Archive for September, 2010

September 24, 2010

Happy 2nd Blogday, Belonging Community!

Two years ago, Belonging Community began. As poet Dionne Brand has said, this is a city that is in the middle of “becoming,” and my hope was to think about Toronto from the level of a city block.

How can schools serve students better? What lives do our neighbours live? What does inequality look like at the neighbourhood level? How do local institutions affect our lives?

One hundred and two posts later, the Top Hits from the past year are:

Crime hotspots across Toronto neighbourhoods 2,992 More stats
Toronto Community Partnership Strategy: 443 More stats
About me 428 More stats
The Ontario HST: a counter-intuitive remedy 385 More stats
Ethnic enclaves in Toronto, 2001 – 2006 365 More stats
“Are there limits to gentrification? 333 More stats
The TDSB’s Learning Opportunity Index 323 More stats
Toronto swimming pools: Class in session 317 More stats
Community Partnership Strategy: NWI 265 More stats
Crime and social cohesion in Toronto 261 More stats
Defining race (and racism) in the TDSB LOI 243 More stats

Crime as you can see is big, with an average of eight hits a day. Other topics are popular because not many people are writing about them. My favourite pieces are less about these big policy pieces than the stories which emerge from living in an urban neighbourhood.

I have also appreciated the new community of bloggers, activists, and researcher that Belonging Community has introduced me to, people like Kevin Harris, Christopher Leo and Leo Romero. Sometimes too, I have even gotten a laugh. Three of the funniest (or strangest ways) people have found the blog recently are by using these search terms:

  • diane dyson emergency
  • ugliest areas of toronto
  • portland flag

Thanks all! It’s been a good year.

September 23, 2010

The "right" to choose your neighbours becomes an election issue

Just as the Annual YIMBY (Yes In My BackYard) festival is being organized for October 16 at the Drake hotel, Nimbyism is being re-visited in the Beach municipal election. Both events seem to be about having policy-makers listen to residents, but the difference lies in the inclusive lense that is used. Debates about what occur in a community often spill over into who will live in a neighbourhood, whether they be students or those living with life challenges.

A friend in the Beach tells the story of a church building which moved through three different applications to convert to affordable housing, each time being denied because those living nearby raised concerns about the proposed new mothers, or seniors or other populations who were to be sited there. The current controversy, about a new building opening on Gerrard at Woodbine, has convinced me to attend tonight’s All Candidate meeting as a case study of the tension between service-providers, policy-makers and local residents.

The HomeComing Community Choice Coalition circulated the following letter:

Thursday evening, September 23, there is an all candidates meeting in Ward 32 (Beaches) and one candidate is calling on voters to come use their voices based on their “right to be angry about the location of supportive housing at 1908 Gerrard Street East”. (at Woodbine)

In November 2007, neighbours heard that a private developer intended to build an apartment building on the site – and planned to rent the apartments to people living with mental illness under an agreement with Houselink Community Homes.  The development was zoned for the intended use, so there was no need for public consultation.  A number of area residents spoke against the development at the Affordable Housing Committee meeting dealing with the funding for the development.  As a result, City staff were directed to host a public open house with the local community in consultation with the office of the local Councillor Sandra Bussin.

At the public open house a number of concerns were voiced, many of which were related to the approval process and lack of consultation.  Other concerns were related to the people intended to live in the development:

  • that the area was overly represented with social housing
  • the impact of the housing on the community in terms of safety and security
  • whether there would be sufficient support provided to the tenants
  • the perceived lack of support services in the area

Confronted by a number of angry residents, Councillor Bussin stood her ground and defended both the process and the right of people to live in communities of their choice.  At the subsequent Council meeting to approve funding for the project, Councillor Bussin expressed her shame at the behaviour of her constituents.  Almost all of the Councillors present also rose to speak in support of funding for the project and to denounce those who would exclude people from the community based on a disability.

Now almost three years later, the building is ready for occupancy.  Graffiti calling Councillor Bussin a traitor was painted on hoardings at the building a year ago and recently similar graffiti attacking Bussin has been painted on the building itself.

Finally, within the past few days, a leaflet has appeared apparently from Martin Gladstone, a candidate for City Councillor, calling the process flawed and accusing Councillor Bussin of working against her constituents and shutting them down (attached).

While HomeComing Community Choice Coalition does not endorse any candidate for public office, we are concerned that this Councillor is being targeted for standing up for the rights of people to live in communities of their choice.  We have often affirmed that people do not have to ask the permission of their neighbours to live in a community and the neighbours do not have a right to be informed or consulted before new housing is built, if the only issue is the disability of the people who live there.

We will be at the meeting Thursday evening and hope that others will be there as well to say thank you to Councillor Sandra Bussin for standing up in the face of angry residents to say to the new Houselink tenants: “Yes in My Back Yard!”

HomeComing Community Choice Coalition

“We promote the rights of people with mental
illness to live in the neighbourhood of their choice.”

Postscript: So when the issue came to the floor tonight, Sandra Bussin’s hecklers called out, “It’s the process! Process!”  They knew, at least, it would not have looked well to be seen as picking on people living with mental illness.

September 19, 2010

The big tent of Toronto City Summit Alliance

Voluntarily, small groups have been meeting through the summer, producing backgrounders, developing position papers, and generating options, all with the aim of bettering the region of Toronto. Preparation for Toronto City Summit Alliance‘s (TCSA) 4th regional summit has begun in earnest.


Image by Shaun Merritt via Flickr

The workgroups, roundtables and the summit, to be held in February 2011, draw people from a broad range of sectors, public, private, non-profit and citizen advocates. (The idea of working in concert, across sectors, is so engrained with TCSA’s work that I often mistakenly call TCSA the Toronto Community Summit Alliance.)

