or a bar and watch the game than stand outside in the cold, despite the size of the screen. In terms of what facilitates my relationship to the space, the answer is transit and oppositely, parking limits it.

I'm fortunate enough that I do often have access to a car but I also have a metropass. What I lose in time riding the TTC, I easily make up for in money. Gas is over $1.10/litre and I live about 25km away from the ACC so it will probably cost me $10 alone in gas plus $18 in parking (it might even be more on game nights) whereas the metropass costs me $99 for the whole month. Yes it's slower and sometimes inefficient but it's monetary value far outweighs driving.

Is it a space that you see represented (written about, photographed) in the world around you?

I read the Toronto Star sports page almost every day and I don't recall a single occasion except for the day after the NHL kickoff when the Maple Leafs Square was spoken of. I don't want to go start researching other publications because I'm sure I could find stuff if I really looked hard but I think the local sports page would be a pretty good indication of the media coverage. The only way I think the space is really represented is on the Real Sports Twitter account. The lady in charge is on top of that thing like no other, always replying to people who ask her questions or post comments about the establishment. The only problem is that outside of Real Sports' followers, no one else will read the comments.

If no, think about why that space is unrepresented, and what effect the lack of representation might have.

This is probably the most difficult question to answer but the answer might actually be quite simple (and depressing). I think the reason that the space is unrepresented is that it's kind of useless. What are people supposed to talk about? How awesome it is that there's a huge slab of concrete with the Maple Leafs' symbol painted on it surrounded by restaurants and apartment buildings and of course the arena. All these things cost money, and lots of it. It's not like a park where you can go every day of the whole summer and not pay a dime, or even a movie that's only $10 or $12. Tickets for the Raptors or the Leafs are pretty expensive - over $50 expensive - and there's little chance you're going by yourself so that means multiple tickets. If you want to go eat afterwards, a meal for two people with tax and tip will be a minimum of $30-40. I guess the point of this is that besides those who live in the building, the employees and season-ticket holders, a trip to Maple Leafs Square is a rare event. It's not represented because of its infrequent accessibility.