No Pride in Gentrification
By: Helen Jefferson Lenskyj
In the summer of 2015, some LGBTQ members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), along with other concerned LGBTQ activists, formed the Queer Trans Community Defence (QTCD) to address the latest threat in the gentrification of Toronto’s Downtown East – the proposed LGBTQ-focused sport centre at Moss Park. Closely related to sport centre plan is the George Street Revitalization, which promises to ‘deinstitutionalize’ that neighbourhood, to continue drastic cuts to shelter beds, to contain most homeless services and individuals under one roof, and to rebrand the area the ‘Garden District’. All these changes would be implemented at a time when Toronto has failed to meet council’s 2013 target of a maximum 90% occupancy rate of shelter beds.
In 2012, the City and the 519 Church Street Community Centre, a hub for Toronto’s LGBTQ communities, began working together on a proposed recreation facility that would promote inclusion in sport while focusing on LGBTQ programming. QTCD members distributed flyers at the 519’s AGM in September 2015, and in January 2016 had meetings with 519 executive director Maura Lawless and senior director Becki MacFarlane. We developed a blog http://queertranscommunitydefence.blogspot.ca/2015/12/no-pride-in-gentrification-community_13.html, Facebook and Twitter presence, gathered support from many community groups and individuals, circulated flyers at community meetings, and have done extensive media outreach.
The 519 had identified the need for a specific LGBTQ-focused sport centre, citing among other reasons the pressure to accommodate over 40 LGBTQ sports leagues, whose members were mostly gay men in their 20s and 30s. A site in the Foundry district had originally been proposed but found unsatisfactory, and, in early 2015, the City turned to the Moss Park site, currently housing an arena, recreation centre and playing fields, as well as parklands occupied year-round by poor and homeless people, sex workers and drug users. In a particularly callous example of disregard for current users, a former 519 staff person referred to the facilities as ‘underutilized’, while characterizing the area as a ‘bit of a blank canvas’ waiting to be redeveloped.
“It is difficult to imagine, however, that a donor who in 2012 had envisioned a project focusing on the recreational needs of predominantly middle class LGBTQ users would suddenly be willing to extend their generosity to the very different needs of the low-income and homeless people of Toronto’s Downtown East”
According to the two 519 staff, the project changed from its original LGBTQ focus to an ‘inclusion model’ at the same time that it changed its original location early in 2015, but that they were too busy to communicate these changes to the queer community. However, as recently as September 2015, during the 519’s AGM, the LGBTQ focus was clearly promoted in speeches, the annual report, and the sport-focused qualifications of several candidates for the new board.
An anonymous donor committed up to one-third of the capital costs, estimated at $100m. The 519, through fund-raising efforts, would generate one-third, while the remaining third would come from various levels of government. According to the 519 staff, the donor’s terms satisfy the 519’s and the City’s gift policies, has no conditions, and is entirely philanthropic. It is difficult to imagine, however, that a donor who in 2012 had envisioned a project focusing on the recreational needs of predominantly middle class LGBTQ users would suddenly be willing to extend their generosity to the very different needs of the low-income and homeless people of Toronto’s Downtown East, a group that is rarely, if ever, the beneficiary of such generous philanthropy. It’s equally difficult to envision these two diverse groups rubbing shoulders together in the new sport centre.
“We were assured that community consultations and communication, to be handled by professional consulting companies, would assess the needs of both LGBTQ and local communities in order to develop designs and programming. However, on the question of communication, we were told that 519 staff has to get City approval for every public statement they make concerning Moss Park”
QTCD members repeatedly asked 519 staff what credentials they have to equip them to develop and implement an inclusive model of sport and recreation that would meet the needs of poor and homeless people, sex workers and drug users. The answers, which we found unsatisfactory, were that the 519 operates on Association of Community Centres ‘community benefit’ model, provides public space and services, builds partnerships with communities, and has a community-driven approach. This ‘one size fits all’ thinking is not persuasive.
We were assured that community consultations and communication, to be handled by professional consulting companies, would assess the needs of both LGBTQ and local communities in order to develop designs and programming. However, on the question of communication, we were told that 519 staff has to get City approval for every public statement they make concerning Moss Park, no doubt because the City wants to control the message and the branding. When QTCD members asked if the 519 is committed to opposing gentrification, we were not given a clear affirmative answer.
The initial vote at City Council in 2013 saw only two dissenting voices, with several councillors supporting the project as a positive step towards inclusive sport and recreation, a financial windfall for the city in the form of a public-private partnership, and a generous donation that they should obviously accept. 519 staff emphasized that this funding was crucial, since Moss Park would not receive any City money for renovations until the 2020s, the implication being that this was an opportunity not to be missed. When QTCD members referred to the 519 viewing itself as ‘the saviour of Moss Park’, staff vehemently rejected our interpretation. In view of the staff’s repeated references to the ‘opportunity’ provided by this project, it looks like the 519 can ‘have their cake and eat it’ – they get the LGBTQ focused sport centre, but they brand it an inclusive sport centre because they will have consulted the local non-LGBTQ community. QTCD will fight this project to the end. No pride in gentrification!