Posts tagged ‘Local’

August 15, 2010

It’s always something: Life and death on a city block

 

The man across the street from me died recently. He is the twelfth death that I can remember on the block during the time I have lived here.

The Dalai Lama once said to remember that whenever you enter a room with others, there is always pain somewhere in the room. This is my remembrance of pain on the street, my own included. It’s perhaps a macabre exercise but one that underscores the thickness of our neighbourhoods.

When I lead Jane’s Walks in the neighbourhood, we fly through the neighbourhood. This tour will pause much more frequently and cover little more than a city block.

The only people I know who have gotten mugged in my neighbourhood both got mugged at the underpass to the railway tracks at the top of the street. And the restaurant at the other end is nicknamed the Kick & Stab.  This is some of what has happened in the spaces between these two places:

  • A corner brick house was built by a man during WWI. The woman who lived in it promised payment when her husband returned. Lost is the reason why, but the builder was never paid. His daughter bullied the new little girl who moved in after that – bullying passed on generationally, and spatially.
  • Further south is the family that raised a crowd of children, one they lost when he was eleven. Four neighbourhood boys had found an open sewer grate and crawled down for an adventure. What they found was a pocket of deadly gas. Only the two quickest boys were able to climb out. The others succumbed. His father bankrupted himself, suing the City for neglect.
  • Walking again south, we come to the house where five-year-old Jeffrey died with his grandparents after his young parents were found incompetent. However, his grandmother, barely better equipped, became overwhelmed. The testimony at the trial which I remember is how one of the neighbourhood mums, a woman I knew by sight from the local school ground, visited one day and found Jeffrey’s grandmother giving him a bath in the basement. The grandmother told our neighbour she didn’t know if she could manage. Within months, the weight of a toddler, 21 pound Jeffrey died of neglect and septic shock. A new, happy family lives behind those walls now, a little girl, who knows of him, in the bedroom where Jeffrey had been locked. It overlooks our backyards.
  • Turning right, here is where Louie ran a store for years, robbed just as frequently. His face was always relieved when he saw you were a customer. He’s gone now, and the owners of the store around the block have bought a big dog. Their faces are perpetually nervous too.
  • Here an old man found in his basement apartment, not having the strength to walk out on his own, relying on his neighbours to fetch groceries. The police found him when there was a fire in the building.
  • Here the brother and sister, grown, the patterns set when they were young. He was suspended, then expelled, from the local grade school. She lured into trading her young sexuality for favours.
  • Here the man who didn’t see his family for fifteen years until he was able to save enough for them to emigrate,  his toddler turned to a teenager.
  • And here the mother who went mad. And recovered. Sort of.
  • Here the man who has depression who won’t tell anyone. His wife miscarried, too.
  • Here the man so alienated from his family that he didn’t attend the funeral of his disabled son.
  • Here the brother who became a drug addict and then committed suicide. His father beat his mother.
  • Here the house that was filled with young people, lost to the world. They burned the house down setting off fire crackers in the waste can. One of them, panicked, rushed to the second floor porch, certain she was trapped, waiting for the fire trucks. Her friends, rushing out to the front sidewalk, chanted, “Jump, jump, jump.” Two households were burned out, neither covered by insurance.
  • Here the man who doesn’t talk to others. He’s in the hospital a lot.
  • Here the elderly mother whose dutiful daughter stayed close until she met a man who took her money. When the mother objected, they found a long-term home for her.
  • Here the woman who moved here with a draft dodger and had a beautiful child. But he lives on the streets now.
  • Here the daughter with special needs so carefully tended because her friendliness makes her vulnerable.
  • Here the daughter who died of cancer in her early 20’s.
  • Here the man who nursed his lover through the final stages of AIDS. Now, a couple who lost a child unborn.
  • Here the man who beat his wife until she left. His grown sons visit sometimes.
  • Here the woman and two children who emigrated here, to follow her husband, then to find they had no status. Her husband beat her too. She left him, and met a woman, a white Canadian who stepped in where her husband left off, we didn’t like her. The mother was almost deported, but neighbours put up the surety, testified on her behalf. The Canadian woman moved her away from this neighbourhood. The last we heard, she was homeless and mad. We don’t know what happened to the children. Now there, a women whose time is occupied with her suicidal sister.
  • Here the husband who was so cheap he wouldn’t let his wife have a visitor over for tea because electricity and tea bags cost money.
  • Here a four-year-old child lived, her Mum her only support, a woman who too became addicted. The neighbours each took turns watching over the child, feeding her, until her grandmother arrived months later and set things straight. I saw her grown and well.
  • Here, two bad landlords.
  • Here the smoker who died of lung cancer, saying, “I feel so stupid. I’m scared.”
  • Here the man who never told his family he is gay. But they never visit.
  • Here the partner who strayed, had a child with another woman, then left.
  • Here another straying man, whose lover left him. His wife wouldn’t take him back. And, then, a woman with a hundred friends who was self-conscious she was alone in life, single.
  • Here a father who swears his son is slow because of an undetected gas leak.
  • Here the couple who, when they moved, left pictures drawn on the wall of the wife having sex with their labrador dog.
  • Here the father who lost his legs and then his life to diabetes. An adult son also died. His wife had bottles delivered regularly to her home until she was put in housing. She’s better now. Then, a tenant who never worked after a construction accident.
  • Here the two half-brothers who lived and aged together for more than 3 decades, the older one passed away first, his brother’s name on his lips, his brother’s arms around him.
  • Here, another alcoholic and a tenant, in the basement, who couldn’t live peaceably with her partner.
  • Here the family that faced with dread that the daughter had inherited the mother’s disease, the men stood stalwart by these wives, only grouching about parking or snow removal.
  • Here the family who bought a home, a dream they could just afford, but it burned down early one morning, grandmother escaping with grandchildren, because the little boy who lived in the basement apartment found some matches. They didn’t have insurance either.
  • Here the mother who shepherded her two sons to school everyday, past her ex-mother-in-law, who would speak to none of them.
  • Here the woman, schizophrenic, who has managed through medication and personal strength and neighbourliness, to raise her child well.

