Three faces of poverty: A brief, personal history of Parkdale

This is the first part of a three-part series on poverty in Canada. You can find the background and rest of the series here.

An old neighbourhood in the west end of Toronto, Parkdale is one of those areas whose name is synonymous with poverty. Or at least it used to be. Ten years ago Ossington Avenue, a north-south street just east of Parkdale, was a bit ‘dangerous’; now it’s a strip of cool art galleries and restaurants. A “Parkdale bachelor” was a local name for a bachelorette apartment – an undesirable place to live – not an eligible single hipster dude.

If you were to stand at the corner of King and Jameson, one of Parkdale’s major intersections, and, say, and turn time back to the late 19th century, you would be in a very different place. Instead of standing in the middle of a strip of mid-20th-century high-rises, some looking a little worse for wear, you would be in a wealthy Victorian suburb, full of well-off commuters attracted by the clean lake air and easy distance to central Toronto. However, if you were to set time moving forward again you would see Parkdale change. The Great Depression halted new construction; the post-WWII building boom passed it by in favour of the trendy new car-centric development in the north of the city and the suburbs. By the 1950s Parkdale was considered a “slum” – that’s not my term, that’s what it was called in city documents – its wealthy and middle class residents long gone. And as anyone with a working knowledge of 20th century urban history will know, when mid-century urban planners and developers looked at a slum all they could see was a big sign that said “TEAR ME DOWN”.

And so Parkdale was, like so many neighbourhoods, subject to experimental urban surgery. Whole streets were razed to build a now-crumbling elevated highway, the Gardiner Expressway (otherwise known as the “Mistake by the Lake” – bits of it keep falling off and nearly crushing people); some of the grand old mansions were torn down to make way for the poorly and rapidly constructed apartment towers, others carved up into rooming houses or the “Parkdale bachelors” I mentioned above, one-room apartments without kitchens. With all this new low-cost, low-quality housing, Parkdale became a destination for newcomers to Canada as well as former patients from the nearby CAMH released during the de-institutionalization era of the 1970s.

This sounds like a sad story, a cautionary tale about the need for community-focused urban planning. But things aren’t quite so simple. On the one hand this stately neighborhood was destroyed by economic forces and the arrogance of central planning authorities. On the other hand, those cheap rooming houses became not just de facto group homes without staff or resources, but sites of solidarity and community organization. Groups of psychiatric consumers and survivors founded organizations like PARC (Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre) and OCAB (Ontario Coalition of Alternative Businesses) which continue to do great work in their communities.

When I moved to Parkdale in 2003 gentrification was already well underway. Artists and students had been slowly moving into the area, attracted by low rent and cheap beer; middle-class families were snapping up the decaying but affordable and beautiful Victorian houses and restoring them. Parkdale in the early 2000s was thought of as a bit ‘dangerous’, just enough to make a romantic young woman who’d read a lot of Simone de Beauvoir feel like she was doing something cool by living in one room with a hotplate and a toaster oven instead of a kitchen.

But I didn’t stay long in the Parkdale bachelor. Here’s a little secret: living in an 8×8 room with minimal cooking facilities gets old really fast. I was able to move to a bigger/nicer apartment, then a worse one, then across the city altogether as Parkdale got hipper and more gentrified and rents got higher. But then I had somewhere to go and the financial resources to get there.

It’s hard to look back and think of the role I had in the destructive gentrification of Parkdale, a neighbourhood I loved. I have fond memories of those days and my little room. But unlike the newcomers or psychiatric consumer/survivors who were my neighbours, or the homeless people I passed every day on the street, I had a choice. I could be a tourist and stay just as long as the charm lasted. I had the luxury to dream and, when I got tired of it, to leave. I didn’t have to stay close to CAMH for treatment or depend on Parkdale community groups for support or resources. The people who do and who continue to live in Parkdale continue to resist forms of gentrification that do not build community.

As a side note, I don’t know what happened my own Parkdale bachelor apartment. Shortly before I moved out an inspector from the city came and measured the units, prompting one friend to ask if he’d measured me as well (because short people don’t need as much space or something) – if it hasn’t been torn down I’d imagine it’s been bought up and renovated by an upper-middle class family with three kids. The past couple of times I’ve been back to Parkdale I haven’t thought to check.

Coming back to the corner of King and Jameson, if you were to turn time forward I couldn’t tell you what you would see. Stories of gentrification, of the erasure of whole communities of the poor and marginalized in favour of the more privileged, abound throughout Toronto’s history. It is entirely possible that Parkdale will follow the same pattern, as the poor, the homeless, the marginalized who come there in search of a place to call home are pushed out by the wealthy, the beautiful, and the cool.

But the future is not yet written; anything can happen. In the meantime amazing work being done to keep the neighborhood vibrant and changing, to create a community that is welcoming to everyone, not just the well-off. And that makes me feel happy to have been part of it.

Next up in Three Faces of Poverty: A lot of statistics about poverty in Saint John, New Brunswick.

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19 thoughts on “Three faces of poverty: A brief, personal history of Parkdale

  1. Congrats on being freshly pressed! I see the changes you’ve written about happening, as I live and work right next door in the Liberty Village area, where overpriced one and 2 bedroom condominiums abound. It’s the antithesis of Parkdale. No community, only people who can afford to live here move here, the rest commute to work via the GO train at the exhibition station nearby. One thing that I’ve found fascinating, is a family health practiced moved in. But what they don’t advertise, is they also offer outpatient services for CAMH clients. The thing is, I can barely tell which patients they are, aside from the new moms with the uber high tech strollers. Anyway, love your piece. And I hope no matter how it gets developed, Parkdale still retains it’s sense of community.

    1. I am an American who did my master’s degree in Canada at UBC (funny how we say “do/did” an education program now) and I was just stunned over Canada’s transformation to condos. Everyone seems to hate them and yet the supply side economics reigns. In Kitsilano, all the local businesses behind my home were demolished. One advantage of long-term economic malaise in the US is that it is less… lacquered somehow.

  2. Your description of Parkdale would also fit San Francisco or anywhere in California after the displacement of mental health patients in the ’70s.

  3. Is Parkdale gentrified or being developed? How do you strike a balance to ensure that the residents living there continue to have a voice and opportunity?

  4. This is interesting to me — I left Toronto for NY in 1986 but my father lived at 1538 King St West for 20+ years so I saw this change firsthand whenever I went back to visit. It’s an odd neighhborhood and odd that it stayed so unloved for so long, with the boardwalk and lake so easily accessible, yet downtown a mere 20 mins by Queen or King streetcar.

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