Monday, 31 December 2012

Crafting up Greatness at PARC

I’m no Barbra Streisand (both in looks and dexterity), so it’s no surprise that whenever craft time was upon us in grade school I would fake an illness, try to stage my untimely death, or eat a tube of glue to induce illness (or death). Craft time was my personal hell, and I avoided its horrid ability to prove just how clumsy and ungraceful I can be well into my adult life. And then I came to PARC.

Which is why I only like crafts that involve alcohol.
See, my original intention was to work in an environment that would support my background in urban studies – a field dominated by the formalities and professionalism of planners, architects, consultants, policy advisors…So you can imagine how much I started to collapse within myself after I was asked to make feathers from tinfoil for three hours. It was a whole new version of self-induced hate after I put everything I had into a dream catcher that ended up looking more like a sewer gyre.

The 'Endless Tree' created by PARC members and staff.
The irony of being handed off into the arms of PARC’s artistic director was not lost on me. I am the least likely candidate to support an arts program; most of the time I have enough trouble staying upright, and any feeble attempts I make to be visually creative usually end up looking like a modern Picaso if Picaso was a paraplegic. It took time for me to understand that the type of art we do at PARC isn’t necessarily about results, but process. I was the only one who cared that my art was pre-school, or that I couldn’t cross-stitch a goddamn cardboard box. We are learning together, and, more importantly, allowing our selves to flow into our craft. It is an outlet and an extension of the stories and struggles of people who wouldn’t otherwise have an outlet.

Nowadays, when I step into the craft room at PARC to paint a giant canvas tree or make ‘wise puppets’ out of clay, I feel a deep sense of purpose covered in a blanket of safe serenity. We begin each session with a ten minute meditation where every person involved can find that place where thoughts turn inward and creativity is born. We sing Celtic folk songs and make non-sensical voices for our made-up characters. We write stories about imaginary markets and creatures born in our heads. But most importantly, we become ourselves and embrace the various multifaceted and multidimensional forms that take shape when people collaborate to make art.  

Warming up at the Sound Choir.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

A Return to the Blogger's Plight.

This post is a continuation of Me, My Self and My Blog.

TOTALLY one of those people.
Ever know a person who is a rather talented filmmaker/actor/storyteller/dancer/one of those people who seem to be good at anything they try? I have a friend that possesses this god-like ability to somehow immediately absorb any skill she wants, and master it in a fraction of the time it would take my skinny, white, sometimes a little ‘slow’ ass. Although I watch in half-wonderment, half-envy as my comrade one-ups me in everything, I am also taken back by how she had attributed her success to her blog. Struck by how someone I knew could use a shared social media tool to obtain a dream, I began to look at my blog as something that had potential beyond just a hobby. I was also scared at the prospect of my online self  becoming much bigger than my real self.

The advent of pipe dreams and visions of unrealistic blogger fame creates some pretty serious questions. If I am to even attempt to ‘scale out’ my blog, I have to start thinking about it in terms of its entertainment value and where that can intersect (or take away from) the more introspective, personal side I have created. Does the transition from small-scale to super-stardom necessarily mean that your integrity is compromised somewhere in between? How will the intentions behind my blog change while it becomes bigger and more widely adopted? Do I even have control over this process? In some ways I think it’s easier to not change a thing, but sameness becomes staleness and I’ll just get bored and join the exceedingly massive pile of dormant websites that clutter the internet. So….with change comes fear, with fear comes do I mount my fears like a steed and ride into the unpredictable horizon of ‘make-it-or-break-it’ bloggers? Hopefully I’ll still get to use awesome metaphors like that.

I don't know, but I think this is how it would look.

"SEE. I TOLD you leprechaun pole vaulting was REAL."

I recall a discussion in class mid-semester about the ‘self-made expert’ of the internet; the thousands of average people with ordinary intelligence who find some dark corner of the internet and claim unwittingly sound and superior judgement in politics, gardening, vegan baking, raising children, finding God, weightlifting, interpretive dance and just about every other subject of life on earth. Blogs allow people to step into that fabricated role of ‘holy knower of all things’, regardless of creed, experience and/or background. I ponder over how much I’ve let myself do the same. I discuss many things in my blog, though I am not an expert in any of them. Do people actually read my stuff and assume I knew exactly what I was talking about? It’s an interesting case when you consider how I’ve already written about fundraising, university, public broadcasting, tourism, Christmas and more. Interestingly enough, having the gumption to talk about these things and post them for the world to see has in turn increased my confidence as a writer. So is it really such a bad thing?