There’s more, there’s always more, but that’s enough. As my neighbour June would sum up such events, “It’s always something on [our street].”

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June 12, 2010

Cynthia’s Walks

On Cynthia’s passing: It was peaceful. She was surrounded by family. And it was too soon. “Damn, damn, damn.” Her memorial has been set for September 11th, 1 p.m. at St. John Norway.

She had a long stride, so she moved fast. It’s the way I remember Cynthia, arms swinging, backpack on one shoulder.

Neighbours at the 2009 Terry Fox Walk

Cynthia’s wearing her Breast Cancer T-shirt on the Terry Fox Walk. We were walking for another dear neighbour.

We walked a lot, me less eagerly, hoping instead to sit on her couch, she striding ahead, explaining that she couldn’t walk slowly. There were the shopping trips, brisk evening walks with other neighbours, and longer fundraising walks. Always walking.

When Cynthia heard about the first Jane’s Walk, she said, “We should lead one in our neighbourhood.” She had already talked to the head of a local community agency. I was working, at the time, at United Way Toronto on issues around building strong communities. But, as a researcher, stepping out in front was not my first inclination, so I demurred, offering only to speak at one of the stops. That first walk became Ashbridges to Little India. The next year, Cynthia and I led a group of forty through a torrential rain, stopping at the Mahar Restaurant for chai and samosas that Cynthia had arranged through the local BIA.

Cynthia Brouse, award-winning magazine writer, editor and my friend and neighbour for nearly fifteen years, I was proudest of a Toronto Life piece for which she hadn’t won an award: Indian Summer, the story of living in our east-end neighbourhood. (She was kind enough to omit the story of our first meeting, when, toddlers in tow, I had brushed her off and, instead, she included a quixotic story about my son and I dancing with a sparkler. And about how “dense, multiplex networks” function.)

