Pitfield tours east Downtown

from the Toronto Sun, Sunday August 13, 2006

The city’s heart is bleeding
By Mark Bonokoski

If all goes according to plan, Toronto mayoral candidate Jane Pitfield will take a walk on the wild side tomorrow with a tour of the epicentre of a ghetto in this city that is saturated with illegal rooming houses, homeless shelters, derelict buildings, crack dens, drug dealers, alcohol detox centres, substance-abuse clinics, low-end hooker strolls and condom-littered alleyways spiked with discarded syringes.

And all within a few blocks of the Eaton Centre.

It should be an eye-opener for the Ward 26 councillor who hails from the leafy quietude of Leaside—even if she is co-chairman of both the Homeless and Socially Isolated Committee and the Aboriginal Affairs Committee.

This ghetto, of course, has its bull’s eye at the corner of Jarvis and Shuter, and ripples out from there—east to River, west to Church, south to King, and north to Carlton.

It is where this city bottoms out, and where crime is chronic.

According to a 2005 United Way report, this small patch of the city‚s core has more social services agencies dealing with the poor, the disenfranchised and the addled than any other section of Toronto, making oft-maligned Parkdale a veritable paradise by comparison.

Super-sized shelter

It has the lowest median income in the city, at $15,000, an unemployment rate of 11.5%, and a population in which 44% of the people lack a secondary school education.

And city hall seems not to care about the continuing erosion and decay—at least not Mayor David Miller and certainly not local councillor Kyle Rae.

But there is an election in November.

There are those who write about this part of town who know little or nothing about it. But I do. It is where I live while searching for the fodder for this space, in a basement apartment right by the aforementioned bull’s eye.

And there is little here that I have not witnessed, including the aftermath of murders, assaults and overdoses.

Drug dealing is done openly.

A few metres down a lane from where I live, the Salvation Army is tearing down its Harbour Light Mission at the corner of Jarvis and Shuter and, with funds from the province and the feds and the approval of city hall, it will begin building a facility virtually double in size—with 100 units of transitional housing for the homeless, and a 100-bed residential care hostel for drug addicts.

From the outside looking in, this is good.

But, according to research by those who oppose it, led primarily by the optimistically named Garden District Residents Association, this project will only oversaturate an area already saturated with everything but an officially declared red-light district and legalized shooting galleries.

And the group has a legitimate argument.

Within four blocks of the Sally Ann’s planned redevelopment, for example, some 20-plus agencies are involved in administering 2,500 emergency shelter beds, 12 group homes for criminal offenders, 20 group homes for the mentally ill, six harm-reduction resource centres handing out free needles and crack pipes, 1,000 long-term care beds, thousands of social housing units and 18 cooperatives designed for affordable housing.

All close to the bull’s eye.

If this is not ghetto creation, then what is it?

And then there is what has been referred to as “demolition by decay,” a phenomenon which city hall bureaucrats cannot combat because there is no bylaw in existence to force developers to maintain minimum standards of maintenance for buildings that have gone derelict.

A prime example is Walnut Hall, described by the Toronto Star’s architecture columnist, Christopher Hume, as the only block of Georgian townhouses left standing in the city.

That row of old homes, on the north bank of Shuter, just east of Jarvis, has been boarded up and unheated for the last 20 years. When bricks began falling off the building, the owner, Joe Jonatan, was ordered by the city to put up protective fencing, but that was it—with Jonatan‚s excuse being that it has taken “longer than expected” to come up with a feasible business plan to make Walnut Hall work.

Where’s the planning?

The block, however, is now for sale, with $2.2 million reportedly being the asking price for this ruin.

But, as Hume wrote back in July: “In some cities, a developer like Joe Jonatan would be heavily fined for his actions and even have his property expropriated. In Toronto, (however), we have no choice but sit by and watch as he lets a unique and valuable heritage site fall apart.”

Eva Curlanis-Bart is the president of the Garden District Residents Association, and the woman who will be escorting Pitfield on tomorrow’s scheduled walkabout—one that has been confirmed by Pitfield’s special assistant, Paul Virdo, as definitely being on her agenda.

A year ago, to prove one of her many points about the decay and ghettoization of her neighourhood, Curlanis-Bart pulled statistics compiled by 51 Division which showed police being involved in more than 1,200 “interventions” in her district—and that’s just in the roominghouses alone.

“What has happened to urban planning, to balancing the socio-economic mix of neighbourhoods?” she asked.

“Victimhood, expediency and political correctness are not substitutes for vision, wisdom, justice and courage.”

Tomorrow, therefore, will be Pitfield’s opportunity to see for herself what Miller and Rae tend to see with a blind eye.

Hopefully she will not be wearing blinders.