Now more than ever I am seeing new applications for my blog. Every time I do something big or meaningful I ask myself if I can successfully transform it into a readable post. But the bigger my blog gets, the more mediated it becomes. In fact, as I’ve come to realise lately, everything about the process of creating a blog has been mediated by something else. The act of writing a post is mediated by what I believe to be truth, which in turn is mediated by something else that has convinced me of this (a book, a TV Show, a newspaper, etc). Even when I write about first-hand experiences I have compromised isolated truth; the pure act of seeing a mountain, riding a bus or attending a concert has certain mediation in how I understand it. That filter or lens between my self and the world around me obscures reality and I reproduce this false picture on my blog for all to see.

Thus I have created the most depressing and de-motivating group of sentences about Lost and Found to ever be written. Although the fact that my blog is but an ultra-mediated fabrication of real life, I still feel the need to work on my craft as a writer. I have acknowledged its limitations as something devoid of pure unbridled real stuff, but what, in all honesty, is?

Not much these days. 

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Hamilton: Southern Ontario's Best Kept Secret?

Heading Southwest on Queen Elizabeth Way, a vital superhighway that shoots out of Toronto’s West end and skirts Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls/Fort Erie, it would be hard to miss the greyscale stacks and old brick factories that indicate only one thing: you’re passing Hamilton.

At its most Western point, the lake funnels off and you cross the “Allan Skyway”, boasting the best views of what was once the industrial capitol of Southern Ontario, but now barely resembles a long dead era. In fact, the only real reminders of working class heritage are the skeletal remains of the monsters and machines that once ruled all.

Because of its short rise and fall at the fate of a rapidly changing economy, Hamilton is now commonly asserted as ‘Canada’s butthole’; a filthy leftover, full of poor blue-collar remnants that were caught in a city that grew beyond its own capacity to sustainably fill jobs and provide proper housing. But in between the flashes of old Hamilton’s short-lived heyday is a city that still lives on, a city that hasn’t yet succumbed to the intensity of modernity and a place that is struggling to revive itself….And is. Believe it or not, change is present, and Hamilton is beginning to put itself back on the map, but in quite a different way. Here are a few reasons why:

The Hamilton ‘Supercrawl’

The topic of Hamilton as a city in transition would be grossly incomplete without including its burgeoning arts scene, now immensely present in the downtown core. Enter the ‘Supercrawl’: A weekend of never-ending parties that celebrate art from all corners of the earth, colliding in the bars and galleries of James Street and various outdoor stages erected for this very event. Last year hosted the likes of Great Lake Swimmers and K’naan., while giving over 75,000 visitors a weekend that wouldn’t be easily forgotten. The best part: it’s totally free and easily accessible.

The rest of year Hamilton continues to support a diverse range of new ‘up-and-coming’ artists who have completely reshaped the culture scene in the city (if Hamilton even had a ‘culture scene’ to begin with). Many attribute the rise in arts and culture to be the reason why Hamilton didn’t become a ghost town in the early 21st century. Whichever opinion you choose to take, it’s clear that the influx of hipsters, artists and neo-hippies in Hamilton is creating new space for identity and economy.

The Hamilton Farmers’ Market

No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, you’ve never quite seen anything like Hamilton’s Farmers’ Market.

In the centre of the city rests a permanent space dedicated to the immigrant merchants and fresh-ass food you won’t find in too many other places. This multi-level market-style complex houses ethnic goods from around the world and seems to stretch into oblivion; each corner rounded a new culinary adventure awaiting your senses - a mash of Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, African and more.

During the industrial boom of the early 20th century, Hamilton became a main entrepot for skilled labourers that left Northern Europe in search of prosperity inside mills and factories. The market is a byproduct of a European-style center of trade and commerce, gaining its first roots as a Jewish grocer but eventually expanding into the mega-market it is today. Hamilton’s rich history of working-class immigrant settlers that formed the original city is alive and well in the market and can be enjoyed by everyone.

Waterfalls of Hamilton

Probably the last item one would imagine on a Tour de Hamilton would be a picturesque waterfall. Well…Think again, and then think a multitude of cascading H2O, and you have a city with the ultra-cool title of ‘The Waterfall Capital of Canada’. Apparently, a shitload of water rockets over a shitload of high crested rocky cliffs in and around Hamilton.

Albion Falls.
This unexpected treasure is actually a product of Lake Ontario geography. Hamilton is located at the very Western tip of this giant blue body, where plenty of rivers and watersheds flow into the lake. Couple that with the fact that the area is surrounded by a giant riff in the earth known as the Niagara Escarpment, and you get waterfalls…Waterfalls everywhere.

Many flock to the trails and viewpoints of places like Mill Falls, Albion Falls and my favourite, the Devils Punch Bowl to meet these hydrological giants and feel the wrath of thousands of litres of water flying over a cliff.