Last year, our Greenwood Coxwell walk gained some profile, being written up by a Globe columnist, but Cynthia wasn’t well enough to lead the walk again with me. Her breast cancer had returned. Another neighbour, a historian, stepped in graciously to help, and Cynthia came to listen this time, her mother pushing her wheelchair.

However this year, within days of the annual walk, Cynthia said good-bye to her home and, for the last time, has been admitted to hospital.

Still, we talked about this thing we had joined together, this celebration of neighbourhoods, and the convergent theme of neighbourliness. I told her how this year the walk had grown again. Crazily, I had decided to do two walks, a reprise of our earlier ones and a new one I had thought up. And, crazily, two new walks had sprung up in the neighbourhood, led by others!  (The media coverage also grew with a Spacing radio podcasts of my walk and of Jane Farrow’s east end tour and also a CBC interview on Fresh Air about Jane’s Walks across the province which profiled our neighbourhood.) Our conversations had taken a life of themselves.

These ideas of local community, social networks, neighbouring, how we manage, or how we come to rely on each other, these themes were what Cynthia and I considered, continuously, until the end.

Earlier this spring, when things looked pretty gloomy, I joked with Cynthia, “I’ve had enough of sick and dying neighbours.”

Looking at me steadily, she said, “You will be happy again.”

Now, I remember that, and I imagine her offering me a cupcake to enjoy — because we can always walk it off.

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May 9, 2010

East end history re-discovered

Three delightful pieces of history collected on the recent Jane’s Walks in the Greenwood Coxwell Corridor (Little India) worth posting:

1. Footage of a soccer game in 1930s at the Ulster stadium, formerly located east of Greenwood and south of Gerrard St. East:

The Toronto Ulster United versus the Rangers.

Apparently the stadium was behind the Ulster Arms (nicknamed the Empty Arms by locals), for about 20 years and torn down after the war to build housing. There had been a football field and dog racing track too.

This picture from the Toronto Archives of 1940s Leslieville shows a racetrack along the very eastern edge of the photography, which is Highfield. (Dundas Avenue has not yet been extended through the neighbourhood, and a dirt path crosses what is now Greenwood Park.)

2. Denny Manchee collected this story from local historian, Joanne Doucette. Jane Farrow passed it on:

In the 1880s, real estate developers started marketing tiny lots 10 ft. wide to very poor people. The Ashbridges family owned the west side of Craven Road, which was still farmland, but the east side became this string of shacks called Shacktown. The developer was the same company that created Parkdale. Shacktown had the reputation of Regent Park did – drinking, guns, drugs. The shacks had no running water, no toilets, no police or fire protection, no schools.

Inevitably, people got sick from lack of sanitation (some died), so in 1909 the City took over that area and insisted people install running water. Many couldn’t afford it so they were evicted. Houses were condemned by the health authority and about half the people were turfed out. The fence was part of the cost the City had to pay when it expropriated a good portion of the west side to the street. It was erected to keep the riffraff away from the wealthier folk on the west. The street was named (rebranded!) Craven Road in 1923.

Joanne is a font of local lore and does a lot of guided walks for both the Toronto Field Naturalists and Lost Rivers.

3. The flat-roofed homes on the corner of Walpole and Woodfield Avenue were some of the first ones built in the neighbourhood and now house the fourth generation of the same family. The current residents explained that when their ancestors settled in the neighbourhood, the two brothers dug a hole in the ground, put sod over the top and stayed there until their homes were ready. Farm fields lay to the east, and Natives who worked the fields, lived in teepees to the west. They built many other homes in the neighbourhood, as well.

Also, the City of Toronto Archives has posted historic photos of Leslieville on Flicker.

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April 2, 2009

Urban or Suburban: Physical activities differ by kind, not amount

I have the daily pleasure of walking, to work, to shop, to visit my neighbours. In fact, at least once a week one of my neighbours and I will head out for an evening march, just to avoid too many evenings in front of a screen. I fit the profile of a central urban resident, as released in a Stats Can study looking at the physical activity levels of urban and suburban residents, Life in Metropolitan Areas.

