By Bill Currie
If a neighbourhood had eyes, they would be windows.
Windows of various shapes and sizes looking out with a clear view of all that is going on in the ‘hood. And sometimes, their glassy gaze can even help connect a community.
This is a story about a February weekend in the historic neighbourhood of Victoria’s James Bay, where people came out in the spirit of community to appreciate local window art.
Last year, James Bay became the first neighbourhood in North America to hold Window Wanderland, a fun walk-about event where people dressed up their windows for all to see. Where light and art merged to create hope and happiness in winter’s darkness.
About a hundred buildings including single dwelling homes, condos, apartments, schools, churches and businesses participated by creating clever window displays.
Some ran with the themes of mice, birds, or ocean life. Others showcased jazzy musical notes and instruments. Everything from portraits of Groucho Marx and Marilynn Monroe to colourful and chaotic kid’s art to the simplicity of a single candle in a window, were on display.
Each window, with a different level of endeavour, but with the same purpose, a celebration of neighbourhood through the prism of light and art.
“Such a cool way to spend a little time and really feel the soul of the neighbourhood,” says one resident. “One home owner even put out coffee and cookies.”
For two nights, the streets were alive with light, colour and a new-found buzz. It’s estimated that as many as two thousand people bundled up over two cold nights in February to stroll down sidewalks and converse with strangers while enjoying something almost magical.
There was lots of laughter, oohs and aahs, as kids and families, young and old, came together to share in a gift, one created by the community for the community.
In a day and age when it is easier to avoid eye contact while wandering around glued to a digital device, Window Wanderland opened a window on simpler times.
Technological pressures that tend to push people apart gave way to face time, in the old fashioned sense of the word. People had time for people and shared a common interest in the ‘hood.
“All we asked is that it would be family friendly and pedestrian powered; after that there was no script,” says Terry Loeppky, who along with his wife, Dorothy Rich, brought the event to James Bay.
The couple had been scratching their heads trying to come up with a project that could fill the voids left by Luminara, the celebration of light and the James Bay Art Walk.
“A friend sent Dorothy a link to an event in Bristol, England called Window Wanderland, and the match was perfect,” says Loeppky. “It combined light, art, and walking, which is exactly what we were looking for.”
Loeppky says finding a couple of organizing partners in the community was a breeze. James Bay Community School Society and James Bay New Horizons came aboard, and with the help of a Festival Investment Grant from the City of Victoria, Window Wanderland in James Bay was born.
“February can be pretty dull, so this event was about getting people out and about,” says Darcy Topinka, Community School co-ordinator. “It generated conversations between neighbours who came together to work on this creative project and those who came to take it all in. It’s simply about bringing people together to do something fun.”
This is something the folks of Bristol, England have been doing since 2015. Window Wanderland is the brainchild of Lucy Reeves Khan, who was stuck in her Bristol home due to chronic pain.
“While doing short therapeutic walks around the block, in the winter darkness to hide my disability, I noticed that if curtains were open in neighbours houses, I didn’t feel the pain so much,” says Reeves Khan. “For years I assumed I was just a nosey parker, but I realized the light and openness made me happier.”
Since then it has spread throughout the United Kingdom and into Germany, with the inevitable arrival on the shores of North America. And it made perfect sense for James Bay to be the first neighbourhood in North America to sign on. “People’s first reaction to the idea was that it was perfect for James Bay. It’s a walkable, face to face community with a rich and strong social infrastructure,” says Loeppky.
For starters, James Bay is the oldest residential community on the West Coast. It’s a neighbourhood steeped in history with a diverse demographic. Old people and young people. Poor people and rich people. Business people and retired people.
It’s a creative community with a mix of heritage and modern homes, apartments, offices and retail buildings. At its core is its village, with its five-point intersection that serves as a meeting place like the old town square of early settlers.
Surrounded by water on three sides, it has a defined sense of place and purpose, a kind of compass that points to community-minded activities, such as community gardens, farmers’ markets, outdoor music and even those tiny book boxes ready with a free book for the taking.
James Bay is a vibrant community with people who are proud and passionate about their neighbourhood. It is also part of a growing world community in search of ways to breathe new life into neighbourhoods and get people talking, not texting.
“I think other neighbourhoods in Victoria will follow,” says Loeppky. “I think other communities in Canada and North America will follow James Bay as well. This is a kind of a universal impulse to look into windows with lights on.”
Whether or not this satisfies our nosy nature, there is little doubt that Window Wanderland is here to stay on the West Coast. All it takes is a little light and a little art for the eyes of a neighbourhood to cast its glowing community spirit.