The Bruce Trail

You’re in escarpment country now, where hiking trails for all age and skill levels creep through the umpteen conservation areas, highlighting the hidden natural beauty of Hamilton’s backyard. From Dundas Valley to the Eramosa Karst, the options for exploring are endless, but the main artery that runs through this network is none other than the Bruce Trail, Canada’s oldest and largest hiking experience.

Running 885km from Niagara to the Bruce Penensula, the trail has gained notoriety as being the god of all hiking itineraries in Canada. More hikers seem to be interested in the trail every year, some undertaking ‘end-to-ends’ that can last up to three months and traverse every kilometre of its winding route. Hamilton serves as a perfect mid-point on the ‘Iroquoia’ section, before the trail heads North past Burlington and Milton.

No matter how you look at it, Hamilton is changing, and growing, and metamorphisizing…Into what, we’re still not sure yet, but I think it’s interesting and you should too. So, next time you’re passing that freaky-ass industrial shoreline along the QEW, consider looking beyond and stepping into Steel City. 

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

From Lost to Found on the Niagara Escarpment.

Stifled by endless school assignments and shitty fall weather, I decided recently that it was time for another small adventure to recharge my batteries and remind myself of life outside. But where to go, and what to do? I love Toronto, but it can be one hell of an entrapment when you’re looking for a bit of solitude. Perhaps I could find a nice private cabin in Muskoka that doesn’t cost my unborn child’s college tuition? Or maybe Niagara Falls happens to accommodate the winter camper? All wishful thinking, none a feasible option.

I was almost ready to give up, convincing myself that escaping the concrete jungle was an impossibility on my measly budget and strict timescale. At the same time, the semesters end had me yearning for a good read, and I picked up Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, because if I couldn’t travel physically goddamit I was at least going to go somewhere mentally. Strayed not only captured my attention in her incredible true story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, but also reminded me of how much I fucking love hiking. It was, very quickly after this revelation, when I decided to go on a trip anyways and see the world-famous Bruce Trail

The Bruce Trail, in case you haven’t heard, is Canada’s oldest and longest trail system that runs 885km from Niagara to Tobermory on the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. While I wasn’t about to embark on an end-to-end trip (that would take about a month and a half), I could at least spend a couple days on the nearby Niagara Escarpment where the trail offers scenic views and an opportunity to rekindle a relationship with Mother Nature. Its closest access point from Toronto is only an hour away by car but can be located by using other transportation systems located in the towns and cities it passes.

At the foot of the DPB
A mere hour on a Westbound GO Train and I found myself in downtown Hamilton, hopping a city bus to its outskirts and traversing the grassy knolls of Battlefield Park to a Bruce Trail connection. From there, the trail switchbacks up the Niagara Escarpment and enters a place called the Devils Punch Bowl, or a giant fucking crater in the earth with a waterfall and shit. I almost forgot where I was for a while, resting atop a rocky outcropping devouring an egg salad sandwich and watching my fellow hikers with their dogs that relentlessly and excitedly explore every inch of cold ground.

I know it’s a pretty far stretch, but I couldn’t help but compare myself to Strayed while I strapped on my hiking pack and camera case or lost my breath on a steep ascent. Two days on the escarpment is nothing like the brutality of three months across in the Sierra Nevada, and I only created one wimpy blister during the trip – unlike the swollen, toenail-dying, chewed up rawness of Strayeds’ feet (which are described in gruesome detail in the book). Still, the spirit of being on the trail in the wilderness was not lost on me. Nor was the innate wonder of the Niagara Escarpment. 

Standing at the iconic Stoney Creek lookout.

My second day on the trail followed a not so fruitful sleep at a hostel in Hamilton. Exhausted, I found my way again out to the brink of civilization, this time at the edge of the Kings Forest, due 45min Southeast of the city. Now descending the escarpment, I was reminded how much harder it is to walk down than up. I emerged, knees shaking uncontrollably and hands covered in dirt and stone from grabbing roots and rocks to stabilize myself, in front of the spectacle of Albion Falls, a cascading 62ft tower of water. The sight of it became the homage of my trip – my hiking was over, but I would spend an extra hour watching how the water tumbled over each small riff in the earth, eventually pooling into rock-filled enclaves at my feet.

Albion Falls.

My trip through the escarpment, however small it was, reminded me of simple pleasures – hiking alone in the woods, with nothing to do but think about your life, moving forward and respecting the trail you’ve already walked. 

