A pair of block parties brought a sense of peace back to neighbourhoods recently affected by a string of late-night crimes against women.
Walking into the Take Back the Block celebration in Kensington Market’s Bellevue Park felt very much like walking into a backyard party hosted by old friends. Throughout the park, knots of people chatted happily with each other, cups of coffee steaming in their hands on the first truly chilly evening of early fall. Local vendors Seven Lives served up delicious fish tacos and Mexican grilled corn. As more people arrived to join the gathering, participants called out and hugged each other. The atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming, comfortable and positive—just like any other party.
The only detail that initially gave away the importance of the event and the motivation behind the gathering were the volunteers circulating through the crowd. Identified with glo-sticks worn around their necks or as bracelets around their wrists, they were sure to greet all newcomers and curious passersby, encouraging them to stay a while, take a pamphlet, and join in the camaraderie.
Take Black The Block was a pair of community block parties—organized by Stephanie Guthrie, Heather Cromarty, and Kasia Mychajlowycz—that took place immediately following the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre’s annual Take Back the Night March in Parkdale. The events were planned in response to the recent string of sexual assaults concentrated in and around several Toronto Neighbourhoods. By throwing these parties, organizers and volunteers hoped to increase awareness of the attacks. They also hoped to bring a sense of safety back to the affected neighbourhods through the sheer presence of people. The idea was to reclaim spaces that may have become tainted with a sense of danger, especially for women travelling alone.
Many people who had just been passing through elected to stay a while, in order to chat with volunteers or listen to the music. Simon Borer, of the band Entire Cities, performed in the middle of the courtyard.
Across the city, in the Pitman Quad of the Ryerson campus, the other wing of Take Back the Block was being celebrated with similar success. Musical acts Patticake and Maria Bonita & the Band provided a joyous soundtrack while curious students wandered in to join the event and the conversation.
In Bellevue Park, organizer Heather Cromarty introduced the first of two speakers who would address the Take Back the Block attendees: Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) addressed the men in the crowd. He spoke as a father, saying that his 14-year-old daughter had the absolute right to enjoy her city, to walk through its streets at night no matter where she was going or what she was wearing. He said that it was not only the responsibility of women to make themselves safe, but that men, also, need to take action.
Vaughan, whose office sponsored the event and assisted Take Back the Block in securing the necessary permits, implored the men of Toronto to talk among themselves and work together to end sexual violence.
Then MP Olivia Chow (Trinity-Spadina) spoke. She addressed the women in the crowd, calling on them to avoid changing their behaviour or dress no matter what the current climate, and to go about their days with confidence. “Fear has no place in our hearts,” she said. She talked about raising her step-children downtown, and about walking through the streets at night and refusing to allow the spectre of violence to deter her. She encouraged women to do whatever they needed in order to feel confident and brave: to walk together, look to each other for support, learn self defense, or whatever else they might deem necessary.
At the end of the event, glow-stick-bedecked volunteers offered to walk anyone travelling alone to their cars, bikes, and TTC stops. Take Back The Block reminded us all that as friends, neighbours, and community members, we all have the power to take care of each other and make our own spaces warmer and safer.