The work is like, one workgroup member explained, erecting a large tent where community conversation space is created, to discuss hard issues. Participants are looking for common ground on which to move forward together.

When the last summit was held, in 2005, one of the outcomes was the taskforce for Modernizing Income Security for Working Age Adults (MISWAA) which convened corporate heads with low-income people with community groups with economists with policy wonks. The result was the work that found how few Torontonians benefit from current income security programs, such as Employment Insurance, and the strong political pressure to improve access.

This time round, six free-standing workgroups have been convened to talk about the economy, the labour market, transit, income security, arts & culture, and neighbourhoods, social capital & housing. Each of these smaller groups leads to a larger roundtable, in the summer and fall, where ideas are tested and solutions sought. All this then rolls towards the regional summit.


Image by Shaun Merritt via Flickr

Deliverables are already being realized. The Housing workgroup is assembling a regional data book — something wider than the data currently collected at the municipal level or CMA level, but more focused than provincial data. The transit workgroup, also early off the mark, delivered a discussion paper to its roundtable in July, looking at road tolls, among other issues.

These semi-structured and ongoing conversations participants together to address complex challenges, issues which are admittedly entwined so that the solutions also have to be integrated. Transit issues are woven to housing, labour market structures give form to income security, and cultural policies strengthen neighbourhoods. This is happening as the summit draws closer.

Unwieldy though the approach seems, everyone erecting tent poles, pulling canvas and moving chairs, to create a metaphorical tent, it is a hopeful activity, creating common space and emergent wisdom.

TCSA’s model of convening moves political activity from divisive battles, at the ramparts, to a more modern and civil version: in-person crowd-sourcing.

September 6, 2010

NIMBY – hear the middle-class roar

They came with their hairy dogs, determined looks on their faces and helmeted children scootering ahead of the adults holding picket signs. The people of the Beach and Birchcliffe had come to protect the Quarry.

A former dump, at one point, the Quarry is roughly 50 undeveloped acres southeast of the Main subway station. Environmentalists sing the praises of the wildlife. However, the area was zoned in the 1960s for highrise development, and the developers are exercising their legal rights. So, the community was out to defend it.

I happened on the protest by chance, with a friend. We had to stop. The banners said “Save our neighbourhood” and “1960s planning is bad planning.”

The proposed 7 twenty-story buildings would provide 1,455 units of housing, at a density 7 times what the surrounding area is now with its detached, single-family homes.

“Affordable housing!” I whooped. No one took up the call.

It’s hard to know what to think about these kind of events.

People were rising to the defense of the community, but against whom? The developer. Yes, probably. The newcomers (interlopers) – new renters or condo buyers.  Perhaps some of them.

It was easy to see what we were against, but what were we fighting for? About every person here probably has a different reason, my wiser friend explained.

It reminded me of other protests I’ve seen. The outrage against the possible arrival of big box store in South Riverdale pitched local residents against each other, often split along ethnic and income lines. The Salvation Army and Seaton House faced fierce community meetings when they moved to house homeless men in other neighbourhoods, even if only temporarily such as on Pape Avenue. (The Sally Ann, bless its soul, has a webpage on the topic of NIMBY-ism.)

These debates too often deteriorate into a debate about who is moving in, or they erupt, under a more politically correct guise, such as “Social services should not be concentrated here. We have our fair share already.”

Another recent example close to home was the call from near-by residents to have Felstead park’s playground equipment upgraded – something already on the schedule, but not soon enough for their liking. They too used the blind that as a mixed income neighbourhood, they had been ignored to the benefit of richer neighbourhoods near-by. However, as a gentrifying neighbourhood, the press was on.

Or more recently, neighbours to the south of here, feeling protective of their “own,” confronted members of a church congregation for bringing their faith to the streets, unfortunately by a fire hydrant where a gay couple live. This well-meaning crowd ended up as a “Was my face red…” front-page story in the Toronto Star.

Within the past year, another of my neighbours closed down his family restaurant when he heard an apartment building next door to him was being built to provide supportive housing to people with mental health problems. More plain in his prejudices, he refused to stay near “crazy” people.

Examples from other parts of the city include the conversion of the “Entertainment District” to a residential area and almost any neighbourhood where condos have been built close to a slaughterhouse or other industrial area. If the City of Toronto mapped out where building orders occur, they are in concentrated in the areas with higher and mixed-incomes – the gentrified and the gentrifying areas of the city.

What under lies all these is fear. People don’t want to lose what they have. When people (re-)act from a fearful place, any larger vision gets lost.

But the reality that the neighbourhoods with the highest complaints are not the places with the most problems, but rather places with the most privilege. These are the neighbourhoods where the “sharp elbows of the middle class” claim the resources seen to be due to them.

Flawed as the Priority Neighbourhood Areas were, what they did do effectively was to re-focus resources away from the noisiest, squeakiest parts of the city, to areas that hadn’t had any attention for a very long time. This leveling of the playing field probably led to some of the strongest critiques of the mayor, David Miller, that he had let things slide in the areas where, frankly, people are more likely to vote.

Instead, the Strong Neighbourhood strategy has evened some things out. The new Community Partnership Strategy is also building an evidence base so that neighbourhood comparisons can be done more accurately.

These strategies show we are a more generous city than these other NIMBY stories tell about us. When given a chance, we can dream of a common good.

But, until we Torontonians see our backyard as the entire city, inequality will continue to split neighbourhoods, into “good” and “bad’ places to live, into places where we fight each other.

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