*Cheryl Strayed's Wild can be purchased here. This book will blow your mind.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Avoiding the Corporate Christmas Blues

Ever notice how much Christmas is actually just a huge bummer? I mean, I get it…Being seduced by ‘The Christmas Spirit’ is great, and I’ll admit to feeling jolly after stuffing myself stupid with cranberry sauce, literally turning my stomach in a bow full of jelly. The fact of the matter is, though, for many us, a more accurate opening line for ‘Deck The Halls’ would read ‘Tis the season to be stressed and feel like dying’.

When Christmas lights rape your head.
We’ve overcomplicated things because of the significance that gets uncontrolably packed into a few important weeks of holiday. The ‘cheer’ part only seems to resurface in short waves when you’re not sardined into a lineup at Wal Mart or attending the infinitely long and useless company holiday pot latch. When all is said and done, it feels almost emancipating to free oneself of the festive season, no longer bound by solving mysterious gift ideas or navigating the pandemonium of shopping centres during Early Christmas, Black Weekend, Green Thursday, Mid-December, Pre-Christmas, Pre-Pre Christmas, Last Minute, Last Second, I-Literally-Forgot-to-Buy-My-Wife-Something-and-its-6am-on-December-25th, Boxing Day, Boxing Week, New Years and Just-For-Shits-and-Giggles sales. In lieu of the aforementioned, it’s no surprise that something called ‘holiday depression’ is now considered a serious disorder that has become commonplace during this time of year.

Three years ago, I did something that would change the course of Christmas forever: I abstained from gift giving/receiving. This simple yet oh so season-changing decision was met with chagrin from family members and passive scolding from friends, but was also the smartest thing I’d done in a long, long, panic-induced-from-buying-presents time. That December, I avoided all things with a price tag like the plague and didn’t step one foot into a mall, instead finding more time for myself and the people around me. The residual effects on my student-sized wallet and time management strategy were unbelievable, but what made the largest impact were the other changes it would catalyse.

I immediately regret posting this.
I’ve found the simple act of refusing gift exchanges has forced me to find a new approach to Christmas. Suddenly, other, less tangible things became more important, and consequently my experience of Christmas has changed shape over the past few years. My partner and I don’t buy things for each other; instead, we go on trips over the break. This year, I’m co-hosting Christmas Eve for the family for the first time. I read books, see old friends and make food. I’m spending more time preparing for holiday events at PARC instead of creating gift lists.

This isn’t a shameless self-plug or boastful post, nor is it an anti-corporate politically charged message. I am not suggesting widespread gift-less holidays (some people just can’t help it, as I’ve come to learn after having a few slipped to me every year in the wake of my ‘no gifting’ protests). I am suggesting a toning down of the things that are merely physical things, because those things don’t get us closer to each other.

Think about it: what’s the worst thing that could happen if you reduced gift giving? A few long faces on Christmas Day? Confused children? Now brainstorm the benefits. We have a hard time abstracting the true meaning of this time of year from the boxes wrapped in shiny paper, but I promise you that fewer things under the tree equal a Christmas where you don’t feel like sticking your head in an oven. And that’s just priceless.  

Have a safe and happy holiday season. Love, Me.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Hostels vs. Hotels: The No-Brainer of Accommodations in Canada

Remember when your cousin ate so many marshmallows he crapped all the colours of the rainbow for three days straight, and your mother never again purchased those light fluffy slices of cloud in fear of creating another poop-induced epidemic?

"Chubby Bunny" was a household favourite.
Sometimes the decisions and reputation of one person or thing can ruin it for the rest of us. Hostels are no exception to this rule, only instead of a bad case of the shits you have fear mongering over rapists and thieves. Yet in all my experience staying in hostels across Canada I’ve never once felt like I was in danger of losing my butt virginity to a crazed train-hopper. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I willingly choose hostelling for a few important reasons, all of which add to the experience of traveling someplace in a very positive way. We hold certain expectations of who the general hostel-goer is and what they do, but the fact of the matter is that people of all walks of life – young, old, non-Canadian, wizards, mimes, couples, Treebeard from LOTR - end up in hostels, which only adds to the uniqueness of the space (although some of those things may only appear when using hallucinogenic drugs).

Still unconvinced? Read ahead: 5 reasons why hostelling is superior.

1) Why do I have so much money?

The 'deluxe double room' at
beautiful 'La Maison du Patriote'
in Montreal; $64/Night for two.
Hostels save whatever small pieces of dignity still exist within that pitiful reserve you call a bank account. If budget traveling is your thing, hostels are the climax of low-cost orgasms. A bed in a dorm usually ranges from $20 – $28, depending on the facilities, but the option to rent a private room is available at many locations. The price range is, of course, higher and wider, but still very cheap when compared to the deep gouging Holiday Inn across the street. This means you can bring a ‘special friend’ along without it forcing you on food stamps for the following year.

