NEWTON — So it wasn’t exactly Woodstock.
The Newton Business Improvement Association’s inaugural Troubadour Saturdays, an afternoon event featuring local musicians, sidewalk tents, a giant chessboard, and a dream of “Summering in Newton on 137th Street,” didn’t quite pack in the peeps like it should have. Walk down the street mid-afternoon a few Saturdays ago, on the event’s launch day of June 4, and you could count the number of attendees without using your toes.
So why is there a sense that in a couple months time, when Troubadour Saturdays is in the midst of its three-month run, these very same sidewalks will see a heckuva lot more humanity? Because the Newton BIA, and its leader, are nothing if not tenacious.
BIA executive director Philip Aguirre, the guy who runs Old Surrey Restaurant a few blocks over, soaked in the music and was his typically upbeat self as he sat on a bench outside the front door of BBQ Nation.
“We’re OK with it being quiet today,” he said, believably. “We’re in a longterm plan here, where we’re going to focus on a grassroots movement, start small and we’ll build from there. We’re going to show premium product, we’re going to bring music to the streets and we’re going to bring people out – a couple at a time.”
Aguirre’s allegiance to the neighbourhood runs deep. He’s never lived in Newton but he effectively grew up there, washing dishes from the age of nine when his parents owned and ran the restaurant he oversees today, swimming at the wave pool and playing in Unwin Park.
“My wife always jokes that I do live in Newton because I know it better than I do my own community. I know Newton inside and out.”
With the sounds of guitarist Mike Kelly and vocalist Diane Warren in the background, we broached the subject of crime and how it might impact events like today’s.
“Newton’s brand has been taking a beating for sure,” Aguirre said. “But the Newton town centre is not what you read about in the papers. This is not where that happens.
“I’m an optimist,” he added. “I focus on the positives. I focus on the things we can control. And this is how you build a community – by getting people talking, singing, and eating together. If it’s going to take a few years, I’m OK with that.”
A block up the street at Espresso Café, Youssif Ihab has embraced Troubador Saturdays as host of the second of two musician tents and also that giant chessboard. As singer/guitarist Ranj Singh plays and people lift and move giant chess pieces, we talked about the past – and the future.
“Events like this are really good for people,” Ihab said. “Bring people outside, let them have fun, let them walk in the street, stay around, take back the street we have as a community.”
Ihab says Saturdays are traditionally the quietest days of the week in the town centre.
“Saturdays are usually dead. Really dead. The neighbourhood has abandoned it. There’s lots of population here, but they’re not here during the weekend.
“When it’s abandoned, the junkies and homeless people…they take over because there’s nobody around to see them. But if the normal people come here, the junkie has to go somewhere else.”
Across the street, Studio Seventy Three art gallery had a sidewalk display set up just for Troubadour Saturdays. Nearby, a pair of uniformed officers patrolled the sidewalks. Bouquets from Surrey Flower Shop decorated the area.
Sweetha Mahendran likes what she sees, but knows it could be better, knows it could be so much bigger. Mahendran is an SFU student currently interning with the Newton BIA. She was integral in the organization of Troubadour Saturdays, booking the musicians and getting business owners involved.
“I live here (in Newton), but I’ve never worked here,” she explained. “I haven’t interacted with the community here. But now that I have a job here, I want to learn more about the area.”
But finding willing participants wasn’t as easy as she initially envisioned. “The retailers want to be part of something successful,” she said. “It’s the chicken or the egg thing. All we’re trying to get them to do is to come out of their offices. We want a vibrant community, we want a vibrant sidewalk.”
She believes Troubadour Saturdays, which run from noon to 4 p.m., will be quite the event by mid-summer.
“It’ll grow when people see it,” Mahendran predicted. “We had people double-parked as they were trying to watch a chess game. I’ve seen other people today driving slower just so they could listen to the music and see what was happening. We’ll do another campaign, send flyers to businesses.”
Aguirre is quick to point out Troubadour Saturdays has a weekday partner called Nooner Wednesdays, both under the “Newton Days” umbrella. Shoppers, residents and business folks are invited to the Park-It in front of BBQ Nation from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for a mid-week gathering, featuring a sidewalk piano and a BYOL (bring your own lunch) concept.