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.

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