The overwhelming savings can thus also be used for more fun shit during your trip. This may leave you feeling liberated and free from the shackles of financial worries. Yes, the hills are alive with the sound of loose change weighing down your trousers.

2) Awesome people. Awesome people everywhere.

You’re an awesome person. That’s no secret, but, as Big Daddy Kane thoroughly explains, ‘Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy’. In order to keep your street cred at a satisfactory level, you’ll need to network between other awesome people to keep a diverse gangtsa portfolio. Luckily for you, hostels are a mecca of unique individuals from all over the world, and they’re anxiously awaiting your complicated handshake of straight thug brotherhood.

 Hostels attract more than just old waspy couples from the ‘burbs because it’s not just an accommodation – it’s an opportunity to make new friends and experience new things. They are a gateway into the community and keep you connected to other folks who are visiting. Get ready for a Facebook friends list that will be admired by all.

3) The hardest part is saying goodbye.

A private cabin at the unforgettable
 Dawson City River Hostel  -
Canada's Northernmost hostel
If hotels are the epitome of ultra-rational segregated mindless confinement (and let’s face it….they kinda are), hostels are a different spectrum of colorful, welcoming warmth that are community-oriented and intentionally supportive. The experience of traveling somewhere can be rewarding, but also quite isolating if you’re far from home. You may feel like an outsider and completely unadjusted to a new place and way of life. If only you could find a place that feels more familiar.…more acknowledging of your situation.

BAM. Now you’re in a FUCKING HOSTEL and shit just took a turn for the helpful. Hostels are in themselves micro-communities designed for optimum fun during your stay. They are well connected to the surrounding area and are invested in your experience, often helping you find the ‘hidden gems’ that make a trip worthwhile. Allow yourself to be absorbed into a hostel community and in turn reap the benefits of unlimited hook-ups.

4) Customer care: you’re doing it right.

Oftentimes hostels will employ people who are in your boat: travelers, wanderers, adventure-seeking individuals who are passionate about being on the road and actually want you to take something away from all of this. They’ll tell you about local deals, the best places to eat, amazing best kept secrets and the things/places/people that can rip you off so hard it will leave a nasty rash.

Behind this solid advice is a person who has insider knowledge and wishes to share their sound judgment. Being able to rely on well-informed people that are hired for you to gratuitously take advantage of is just another perk of hostel life.

5) There’s so much room for activities.

So by now I’ll assume your next trip will involve a hostel. If this article wasn’t convincing enough to you, that’s just fine….I know that silly “O.J Simpson” trial you juried for was also a huge hoax, as was the so called ‘evidence’ of political prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Hosteling must be another sham created by the corporate machine to turn us into robots or something.

The Nanaimo International Hostel - more of
a house than a hostel - in central Nanaimo 
For those of you who aren’t wearing tinfoil hats, be glad that hostels usually offer ‘member benefits’ that allow its patrons to do amazing stuff at discounted prices. Rollbacks on transportation, museums, eateries and tours are to name a few. And don’t forget the endless amount of activities that can happen inside a hostel, such as jam sessions, bingo nights, concerts and drink-offs that are easy on the pocketbook and heavy on the friend-making fun-ness.

Next time you’re planning a getaway, be a champ and stay at a hostel. It’s only the coolest thing that all the cool people are doing.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Toronto: A Critical Tour, Pt.2.

West Hill

          (Continued from Toronto: a Critical Tour, Pt.1)

            Just as soon as you’ve acclimatized to the suits and Irish-Pubs gone Hollywood, the fashonistas disappear and the weather is groping under your skin. It’s pre-winter; that time of year when it’s too damn cold for your permeable city skin and the snow hasn’t fallen yet so all you’re left with is a cloudy sky and gusts of wind that feel like a thousand tiny needles assaulting the light fall coat you’ve adorned in full denial of the rapidly changing seasons. Beside you is a bus stop that is ordinarily graffiti’d with black ink, mocking the cheesy poster of some kid visiting The North Pole. At your feet, though, close to one hundred wreaths, flowers and envelopes trace the periphery of the glass shelter and cover the gap where the walls end and the sidewalk begins. You look up; you’re standing on the corner of Danzig St. and Morningside Ave.

            Not six months ago, Danzig St. was seen by many as just another failed low-income housing project that centralized crime in Toronto’s East end suburb of Scarborough. One fateful night in July 2012, however, would change this community forever as gunshots rang out over the scene of a massive ‘block party’ early in the evening. A staggering 23 people would be wounded and two more victims dead after ‘Toronto’s deadliest shooting’ shook fear into the lives of the families involved. Although the horror of such a tragedy is unparalleled, the attributed gun and gang-related violence is not uncommon in the area. Consequently, the ‘Danzig Shootings’ became a poster child for how community violence was framed in local media long after.