My extended family live in less dense neighbourhoods, further out from the city core, with big lawns, wide streets, and impossibly long walks to a hardware store or a restaurant. The study shows however that their physical activity levels are still likely on par with mine because they do more outdoor yard work (much more!) and they are also more likely to engage in an active leisure activity.

So, the study’s analysis of daily activitity shows, however we do it, urban and suburban dwellers tend to spend about the same amount of time engaged in daily physical activities. (If you’re interested in some of the other demographic characteristics of active people, see a previous Statistics Canada study, Who participates in active leisure?)

There were, however, two exceptions to the comparable physical activity levels amongst urban and suburban residents.

Suburban dwellers who were less physically active were those who:

  • work or go to school more than 9 hours a day, and/or
  • live in the tall residential apartments and condominiums that sprinkle most of Toronto’s suburbs, those that live in the tall towers, far from easy transit or commercial activities. 

While New Urbanism (see also CBC’s video clips on the topic) addresses some of the issues of built form and more compact and walkable communities, targeted intitiatives, such as the Mayor’s Tower Renewal project, are more likely to make a difference to those who are not physically active. Introducing such things as commmunity gardens and mixed commercial activity, the Tower Renewal Project changes the landscape surrounding tall buildings, thereby providing further opportunties for local residents to be physically active, whether through walking to do their errands or yard work.

Today’s Stats Can study simply underscores how landscape offers different opportunities to be physically active.

 

 

January 26, 2009

Local school reviews: The problem of declining enrollment, pt. 1

Our local school is undergoing a Local Accommodation Review, one of those bureaucratic phrases which raises the specter of school closings. It’s the sort of thing, not long ago, during the Harris years, which would have brought parents out in swarms.  It passed nearly unnoticed last week at a school board sub-committee meeting.

Of course, there are fewer of us to notice now. When my high-school-aged daughter started school there, enrollment was twice what it is now.

Neighbourhood demographics have shifted, and homes which housed one or more families in apartments now house singles, childless couples or smaller families. Babies are still being born into the neighbourhood, however our homes are now considered “starter” homes, with a large homes in the neighbourhood have three bedrooms. By the time the babies are ready for school, new siblings have arrived, and families move away.

Most schools around the province are seeing declining enrollments. Birthrates are down everywhere. The only schools left with portables are “receiver” communities, where Canadian newcomers are settling or where new (and bigger) housing is being built.

Declining enrollment continues to hurt the idea of neighbourhood schools. The Liberals have yet to substantially change the funding formula, which is still driven by the number of students enrolled in a school board.

Year over year,  school boards have had to continue to cut back as their revenues dropped, even while some of their costs remained the same or grown: fixed costs such as a full-time secretary or janitor or rising costs such as energy and maintenance of older buildings. And it has meant that school are undergoing Local Accommodation Reviews.

What this calls for is creativity and the willingness to look at new ways of managing these resources which sit at the centre of every city neighbourhood. But perhaps what it also means is that government, school boards and communities will demonstrate a willingness to take some risks to preserve the idea of local schools.

More on these solutions to come….

October 9, 2008

City of Toronto Community Services Strategy

The City of Toronto is developing a Community Services Strategy and, on October 7, over 200 representatives from the city’s community agencies were invited to help shape it. Hunkered around tables just north of Flemingdon Park, participants spent the day brainstorming together. City staff gathered the input as it was generated and fed it back at the start of the next rounds of discussion. 

Building on the work of the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce (City of Toronto: Strong Neighbourhoods Task Force) and, less acknowledged, the United Way’s Neighbourhood Vitality Index (A Neighbourhood Vitality Index: An Approach to Measuring …), the strategy will look at the services and supports which should be available across Toronto’s neighbourhoods. If a set of benchmarks can be developed that identify missing services and local supports, presumably, the City and others can target resources more effectively. It will also help to answer some City Councillors questions of “when is enough, enough?”  Through this exercise, the answer of “enough” will be more quantifiable – and justifiable.

Research and policy staff have a lot of ground to cover before they bring the initial report to the Community Development and Recreation Committee on November 14. But they have made a good start.

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