Friday, 13 April 2012

Queen West’s Most Important Facelift

            It’s a little absurd that I’m writing this post right now. I've just finished something called an undergraduate thesis, which was the single most important project I’ve completed as a student to date. I felt like shearing my eyebrows with a potato peeler after I unglued by body from the desk in my living room; a full weekend spent on trying to make sense of all the fieldwork, researching and archiving I’ve done. The sweet sound of victory was the slapping of a 45 page report on the desk of my adviser as a great smile took over my face. I felt like I was walking up the bobsled run during the slow clap scene of Cool Runnings. 

          Despite all the pain inherent with the process, I’m about to write a freakin’ post on it, because it’s really important, and hey, eyebrows only express emotions. Admittedly, doing research on one of the biggest mental health organizations in Canada like the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) was a little more than intimidating. I wasn’t always treated like someone worth talking to, or even responding to after dozens of phone calls and emails. I managed to leverage my previous experience in the field to access the right people, especially after I mentioned that I had fund raised over $9600 for their hospital last summer (tis a story for another time).

The original Provincial Lunatic Asylum ca.1867
            If you know anything about the history of Queen Street West in Toronto, you’ll be familiar with the old insane asylum at 999. The institution is over 150 years old and has seen the worst side of mental illness, beginning with its inception as the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in 1850. Traditionally, if you had (or were suspected of having) a mental illness during this time, you would have been sent here and forcefully put behind a wall to carry out your life, usually on an indefinite basis. This negative treatment led to one of the worst stigmatization's to ever be placed on a marginalized population. 

            Although the original massive Victorian facility has been torn down, in its place a decrepit residential hospital continues to treat clients. The old buildings that were a product of modernist thought in the 60’s do not match the quality and quantity of care that is required for psychiatric patients in the 21st century. In response to this issue, CAMH launched an ambitious project in 2004 to change both the reality of the programs and the (mostly inaccurate) ideas we attach to mental illness. Dubbed Changing Lives, its most courageous feat will be the complete redevelopment of the hospital, which changed addresses in the mid 1900’s to 1001 Queen Street West.

The Queen West Mental Health Centre during its first redevelopment in the early 1960's
           Today, if you walk along the South side of Queen at Ossington, you will find yourself smack in the middle of construction. That’s because CAMH is loud and proud in every sense, including the fact that their new facilities will snuggle up to curbside, becoming not so easily ignorable anymore. But the site is still very much cut off from the rest of the city; the boundary wall still exists on three of its four edges, and the privatization of space for the incorporation of big box stores like the wonderful Shoppers Drug Mart might deter the avaunt-garde independent crowd that floods street level daily. Bland corporate logos and tampered photos of kids playing soccer splurged across storefront doesn’t really scream ‘window shopping’ to me.

Looking North to the construction of CAMH's new front door: The Bell Gateway Research Centre
           The idea, though, is to create a ‘socially inclusive space’ where members of the community and patients at CAMH can mingle, providing face to face interaction and slowly removing the stereotype that works against those suffering from a mental illness and/or addition. The addition of a new client-run café and gym are all part of this, and the opening up of campus by extending Ossington to Adelaide is supposed to increase foot traffic and eliminate the physiological barrier which has created a vacuum for so many years.

The future of Mental Health?
            But a stigma is exactly that – something that has been created over time and is deeply entrenched in our attitudes and behaviors. Merely changing the physical fabric of a space isn’t going to reverse this, nor is it going to collectively transition society into being more inclusive. If CAMH is to achieve this vision, it will have to make an effort beyond the redevelopment to create a more educated public perspective. An ‘urban village’ at 1001 Queen Street West actually makes sense if you couple it with the engagement and awareness that psychiatric patients have something to offer and should be accepted as functional members of society. The fact that they aren’t is a problem that CAMH will have to tackle from many different angles, or the history of the site will continue to predict what we see there and not what it could be. 

*Photos taken from the Toronto Public Library Archives and the CAMH Website.

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