His Righteousness, the soon to be exiled Mayor Rob Ford visiting Danzig soon after the shootings. 
        Like plenty of other stories we hear and read about, the shootings in Lower West Hill were retold by dominant media as an external problem, blaming guns and gangs for this and other crime-related activities in the GTA. What we miss, however, is a fuller and more complete analysis of what is actually happening in a place like Danzig. Newpapers and TV reports fail to properly identify and discuss how the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has recently closed several public schools in the area with more cutbacks to extracurricular programming in the facilities that do exist, or how rapid development and corporatization in the area has further marginalized low-income communities, and what part that has played in the rising rates of violence in West Hill.

            Perspectives from Toronto Police don’t add much clarity to the situation, either. A recent study conducted on police accounts of gun violence in Toronto found that the violence was ‘commonly associated in the media with young black males’ and that ‘the most prominent police frame attributed the problem to the proliferation of gangs, illegal gun smuggling and illicit drug trafficking.’ (Ezeonu, I, 2010. pp.150). The language and jargon of these reports can be incredibly oppressing and smother community voices, disadvantaging the affected peoples by discouraging reclamation of shared values, space and safety. Being critical of media literacy identifies how language in media can subversively blame and finger-point without accurately depicting a story (this is also referred to as Critical Media Literacy). Bakari Chavanu (2011) explains how ‘Critical media literacy proposes that, with different information, viewers might make different choices or engage in different behaviours’ (pg.285). The idea that media can influence behaviour is incredibly poignant to the case of the Danzig Shootings and other crime in the GTA because of its relevancy to our reactions and perspectives.

Queen West

            From outer city to urban innards, you’ve immersed yourself into the never ending flocks of tourists that head West: to Queen West, that is. There is, arguably, no better example of a corporate takeover in the city than Queen West between Younge Street and Bathurst. Unlike the oober-modern New-York inspired Dundas Square, a flashy cousin to the North of Queen West, there was little to no planning involved in the expansion of big, multinational companies that usurped space originally entitled to the indie scene on this strip of Queen Street. Only the second largest destination for shoppers in Toronto, it can be easy to lose yourself amongst the crowds that line the precipice of concrete and glossy storefront on any given day.

            The unbridled change of corporate stakeholders on Queen West has also affected the identity of its residents and long time community members. Once upon a time, this area was slated for long term ‘cultural redevelopment’ that would invest in important social services and support local business. But as Queen West became a popular destination in Toronto, larger and more powerful players became involved. The mix of modernist-planning dominating at city hall and multinational interest in the 1960’s would quickly rearrange priorities on Queen West and transform its fabric. This extreme change is also ‘attributed to such factors as existing land use planning regulatory frameworks and the organizational structures prevalent in municipal government.’ (Mcdonough & Wekerle, 2011. Pg.41). Today, any cultural planning still prevalent on Queen West exists in spaces that must be actively searched.

            While the invasion of neon street signs infects your body with harsh coloured lights, you catch something different out of the corner of your eye. Down a narrow alley and beyond the skeleton of a fire escape you examine how the colours on the wall bleed and blend into each other, creating a vast array of multi-toned pictures and obscure manifestos. Curiosity grabs hold as you step off Portland Street and into a world where shapes form words and every inch of space is covered with something unique. You are on Rush Lane, aka ‘Graffiti Alley’, where street art monstrously invades your every sense. Scrawled on walls are coded messages, disproportionate animals, fantastical renderings of figureheads and secret letters for lovers past. To describe it as political graffiti would be a grave understatement, but it’s all we have. If there’s any one place cultural planning should be expanded, it’s from graffiti alley out into the world at large.

            Graffiti has been a medium utilized by many for many years. The endless possibilities for its use as a tool of expression, dissent, creativity, art-making and more have kept graffiti culture in Toronto strong. As the municipal government declares war on graffiti, the graffiti-makers find more applications. Political graffiti engages passersby and disrupts the influence of corporate city spaces like Queen West. Stencils and other types of wall art can be used as ‘a form of protest...throughout the world...because they are easy to make, quick to apply, and can be used over and over...Whether in a school or on the streets, stencils – at least political ones – can catch onlookers’ attention and make them think.’ (Reed, 2011. Pg.298).

St. Lawrence

            The-absurd-hectic clusterfuck of Queen West was probably enough to induce a seizure, so it’s nice that you’ve ended up in a rather tranquil setting during this last leg. You can faintly hear children laughing in the background of a small urban park, the odd car rumbles by but the quiet of this place is almost melodic. You haven’t left the city, but you’ve arrived at your final destination. Welcome to the St. Lawrence residential neighbourhood in Toronto’s West Port Lands.

