A Tale Of Two Cities: Toronto’s housing (and identity) crisis.
When I was a little kid I noticed that my grandfather, a passionate 2nd generation Torontonian and a WWII veteran, always brought a mix of binders and manila envelopes to family dinners. The envelopes were handed out only after a lively dinner, typically to be reviewed over tea and coffee. He would hold court while his kids reviewed the contents of the envelopes as he rifled through the binders. His children, including my Mother would circle around him and listen intently while reading whatever came out of the envelopes. I always assumed it was some kind of word game for adults, like the envelope in the board game Clue.
As I got older I stayed at the table instead of playing under it and I got to see what was in those envelopes. Eventually my own name in his handwriting across a envelope’s front and I was in. Each envelope’s contents were the same. They contained articles, correspondence and progress in whatever cause he was interested in lending his support to at the time. I learned from these envelopes that my grandfather as an activist and an organizer, the first one I ever met. I learned that whether he was bombing the Nazis as a young man in the Air Force, or fighting a bad development for his neighborhood in his 70's, that he needed to be of service. It was in his blood.
His tenaciousness lit a spark in me. When he shared his progresses it made me feel like the little guys could win. As I got older and shared problems with him that seemed insurmountable to me he would always encourage me to ‘write a letter’, and make some noise. Make noise I did. He was probably to blame for the time I got called to the principal’s office as a teenager for putting up posters around our Arts School asking what they were actually doing with our annual fee money ? (spoiler: I was told to take the posters down and I talked my way out of a suspension). I started writing more letters after that brush with suspension. My first letter was published in the Toronto Star in the 1990’s when I was still in highschool. The City of Toronto was trying to shut down the illegal warehouse and rave scene and I wrote to the editor of the Toronto Star to try to plead our collective, rave case. I’m not sure if that’s the kind of activism my Grandfather had in mind but he did buy a copy of the paper to see his influence in action. My grandfather passed away before I hit my stride with my own activism.
Writing letters was always more comfortable for me than making calls, because I’m an introvert. That changed, like it did for so many of you in January of 2016. Suddenly, I found myself going to rallies and marches. Feminism, Childrens and Environmental Causes. I went with my Mum, I went with my friends, and their kids and their dogs. In the freezing cold of Toronto’s winters I became someone who shows up for change. When the Trump administration started separating children from their parents suddenly, I found myself organizing. #FamiliesBelongTogether was my first experience with community activism. I met an incredible group BIPOC womxn in Toronto who graciously (and with fierce compassion) showed a newbie the ropes. The more activists I met in Toronto, the more I was reminded about why I love to live here. This City is filled with people who work tirelessly to change things for the better.
Sure, like many of you I could complain like most of us do about the average emotional temperature of Torontonians. The too cool factor, the chill of strangers who won’t make eye contact and don’t say hello, but the truth is, Toronto has two sides. It’s two cities.
We’re seeing this increasing during the pandemic with amazing volunteer groups like ESN (Encampment Support Network) who have stood tall servicing encampments for those in our community experiencing homelessness. They like so many other grassroots groups are filling gaps left by the City. Valentina Harper and Mita Hans, the forces of nature behind the CareMongering group that became a global movement have shown the kindness that exists in cities like Toronto. This is the part where I tell you, those two amazing humans were amongst the people I met who guided me so elegantly through being of better service for that #FamiliesBelongTogether rally.
In late 2020 when my neighborhood got one of those city of Toronto community meeting notices in the mail for a development application. This one happened for a building that has served providing 90 units of affordable housing in our area for over 100 years. The Palace Arms, you may know it. It looks like a castle on the North West Corner of King and Strachan. I’d gone to the first community meeting for this application a year or so before, and it was a packed house. I couldn’t believe so many of my neighbors had gone to a local school gym on a cold winter night to fight against a bad development. We’re a mid-rise area, a little postage stamp of a place inside the City of Toronto that used to be the grounds of Massey Harris. We’re a mixed use neighborhood with retail, commercial, industrial, and residential. We’re near historic Trinity Bellwoods Park, CAMH, and north of Liberty Village. We are as diverse a community as our current zoning. We like it that way. In 2017 a developer bought the Palace Arms to build a highrise, and when I heard what was happening at the community meeting in 2019, I felt my Grandfather in my bones. I had faith though, that the city would hear the collective’s concerns, that packed house, those loud voices and follow up emails at the community meeting.
Getting this new notice about the development in the mail I realized this time, it was different. The notice showed that this application was still a highrise. It was still also 75 units short of the 90 units of affordable housing the building has now. Yes, the quality of the units will be different but they should be, we’re over 100 years into the future now. So in the midst of a housing crisis like Toronto has never seen it looked to me like our community wasn’t being heard. That big angry group at the community meeting pushing for replacement affordable housing and expressing outrage at a plan for a highrise in our little neighborhood hadn’t seemed to work. As our neighbors who are living in encampments are being pressured to move by the City that was once known as “Toronto the Good”, The Palace Arms, like many buildings sits empty.
I knew I had to organize. It was like my Grandfather had handed me the envelope. A few women on my street had found ourselves fast friends after opposing another issue in our neighborhood just before the start of the pandemic. I told you, you’ll meet great people organizing. I reached out to them and suggested we mobilize around this and here’s the thing I’ve seen.
Toronto is fractured. It’s like we’ve been wandering around for a few decades with a broken leg and expecting just because it’s in a suit that no one will notice. Toronto has truly become two cities. One is the realm of the City of Toronto and those who choose to redirect their gaze to a cultureless field of glass towers they seem so intent on building. The second is the one most residents who live here reside in. The city of people who actually make up the culture, the spirit and magic of this city. The city built on neighborhoods.
I was one of those people not so long ago who turned my gaze and thought a lot of activists just liked to complain. What I realize now in educating myself is that more than ever we have to see activism for what it is. Being a good neighbor. It’s asking for the people we elected to actually listen to us and to advocate for us. I live in Ward 10. My councillor on paper is progressive central. Unfortunately, like so many others in this city, that seems to be just for the newsletter. For so many neighborhoods in Toronto we are experiencing this tale of two cities. In one tale, press conferences and news releases are the gospel where the truth is carefully hidden from public view. The other tale is full of residents screaming out to save our city from bad development. It appears from what we’ve seen with the housing crisis during this pandemic that neighbors are the ones who are spending the most time and effort actually trying to actually solve these issues. So many community groups are begging for answers from people we elected. This leads to the big question, why? What exactly is the City of Toronto’s plan for Toronto?
I know what happens when the neighborhoods are taken out of cities. I was in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics when the City of Atlanta relocated those experiencing homelessness behind hoarding so that tourists wouldn’t see them. Living and Working in the U.S. I’ve seen big cities that have no community and are literal ghost towns of high rises because they’re all owned by foreign investors. Is this the plan for Toronto? With the developments we’ve seen in the last 10 years in this city it sure looks like it.
My Grandfather is probably rolling in his grave as he watches the city he loved so much, the one he and my great grandfather grew up in, falling so desperately into demolition. Like so many of us during this pandemic, Toronto itself seems to be having an identity crisis. It seems for now at least the neighborhoods and communities will continue to fight against the very officials we elected to advocate to protect us. Like most community activists we’re digging ourselves in here for the long haul to work toward accountability and getting what every member of our community deserves, housing. The replacement of 90 units of affordable housing, and a building that fits into our low-rise and mid-rise neighborhood so that these new residents can be just as integrated as our previous neighbors at The Palace Arms. I learned from my Grandfather to be tenacious and be of service so it’s no surprise to me that I seem to be the one who seems to be handing out those envelopes now, digitally of course.