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.

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