Inhabiting a Neighbourhood by Sharing Space, Inside and Out

When The Dale gave up its own space a decade ago, one of the first questions people asked was: where are we going to go? A legit wondering. At the time, I didn’t yet know. Fortunately, the weather was improving and so I said, “if we have to, we’ll have drop-in at the park”. I also started to knock on the doors of buildings around the neighbourhood to see if there might be a willingness to open those doors to us. That was the beginning of inhabiting Parkdale in a new way.

People often ask me if we would now buy a building if we could. While I acknowledge there are definite cons to not having a space of our own, the pros outweigh them. Does that mean I am anti-building? No, absolutely not. The Dale relies on the buildings of our partners to do a lot of what we love. Also, I never want to belittle the importance of “place” for the many members of our community who do not have any to call their own. By not investing in the purchase of a building, The Dale can pour our resources very directly into what we do, while also supporting those who share property with us.

When The Dale spilled into the streets, we had the opportunity to learn from our core community about what it means to be transient. This was very important, especially for someone like me who, despite my proximity to people who are under-housed, have always had somewhere to lay my head. We also re-discovered the truth that the church is not a building. One Dale member would regularly remind me that, “we are living stones. Where we gather is less important than THAT we gather.”

I appreciate the pedagogy of my friend Jason McKinney around the power of property and the need to shift from having to holding. Jason’s church, Epiphany and St. Mark is the only building currently open to The Dale due to the pandemic (we trust our other partners will begin to re-open as the pandemic continues to settle). I see how he and his church are navigating away from the paradigm of property to the paradigm of commons, in other words they are helping create a community hub. The Dale is one of a number of organizations that reside at and co-create in 201 Cowan Avenue. I know the desire is to continue to grow in the way we all relate to and negotiate with land- land that was not ours to begin with. Together we are discovering how to deepen our responsibility and care for the ground we stand on.

Which is also why it is so important that The Dale’s largest presence is outdoors. When we were permanently housed the people had to come inside to find us. Now we go outside to find our people and it is where they know to look for us. It matters that we get rained and snowed on together, that we can share a snack in the park, that we can slow down and linger for chats anywhere along the street, that we can grow things in our community garden plot. We move from observation of the neighbourhood to participation in it.

Is this an easy way to operate? Not always. Is it messy? For sure. I can honestly say though that not having a building, which was definitely born out of crisis, has turned into one of our greatest gifts. Also true is that becoming a part of a larger community hub, both at Epiphany and St Mark and in other spaces around the neighbourhood, one of our greatest joys. We get to witness amazing things happening all over the place and grow in our awareness that love is present all around us: in and out of a building.

Building the Trust of a City Street

Imagine that the sun is shining and there is a light breeze as you and I set out on a walk around Parkdale, a Toronto neighbourhood. This is the place that The Dale inhabits, a section of the city that is in the west-end, and just north of Lake Ontario. We start at 201 Cowan Avenue, an address that belongs to Epiphany and St Mark Anglican Church, but is used as a sort of “commons” for a variety of organizations, including Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, Greenest City, Flick the Switch Art Studios, a social enterprise kitchen called Aangen, and The Dale.

We meander across the street to a park with a concrete wading pool, a play structure, a concrete table that gets used either for ping pong or sunbathing, and the HOPE Community Garden in which The Dale has a plot. I share that we tend to grow a lot of herbs, lettuce, and some tomatoes, though last year we tried our hand at miniature pumpkins. Right now, the garden lays fallow, though it will soon be time to plant. To me, this spot feels like a bit of an oasis.

I invite you to walk north on Cowan to Queen Street West, one of the main thoroughfares through Parkdale. There is a community centre to our left, and a Public Library on the right. We run into a friend who is sitting on a bench. He tells us about what is being served for lunch at St. Francis Table (most of us refer to it as “The Table”), a Franciscan Friar run restaurant where you can get a good meal for $1. I suggest we head that way in order to notice the contrast between St. Francis Table and the very hip and high-end restaurants that litter the same block.

This dichotomy is apparent throughout our walk. Once one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the city, Parkdale shifted to be known as gritty and well-acquainted with poverty. While there were many contributing factors to this, two big ones were the building of the Gardiner Expressway, a highway to our south that made people feel cut off from the lake, and the deinstitutionalization of mental health care (the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, once Queen Street Mental Health is very close by), which meant psychiatric survivors were released and subsequently sought home in the area. Now Parkdale is a study in gentrification- the process by which the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, changing housing, and attracting new businesses.

I point out a few things as we walk: the popular vintage store called Public Butter, a poster for a protest about affordable housing, the yellow box that looks reminiscent of a Canada Post mailbox but is a receptacle for used needles. We stop to say hello to a group of people in the parkette beside the Health Centre, all of whom are community members of The Dale. One person comes out from the bushes, where they are sleeping rough. Another engages with you about where you are from and tells you an embarrassing story about me. We laugh. We comment on the nice weather before fist bumping a goodbye.

From here we walk south along a very residential street. I point out how you can tell if one of the mansion like homes is a single-family dwelling or a rooming house. We notice young families, a statue of Mary in a front yard, and Tibetan monks in burgundy robes. I suggest we get some Momos, Tibetan dumplings from a place called Loga’s Corner. I introduce you to the owner who gives a lesson on how to eat one, and graciously adds a few extra to our order.

We wave at the proprietor of the laundromat, chat with people hanging out in a bus shelter, and stand in awe of the woman who feeds the pigeons and has birds hanging out on her shoulders and head. We walk along Jameson Avenue, a street lined with mid-rise apartment buildings. Eventually we end up back on Queen Street West. I invite us to stop, close our eyes and take a deep breath, taking active notice of the sounds and smells of the neighbourhood. As we end up back where we started, we discuss your questions. I share a few more stories. We talk about the obvious diversity and resulting richness of Parkdale. We depart with a hug.

Jane Jacobs said, “The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts… Most of it is ostensibly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all.” The work of getting to know one’s neighbourhood takes intentionality. For me, walking has been integral to becoming connected to and rooted in Parkdale. It is something I have done since 2007 and that as a Dale team we do on the regular. The arguably trivial moments have led to many profound interactions, deep friendships, and a lot of opportunity to love and be loved. I am always glad to walk and love the opportunity to do so together.