Streets in the Sky
Streets in the Sky
I am standing in St. James Town, the most densely populated neighbourhood in all of Canada. An area recognized as one of the most diverse and economically troubled in Toronto.
I am drawn here by the sheer number of large towers, the diversity of its residents and the raw beauty of crumbling infrastructure.
I am an outsider and easily overwhelmed. So many people live stacked up to the sky. From the ground, the towers are giant aliens. A symbiotic experiment with the humans that reside inside. Majestic in their scale, they thrum with the electricity and water in their veins as the trash pours from their backsides in rolling metal bins.
I become lost among the narrow valleys and shadowed streets formed by the towers stacked upon towers.
There is so much to take in. Kids chat and laugh behind the dumpsters. A swimming pool that has seen better days. People mill in every nook and cranny. Others sell wares on the sidewalk. Cops arrest two men while a crowd gathers and watches in silence.
It is at one of the older towers that I spy a pigeon against dirt and crumbling concrete. I raise my camera, praying the bird won’t fly away.
“You can’t do that.”
I try to ignore the voice and take the shot, but the voice is insistent.
“Do you have permission?”
A few people sit in rusty chairs just a few feet away. An older woman lifts her chin at me. One of the doors to the building is propped open behind her.
“I don’t need permission.”
She is surprised or perhaps saddened. “You need permission. It’s housing.”
I shake my head, “No, I don’t.”
“It’s housing!” she demands, eyes flashing.
I turn my back with a derisive scoff, “Learn the laws, lady.”
It was not my most shining moment. It was entitlement mixed with anger and an outright lie. I didn’t have permission and I was standing on private property. She was well within her rights to challenge me.
I feel shame and wish I could go back and apologize for my behaviour.
I fully recognize that my life is built on blessings on top of blessings on top of white guy entitlement. But compensating for this with hostility seems strange and most certainly uncalled for.
I yearn to connect with the people I meet and instead I am attacking them. There is no compassion or empathy. Just anger and frustration and maybe a little fear.
I’ve thought about this moment a lot. I could have approached her and nodded. I could have made a joke. “Are even the pigeons protected?”
I could have struck up a conversation about how long she had lived here, who owned the building, etc.
I could have been kind.
But I wasn’t. I just reacted with a hot flash of annoyance and anger mixed with a dangerous cocktail of bravado and adrenaline.
I’ve always had a short fuse, but it’s been noticeably worse since I decided to start opening my eyes to the disparities of income, equality and justice in our city. I want to meet and connect with the people that are so easy to ignore and sweep aside in our society – those who work against the odds to support their families and build a better life. I want to hear their stories.
But people fucking scare me. Social situations are the seven levels of hell with nuclear poisoning and cancer thrown in for seasoning. And that’s with the people I know. Trespassing as an outsider is a thousand times scarier.
Perhaps it is that simple. The work I yearn to do scares the fuck out of me. It’s no excuse, but it might help to explain what is going on in my messed up head.
I was drawn to this neighborhood because, despite concerns from residents and reputable researchers alike, new towers are being erected. The density is being increased and no new services are being provided. Around me are crumbling walls, people crowded into tiny spaces, a lack of supermarkets and a closed pool.
“St. James Town suffers from overcrowding, lack of green and public spaces, poor building and neighbourhood maintenance, and a general lack of resources for serving the large and diverse population. These neighbourhood factors are well known to impact health and well-being.” — Wellesley Institute
What further concerns me is that much of this community is marked private property. People cannot gather. There is little or no public space and most everything is in various states of disrepair. Hell, more space is given to garbage collection than to the public.
A sad state of affairs for a development that began as an optimistic experiment in the future of city living. Corbusier was the king of his day and this was going to be the hottest neighborhood in Toronto. Streets in the sky.
This shit doesn’t appear to be working and yet the density is still climbing. There are new privately owned towers going up even as I write these words. Even though so many people fought to stop them.
Maybe they will include public spaces, amenities and community space like The Corner. I doubt it, but we shall see.
There are some amazing people living here. I hope to do a better job at meeting them and learning their stories. And perhaps I will figure out my role. I can’t change my circumstances but I can certainly act in kindness and compassion.
More to come.