Yukonomist: Rome, the Whitehorse of central Italy

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

We have recently taken two groups of Outside visitors to dine al fresco in the new Main Street pedestrian zone between Front Street and Second Avenue.

They loved it. As first-time visitors, they now associate Whitehorse with outdoor summer drinks and food, just like Rome or Paris.

Perhaps that last part is a bit of a stretch. But their sunny Instagram posts definitely make Whitehorse look good.

Take that, Juneau. You’ll always be in the happy-hour shadow of Douglas Island.

Kudos to the Whitehorse city council for approving the creation of the summer pedestrian zone.

I didn’t know the city council also controlled the weather, but arranging for a week of hot and sunny evenings to coincide with the pedestrian zone’s first summer was a stroke of marketing genius.

We now have to decide what to name our new civic square.

In ancient Greek city-states, such a space was called the Agora.

If the Romans had founded Whitehorse, the square would already be called the Forum.

If we were in Latin America, we could call it Plaza de la Revolución. But, despite predictions by some who write letters to the editor of the Yukon News, the revolution has not yet arrived here.

We have taken to calling it Bannock Square, since the Bannock Slap food truck is often located there.

Since I last reported on Bannock Slap’s delights, I have discovered they also sometimes serve Spamwiches. Spam, for those not in the know, has a deep connection to Yukon cooking going back generations, as it does in Hawaii and Alaska. I recall watching it fry as a youth and wondering how they grew meat shaped like a can.

If you need to sleep through a boring afternoon meeting at work, a lunch of fried spam with a fried egg and cheese sandwiched between freshly made bannock is exactly what you need. An enthusiastic five stars.

Anyway, back to naming our new square. If you have a suggestion, please email it to editor@yukon-news.com with Town Square Name as the subject line. The top three proposals will be emailed to city council, and the winner will receive a Bannock Slap spamwich.

In the meantime, since we are a government town, let’s give it an acronym: T-POZ, for Temporary Pedestrian-Only Zone.

The T-POZ is definitely a good idea. You can tell from the smiles on all faces, as well as the relaxed vibe as people wander over to stroll along the river.

Economists who study cities also point to the economic benefits of vibrant downtowns. It goes beyond the revenues of the restaurants and shops to make the city more attractive overall for people to live, work and invest in.

Pedestrian zones have trade-offs. They disrupt traditional traffic flows and eliminate parking spots. But they also encourage visiting the centre, which in the long run is good for downtown businesses and the city overall. The alternative is spreading out too much and ending up like so many Alaska Highway towns with a strip of fast-food restaurants and gas stations far from a decrepit main street.

And economics aside, encouraging people to meet, socialize and eat together — as well as do business — is an urban practice that long pre-dates the first economics textbook.

The question now is how to make it even more awesome.

One idea is to keep its pedestrian-only status in the winter. That way, more Rendezvous festivities could return to the centre from the howling wind tunnels of Shipyards Park. In Scandinavia, patio lovers are surprisingly daring in the shoulder season thanks to restaurants with heaters and blankets.

If we truly loved city life as much as people in Rome or Paris, we would lease out the train station from White Pass to be a steakhouse, and there would be tables on the big riverbank wharf. And maybe take it further and close Front Street from Main to Steele. This would make the wharf, once it gets its Italian cafe, feel like part of T-POZ.

If we were an ancient Greek city-state, we would now meet in the Agora and vote on whether to make T-POZ permanent.

However, in our modern society, we don’t take democracy to such lengths. City Council will decide. I encourage you to let them know your thoughts — pro or con — on T-POZ. You can reach them at Mayor&Council@whitehorse.ca.

As we wait for their decision, be sure to take your friends out for some summer festivities on Main Street. T-POZ, and our summer weather, may not last.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.