            Bound by the decrepit Gardiner Expressway to the South, the bustle of Front Street East on the North, the entrepot Union Station a close neighbour to the West and The Distillery District on the East, the St. Lawrence community is probably the last place you would expect to find a little peacefulness. Yet here it is; a well thought-out collective of people who represent almost every walk of life in Toronto: single working professionals, low-income families, young couples, conservatives, liberals, socialists....In semi-blissful harmony. So what is it about this place that absorbs its residents in a bout of radical inclusivity, and how has media helped in the shaping of the community?

            If Toronto has royally messed up on its waterfront by allowing the ugly giant teeth of high-rise condos to spatter the lakeshore, then St. Lawrence stands in defiance of this rubric by offering an alternative solution of inviting people from all over the city into a shared space. The development has made this possible by offering a blend of at-market and subsidized housing while building mixed-use business and recreational areas. The successful collision of multiple demographics has produced opportunities for expression and art making that has bled into the rest of the city.  

            One such community arts organization to rise from the mesh of people in St. Lawrence is the Neighbourhood Arts Network; an organization that has supported many St. Lawrence public artwork projects including the Co-Ops Artwork. The outcomes have included giant community-engaged murals in the area that embody the challenges and realities of co-operative housing environments in Toronto. Other pieces that have emerged from the Arts Network are the Scrape-Bleeker murals, an 18’ public artwork designed by the Bleeker Street Co-operative members. Community-based murals are just another example of how community artists transcend what de Zengotita (2005) referred to as ‘an environment of representations’, where highly fabricated media addresses us ‘by design. We are at the center of all the attention, but there is a thinness to things, a smoothness, a muffled quality.’ (pg.15). Embracing the messiness of community arts in St. Lawrence has directly opposed the streamlined nature of mainstream art and provided a venue for all voices to be heard.


de Zengotita, T. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live
in It. New York: Bloomsbury Puslishing.

Ifeanyi, E. (2010). Gun violence in Toronto: perspectives from police. Howard Journal
of Criminal Justice. (49), 2. pp.147-165.

Mcdonough, A. & Wekerle, G. (2011). Integrating cultural planning and urban planning:
the challenged of implementation. Canadian Journal of Urban Research. pp.27-51.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Toronto: A Critical Tour, Pt.1

            Today, we’re going on a journey. A mental journey. On this whimsical trip through space and time, we’ll visit and explore the people and landscapes that shape the physical fabric of Toronto while understanding their realities through the use of mediated culture. The dominant real, cyber and imagined tools used to create collective identity is often only a surface-level or inaccurate interpretation of a community.  Asking questions about each medium while seeking options for grassroots reforming or dissent can transcend these ideological perceptions to create more appropriate and community-based depictions.

            Our journey will include stops in five different yet interconnected Toronto communities where we will learn about their histories, the present-day social tensions and/or bonds, how media has shaped their role within the city, and what options exist to disrupt and transform these processes. In such a large and diverse space like Toronto, many different connections can be made between its urban fabric and mediated culture. This is but a snippet of the opportunities we have for communal learning and growth. Buckle in; shit’s going to get crazy.


            Our trip begins during a mid-fall Saturday afternoon on Queen Street West at Landsdowne. Storefront windows showcase tacky trinkets and borderline-creepy mannequins (or person-equins, to be politically correct) dressed in 80’s style shawls while old white men lean against the glass, chain smoking beside a cart full of empty beer bottles. Every once in a while, an avant-garde style bar or cafe screams itself onto the sidewalk, wedged in between the priceless fabric shop and the ‘Shawarma Palace’. It’s as if a hipster shape-shifted into a coffee shop and got lost in a bingo hall. It is also a sign of change, of things to come and other things being lost along the way.

The 'Parkdale Sharrows' - another example of slum housing in Parkdale
Despite the erratic whiff of stale body odour, something to do with this gadabout scene of old and new feels together; somehow intertwined with each other in a weirdly harmonious way. You’ve made your way West on Queen Street halfway to Roncesvalles Ave at Sorauren Ave when you suddenly stop because something interesting has caught your eye across the street. From your vantage point outside of Pete’s Diner, you curiously watch as a bustling group of people, some with walkers and wheelchairs, gather outside a small enclave with a door on one side. Through the window, a raucous of music and loud conversations competing to be heard emanates through walls and spills onto the street. The scene is almost memorizing and pulls you into the warmth of its interior – this place, of course, is the Parkdale Activity andRecreation Centre (PARC), known to many as simply ‘home’.

