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(en) Canada, Linchpin* #14 - Cops and Condominiums: Poverty and Gentrification in Toronto’s Downtown Eastside by ALEX BALCH

Date Wed, 14 Sep 2011 15:43:19 +0300

According to the Toronto Star, I live in the worst neighbourhood in the city. This past April, in an innocuously titled article “Dundas-Sherbourne poised for a surprising rebirth”, The Star’s Robyn Doolittle pointed out that Toronto’s downtown eastside “consistently tops every major Toronto police crime indictor list” — routinely beating the more notorious neighbourhoods of Jane and Finch, Rogers and Keele and Weston and Lawrence. ---- In the article Doolittle rightly — albeit disingenuously — attributes the area’s high levels of criminality to its heavy concentration of poverty: ---- Bordered by Carlton St. to the north, Parliament St. to the east, Queen St. to the south and Jarvis St. to the west — an area less than one square kilometre in size — this tiny quadrant of the city harbours three of the city’s largest homeless shelters, 32 legal rooming houses and 14 suspected illegal ones, more than a dozen abandoned lots and buildings, and one of the largest clusters of social housing in the city.

So what solution did the Star’s Urban
Affairs correspondent offer up to remedy
this crime-ridden ‘quadrant’? New public
housing units? Increased social investment?
Community policing initiatives?


Rather than an honest look at the very
real problems faced by the area’s residents,
the article was instead an unapologetic fluff
piece for gentrification. The downtown
eastside, with its cheap property
rates, old Victorian houses and close
proximity to the city core, has long been
slated for redevelopment. Real estate
developers view the neighbourhood
– nestled between a constantly
expanding Ryerson University to the
west and north and the increasingly
gentrified neighbourhoods of Regent
Park and Cabbagetown to the east – as
an untapped resource and prospective
cash-cow. The only thing standing
in their way is all the unsightly poor

According to the capitalist logic
of the cheerleaders of gentrification,
the only way of solving this dilemma
is by transforming the area into a
“mixed income neighbourhood”: a
magic act produced through frenzied
condominium development and the
influx of private investment (think
Starbucks) that these new tenants
inevitably attract.

Gentrification is intimately
connected to the capitalist
conceptualization of progress. Often
crouched in euphemistic terms such
as “urban renewal” or “revitalization”,
it is at is core simply an investment;
a re-commodification of urban space
into new mass-produced zones of

This is the strategy at play on the
corner of Dundas and Jarvis, where
a massive 46-story development has
been proposed by Pace Condominiums.
A billboard at the construction site
advertising the condos as the “best
#%&@ deal in downtown Toronto”
provides an insight into the type of
young, urban professional that the
owners are seeking to draw into the
area. The units, starting “in the mid
300’s”, are expected to be available
by 2015. According to the developers,
over 80% have already been pre-sold.

Alongside changes to the
neighbourhood’s urban geography,
this type of “progress” brings rising
property values and evictions, which
push out poorer and otherwise
marginalized residents, and ultimately
leads to an inevitable clash between
new tenants and the area’s established
population. Pioneering yuppies may
be content to ignore the existence of a
large homeless shelter on their block in
exchange for relatively cheap rent, but
as social demographics shift, pressure
on the shelter and its residents inevitably
builds. Newly constituted merchant/tenant
associations and emboldened real estate
speculators often use anti-poor sentiment
and fear of crime as an excuse to lobby city
councillors to freeze construction of new
public housing units, and for the closure of
drop-ins, health clinics and other services
depended on by more precarious members
of the community.

Police maintain a near constant presence on the
block. Swarms of bicycle cops patrol the area, hassling
members of the local homeless population. according to one
long-term resident, the Toronto Police Service routinely sends
rookie cops onto the street to get them used to wielding
their new-found impunity. Police officers often handcuff
residents while conducting illegal searches - a blatant
violation of search and seizure rights that would cause
legitimate outrage in more affluent neighbourhoods.
The street is home to high concentration of racialized
residents, who also face frequent racial profiling

These new tenants are also much
quicker to call in the police to “deal’ with
issues of trespassing, loitering, vagrancy,
graffiti, drug use and prostitution. This
inevitably translates into increased police
harassment and abuse of poor people –
already a serious issue in the downtown

On George Street, located just south
of Allan Gardens, police brutality is daily
reality. This is particularly true of the strip
running between Dundas and Gerrard, a
single city block home to two homeless
shelters – including Seaton House, one of
the city’s largest –, several abandoned and
decaying old houses, a poorly maintained
TCHC apartment building and a smattering
of private residences.

Crime is certainly a problem on
George Street. Heated arguments between
street-active residents often break out into
fights; high levels of substance abuse and
addiction mean that break-ins and theft are
commonplace; violence against women
is a major problem. But heavy-handed
policing, combined with a strategy of
confinement – homeless people sleeping
in Allan Gardens, or panhandling in the
surrounding area are often ruffed up and
told to “stay on George Street” — does
little to resolve these problems. It simply
makes them worse.

So how can these issues be addressed?
Is the area doomed to choose between
corporate gentrification and perpetual

“There’s nothing wrong with making
the neighbourhood a more attractive place
to live,” says Gaetan Heroux, a member
of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
(OCAP) who has been organizing in the
community for decades. “The question
you have to ask yourself is for whom?

“The neighbourhood has a long, long
history of providing housing and services
for poor working people – including a
large population of unemployed that have
historically been coming to the area since
the 1830s. So it’s a neighbourhood that
has a long history of poor people living
there, and working there.

“And what we’ve seen is cuts to
housing and services that have been
going on for decades now. As a result
of these cuts, people’s living conditions
have deteriorated and there’s serious,
serious overcrowding in places like
Seaton House. A large section of the
rooming houses that have existed for
single men and single women in the area
have disappeared.”

If you ask local community organizers
and service providers, they will tell you
that what this area desperately needs
is more affordable housing, and harm
reduction services to help people with
substance dependencies and mental
health issues. Unfortunately, this type of
investment runs counter to the aims of
those who would prefer to see the area
blanketed in condos. So, in the absence
of private investment, where will this
money come from?

“It’s going to come from us,”
says Heroux. “we as a society have a
responsibility to make sure that we have
housing... that we have income support
that will protect people in cases of crisis
or economic depressions. We have to
have services, like daycare, schools,
healthcare. All of those things were
fought for, and many people believe that
it’s the state’s responsibility to take care
of all that. But the only way for the state
to take care of that is to make sure that
some of the wealthiest people in this
society pay their share. Right now they’re
not paying their share.”
* A publication of the anarchist common cause - fall 2011
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