Parkdale is changing. It is a neighbourhood that has seen ups and downs over the years. At first it was an affluent “suburb” of Toronto, one close to the lake with sprawling homes. Then the Gardiner Expressway was built, effectively cutting off people’s access to the water. Couple this with the de-institutionalization of mental health care which led to people being let out of Queen Street Mental Health Institute, and Parkdale became a neighbourhood in decline. I’m sure these were not the only factors in what became the changing face of the west-end, though I do believe they had a significant impact. The people with means began to move elsewhere while those struggling to get by moved into the once single family dwellings turned rooming houses. To this day there are people who believe that to be from Parkdale means you must be poor.
When I walk along Queen Street West now I am struck by how rapidly it is shifting. For instance, a once derelict building has been transformed into a sushi bar. It always causes me pause, not because I don’t like sushi but rather because of how *different* it feels. The rooming houses are being transformed back into their original state. All of this represents to me that Parkdale is facing gentrification.
I asked one of my community friends how she felt about the change. “I don’t like it” was the response. This person is worried about how she, along with countless others, face being displaced from a neighbourhood that is home. She doesn’t resent the new businesses and restaurants necessarily. She does fear that there will be no more room for the dollar store and more easily accessible (read: affordable) coffee shops and little grocery markets. I was intrigued though by her number one concern: “there are hardly any benches for us to sit on anymore”.
This got me thinking about the surge of videos and articles in the media about our attachment to the virtual world: our phones, social media and access to immediate information. So many of us are constantly on the go, with our heads down. My friend, along with the majority of The Dale community don’t have the option to be glued to a screen. Instead, they congregate outside in public spaces, most often where there is a stoop or a lonely bench. This often raises concern from those who would rather not have people loitering outside. I understand where that comes from and certainly get that a person’s behaviour can go sideways if that loitering includes something like drinking. Conversely, I think there is something to be learned from the kind of community that is formed when people linger on a bench together.
The challenge for Parkdalians, both old and new is to navigate the morphing landscape together. My hope is that we can learn how to co-exist and actually model this to neighbourhoods around Toronto that might face similar change. I suspect it might start with sitting outside together. I agree with my friend, we need some more benches.