Of course, PARC wouldn’t be here if its users weren’t forced into the area in the first place. The 60’s were not a great era for Toronto’s West end, and the people here know that better that most – many of whom survived a decade of marginalization after the local mega mental health treatment hospital ‘deinstitutionalized’ and forced its residential care patients into group homes and slum housing projects. What followed was a systematic stereotyping of the mentally ill living in Parkdale and one of the worst examples of social segregation to ever happen in Toronto. Cut off from vital resources and support systems, these psychiatric patient survivors lived in isolation, fear and immense socio-economic oppression (many, in fact, still do). The way Toronto has unfairly portrayed this group in media and projected extreme NIMBYism (not in my back yard...ism) continues to haunt each individuals day-to-day struggle.

Today, places like PARC are promoting a resurgence of community open space where members can leave their baggage at the door and find solace in connecting with other residents while openly talking about their mental and physical challenges. Parkdale has also been the subject of a recent explosion in urban studies research. One article, entitled ‘Village Ghetto Land’ (Whitzman & Slater, 2006), disucsses how ‘in Parkdale, a history of the neighbourhood was constructed in the 1970’s by using a selective reading of the historic record, and this narrative has been used to legitimize the gentrification of the neighbourhood’ (pg.690). PARC has supported this research and is working with community members to draw an alternative and more accurate story of their histories. PARC has, in turn, created ‘accidental realness’ (de Zongotita, 2005) on the streets of Parkdale, where the issues of its residents are ‘something that has to be dealt with, something that isn’t an option. We are most free of mediation, we are most real, when we are at the disposal of accident and necessity.’ (pg.14).

Liberty Village

            There arguably couldn't be a place in Toronto that is in more juxtaposition to Parkdale than Liberty Village. Curiously, although such stark contrast exists, the two are located conveniently close by. You've been transported just Southeast of Parkdale to the heart of the ‘Entertainment District’ on King Street West. Overpriced furniture stores occupy the main floor of fifteen story buildings. The Goodlife Fitness Centre is just ahead. Suddenly, you've acquired a silk pashmina and skinny jeans. Time to hit the streets of Liberty Village.

            Liberty Village is a prime example of what is known as an ‘artist community’ that has been appropriated and reshaped to fit the desires of an upper-class development. The same transformation that took Liberty Village by storm in the 1970’s and 80’s can be seen in Parkdale now – though it is in a much later stage here. The hyper-gentrification of Liberty Village turned what was a derelict warehouse industrial area into Toronto’s most glamorous condo development in less than fifteen years and to the chorus of countless excluded voices who were pushed (or forced, to be more accurate) out of the area. John Catungal and Leslie Deborah (2009), authors of ‘Placing power in the creative city: governmentalities and subjectivities in Liberty Village, Toronto’ explain this phenomenon: ‘the production of a place identity requires both the production of new subjectivities and the exclusion of alternative actors and understandings of organization within the disctrict’ (pg.2579). Liberty Village certainly retains a unique identity within Toronto – an upscale, exclusive and downright facny-ass residential community where only the most business savvy and fashion-forward dwell. But how did this image become so big, and what medium was used to cover up the exclusion of other actors?

            Much of the forces at play can be understood by critically examining how the living spaces in Liberty Village – condominiums, to be precise – are advertised and framed in the media. There is a certain culture that is attached to condos and reinforced by media messages in real estate advertising: one of exclusivity, safety, and swank or posh living. Indeed, when you invest in a condo you aren’t just buying an apartment (presumably, you only buy apartments when you’re buying apartments). Instead, you’ve acquired a lifestyle. That is what makes condo living something to aspire to and that is also why housing in Liberty Village is so goddamn expensive.

1137 King Street West - a retrofitted industrial factory turned office space -
 is a prime example of  the upscale image sold for for your sole in Liberty Village 
          To put a name to this proverbial game, Liberty Village is a picture perfect example of something called targeted advertising. As Peter Steven (2011) frankly puts it, ‘Media executives are only concerned with those groups with the most money to spend – so we know the most about young men in their twenties and well-off urban dwellers’ (pg.78). Ads for new tenants at Liberty Village specifically target young, single well-to-do city folk by portraying a lifestyle only affordable by said group. By successfully deconstructing these medium, we learn how other voices are silenced in the process.


Catungal, J. & Leslie, D. (2009). Placing power in the creative city: governmentalities
and subjectivities in Liberty Village, Toronto. Environment & Planning. (41), 11. pp.2576-2594.

de Zengotita, T. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live
in It. New York: Bloomsbury Puslishing.

Slater, T. & Whitzman, C. (2006). Village ghetto land. Urban Affairs Review. (41), 5.

Steven, P. (2011). About Canada: Media. NS: Fernwood Publishing.