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Community Art in Mount Pleasant: Pianos on the Street

Pianos on the Street:
Part of MPBIA’s initiative to generate a stronger sense of community art in Mount Pleasant

Chances are you’ve seen it if you’ve walked by Gene Café at the corner of Main and Kingsway recently: an outdoor piano painted in white, purple and lime green sitting right where the two streets converge.

As it turns out, the presence of public pianos is a growing phenomenon worldwide. In Vancouver, a little third-generation piano store on East Broadway called Pacey’s Pianos (11 East Broadway to be exact) has been providing the bulk of these instruments to the Lower Mainland for the last two summers. The company’s president, Sean Pacey, is also the founder of Pianos on the Street, the project behind the placement of the piano at Gene Café and others like it in the Metro Vancouver area.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Sean and find out a little bit more about the project, in addition to finding out why he chose this particular location for an outdoor piano. I wander into his store just off of Main, and am greeted by the sight of a fleet of beautiful ebony grand pianos. A pianist myself, my first instinct it is to start playing one. I touch the keys of a particularly spectacular grand piano handmade in America by Mason & Hamlin and a perfect, warm tone emits. Sean walks up to me smiling, and I know better than to ask if one of these pianos will ever be used in the project. However, I do want to know what made Sean decide to place a piano at Main and Kingsway.

“It’s a beautiful spot in the heart of the Mount Pleasant community,” he tells me. “I’m interested in placing public pianos at iconic locations and to me the corner of Main and Kingsway is one of those special places.”

I ask him what makes this particular location so special and Sean responds that, “I’ve seen firsthand the amazing moments that can take place on these pianos—everything from improvised duets between strangers to marriage proposals and everything in between—and I just knew that Mount Pleasant, a neighborhood which has so much vitality and strength of community, would be a perfect fit this year for the project”.

Sean tells me that getting the piano in place was a two-pronged process that involved getting the permission of not just one, but two, businesses. Sean wanted to place the piano right at the apex of Main and Kingsway, in front of the iconic rounded corner of the building that houses Gene Café. This required the permission of both the owner of Gene Café, Yeon Lee, and the owner of Midtown Mailboxes Ltd, Cal Wilks, who also owns the building.

I make my way over to Gene Café which has been at the corner of Main and Kingsway for eight years. As I order a coffee, Yeon tells me that allowing Sean to place a piano in front of her coffee shop was a no-brainer. “I have a soft spot for piano and I love the idea of Pianos on the Street,” she tells me. “It’s a great way to pump up the atmosphere!”

I sip my coffee and realize that this might be the best cup of coffee in town. I tell Yeon as much and she nods her head, “It’s why we’re always so busy- the Mount Pleasant community loves our coffee and we love them for it.” Here, the motto is ‘Hope to see you spoon’ and between the quality of the coffee and the delightful energy being created by the piano outside, I can honestly say that I can’t come back spoon, I mean soon, enough.

With my delicious coffee in hand I head a few doors down to Midtown Mailboxes Ltd to meet with Cal Wilks, the owner of the building. Midtown Mailboxes rents mailboxes to the Mount Pleasant community and also offers courier services through companies including FedEX (which according to Cal, is the most reliable courier service around). About ten different customers, all of whose names Cal knows, walk in over the course of the interview to have parcels couriered and can only assume that they must be very happy with the service that Cal provides. He tells me he’s owned Midtown Mailboxes for eighteen years and has seen a lot of change in the Mount Pleasant community over that period.

“We couldn’t have placed a piano outdoors here eighteen years ago- the neighborhood was totally different then,” he says. “It used to be a rougher part of town, but today it’s safe, families live here… there are thriving small businesses. Now people from other parts of Vancouver come to this neighborhood to spend an afternoon- it’s wonderful.”

I ask Cal what he thinks of Pianos on the Street and the idea of putting pianos outdoors for the public to play. “It’s certainly different,” he laughs. “But it’s good. Anything that brings the community together is good in my books.”

The interview concludes and I take my leave. I walk past the piano one more time as I head to my bus stop. A teenager sits playing Chopin on the piano while customers of Gene Café sit around sipping their coffee and listening with smiles on their faces and for some reason I can’t help but smile too.

And so my recommendation if you see an outdoor piano in Vancouver this summer is to sit down and play it. What’s more, if you film yourself playing or take a picture of the piano and upload it to the Pianos on the Street Facebook page you could win up to $500 in cash—so get out there and have some fun with these pianos! They are there for you.