The Biggest Table: Hosting, from here

mr-biggest-table-40-of-59by Jonathan Valelly
photos by Liam Coo

Dunn Parkette was already buzzing shortly after 5pm that day, though our appointed meeting time was 6. The Making Room Choir rehearsed attentively in the shade of Greenest City garden in the little park’s corner, and voices both familiar and new joined in the song under the direction of Making Room’s Shifra Cooper. In the meantime, guests drank lemonade and asked — what’s about to happen? And where’s that table we heard about?

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That day, September 24th, 2016, those questions were answered as we celebrated food, art, guests, and hosts through a neighbourhood procession and dinner, the result of a summer-long collaboration with our partners and friends Greenest City. As the energy rose in the Dunn Parkette, people separated into groups who would be asked to take up a part of the procession. And as the choir sang “Good Friends,” a windchime chandelier made of twisted forks and repurposed metals, was raised by two of the Co-Op Cred Gardeners, who made the piece, Trevor and James. As they led us through the Dunn Parkette and into Masaryk Park, the crowd of about 100 people hummed along until we stopped to pick up one of our key images of the summer…

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Though to some it may have looked like blue piece of fabric, throughout our summer of workshops in Masaryk Park, the river had become a home for the imaginations of many children, adults, and elders alike. And in this special moment, many of the youth, children, and neighbours we’ve been hosting and sharing with all summer helped bring the river to life. As the choir sang “On lake, stream, and river/the geese seem to know/ that Autumn is upon us/ tomorrow they’ll go,” the river and its cohort went rippling and swaying and rushing through the park and on to our next stop.

The Hope Garden in Masaryk Park is an anchor on the busy strip of Cowan Street that runs just south of Queen St. It’s Greenest City’s biggest and most visible garden, and it’s been the site of many moments of learning, of community building, of growing, of tasting, and of course, of lots of hard work. Continuing in this tradition of sharing with the neighbourhood, gardeners greeted the procession and handed out paper bags with seeds, lights, and rubbings of plants from the garden, led in this ceremony by Greenest City’s Monique Kelemen. These helped light the way as the sun dimmed and the choir sang a rendition of John Denver’s “Today,” serenading the crowd with “I’ll feast at your table. I’ll sleep in your clover/ wo cares what tomorrow may bring?.”

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As we crossed Cowan Street, passing in front of Epiphany St. Mark’s and Greenest City’s offices to pick up our fabulous art cart, we entered the Milky Way — a very special laneway in Parkdale that runs just south of Queen from Cowan to Dufferin. As we sang along with guest musician Emilyn Stam’s call and response tune, we turned the corner to our final destination: The Milky Way Garden.

The Milky Way Garden means a lot of things to a lot of people. It is a garden that Tibetan and others from Tish Carnat’s ESL Class at the Parkdale Library have been using for ten years to grow vegetables to feed themselves, their families, and their guests in collaboration with Greenest City. And it’s the site of the first potential purchase by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, a community land initiative meant to preserve shared space in the neighbourhood. With the news of the imminent purchase, the space has been full of activity this summer, and it only felt appropriate to be the location for the big community dinner Making Room had been planning.

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As both host and guest, Making Room brought together many pieces we had worked on with different groups over the summer. The archway over the garden’s entrance was full of the detailed embroidered invitation ribbons we had worked so hard on at the summer’s beginning. The table was lined with the runners and napkins we had made in Masaryk Park with a shibori dye technique, wrapped up in the twine and fabric detailed napkin rings we had created with PARC members and park visitors alike.  Centrepieces made up of the forks and knives we had decorated with the names of the guests we’d like at our shared dinner dotted the long, winding table. And in the corner, the passive frame we had turned into a loom for plastics weaving at the ESL Class had become a shelter overtop of a pew brought over from PARC. The lean-to was not only colourful, but also functional, providing shelter from sun and light rain.

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As the hundred or so guests were seated, the choir taught everyone to sing “Touch Us Gently Time” while the beautiful art cart, reimagined by Sonja Rainey, opened magnificently to reveal that it had been carrying dinner with it all along. The food, which was homemade bread, Iraqi cabbage rolls, chutney and a garden vegetable soup, had been a joint creation between Greenest City gardeners, PARC members, Making Room and Greenest City staff and other community members. As the crowd delighted in the soup and snack, along with a last minute offer of samosas, there was one more surpise to be shared…mr-biggest-table-39-of-59

Indeed, after many years of searching, Helen Melbourne had finally sourced a special gift for the Tibetan elders and their peers in the ESL class — a beautiful wooden loom on which to do weaving. The dream is that the loom might be used for making traditional textiles, classes, or perhaps even be the start of a co-operative project. With great joy and applause, guests admired the loom in all of its glory, imagining the futures it promises. As the sky got darker, our guests mingled and disappeared, while many community members pitched in to help clean up.mr-biggest-table-26-of-59

If the Biggest Table was a community experiment in hosting, it was an amazing success. But the summer was full of many moments where we realized that being a host existed in a continuum with being a guest. We learned so much about making things happen in space that doesn’t belong to us, per sé, as well as bringing new people into familiar stomping grounds. Many cultures and personalities came together and through patience, generosity, and creativity, new relationships and intersections emerged. So though the meal may be over, and the Parkdale air getting cooler, The Biggest Table seems only to be getting bigger and bigger each day.

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Making Room would like to thank our partner Greenest City for joining forces on this wonderful project and bringing insights about food, gardening, land and space into our artistic process.

We’d also like to thank our funders the Toronto Arts Council, the City of Toronto, and the Ontario Arts Council.

All photographs courtesy of Liam Coo.

Lastly, we send waves of gratitude to everyone in the Parkdale community and beyond who attended and played a role in this magical evening. Special shout-outs to Lynne, J-Cal, and Shelley, who went above and beyond in their leadership for this event. 

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