Mixed Messages
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Mixed Messages

Photo taken just after midnight on Friday by Jonathan Goldsbie. The “For Renovations” part of the sign has since been torn off.
You know what’s annoying? When the media overexposes a story while at the same time openly asking, “Is the media giving ____ too much coverage?” The Daily Show reams the cable news networks for that all the time. And yet, we have some sympathy. Maybe it’s a cry for help. Maybe it’s a way for the anchors to get something off their consciences in a way that won’t get them fired.
Certainly the Happy Seven incident has received way too much coverage. Or, more accurately, coverage that is far too prominent in their respective news outlets. It was the top story on the CityNews website for a day and a half. It led off their 6 p.m. newscast Wednesday and likely several ones subsequent to that. CBC Toronto had it as the top story on their site. The Star‘s site gave it second billing, behind the report on the cost of the war in Afghanistan. (Yes, we had it on top. Twice. Three times, now. But we’re a blog. Placement on a page is chronological and not based on an implied hierarchy of newsworthiness.)
And just when we thought that the story had reached its saturation point, CityNews has decided to literally beat it into the ground.

What started off as a cute image that would have been a hit on FAIL Blog has spun into, if not a media circus, then certainly a local legend. Sort of this week’s 234 Augusta. (When we snapped the top photo just after midnight early Friday, we tried to time our flashes so as not to interfere with a woman who was taking camera phone pics of her boyfriend posing in front of the place.) Citytv has pretty much set up shop in the neighbourhood, and Andrea Piunno is staring down a manhole on Kensington Avenue, specially opened for her by Transportation Services, as we type this. Torontoist lives just around the corner and is happy to let her stay on our couch tonight, as she would probably camp on out Spadina if she could.
The thing is, at Dumpling House, the rats were on the proudly-displayed food preparation surface. Here, they were just in the window, next to a PASS sign. Which is not to say it wasn’t a problem, but it was more of a cute/funny thing than a scary one. Like the top pic. That is: it wasn’t (and still isn’t) news. Maybe a paragraph in the context of a whole newspaper. But not the lead story on a telecast.
The rodent in the Second Cup at Queen and John (right across from the CityCP24CTVGlobeBellMuch building) didn’t get this kind of attention. But that didn’t really fit into any sort of obvious narrative. Rats on Queen Street. So what. But rats on Spadina are apparently a different matter. The endlessly-replayed footage reaffirms stereotypes about Chinatown and Chinese people. While not explicitly racist like those douches in the comments on blogTO (whose messages were this afternoon thankfully deleted), there’s undoubtedly a we’ve-finally-caught-them-in-the-act gotcha!-ness to the whole thing. A we’ve-always-had-suspicions-and-now-here-is-the-proof! attitude. That’s Toronto Public Health’s job. And, much to their credit, they’re not particularly eager to jump on the “Chinatown is dirty!” bandwagon.
Torontoist spoke with Anne Marie Aikins, TPH’s communications supervisor, who agrees that the media response was disproportionate: Happy Seven has a “pretty clean” record, and the coverage represents an “unfair targeting” of the area. This season is a good time for rodents, too, and “any neighbourhood with old buildings has a rodent problem.” Stuff like this is “not really as uncommon as people think,” and “it doesn’t mean you’re dirty.” In 2007, forty-one restaurants were closed down in all of Toronto, seventeen of them for rodents (only a handful in Chinatown). That’s more than one per month, and with the exception of Dumpling House, none of the others have resulted in a media frenzy. You could argue that part of the difference involves the photographic evidence. But the Second Cup mouse was greeted with a thoroughly blasé attitude (though not by Public Health).
The coverage of Happy Seven was at its strongest when it focused on the tenuousness of the DineSafe program and the inability of Public Health to provide meaningful oversight and a quick turnaround on complaints without having to be embarrassed into doing so. That’s a story. But too bad it was also an imposed narrative. The fact is that Jesse Ship snapped the photo around noon on Wednesday and forwarded it on to blogTO and Torontoist at 12:35, and called Public Health around the same time.
Torontoist also contacted TPH and was misinformed by the person who answered the phone that it would take them 24-48 hours to get someone out there. An inspector actually made it on site by 5 that afternoon, was unable to find any signs of vermin, and a blurry photo on the internet is not adequate evidence to have a place shut down. Nevertheless, TPH instructed the restaurant to take a number of measures and were preparing a return visit before they reopened the following morning. (According to NOW, they open at 11:30 a.m. According to the New York Times, they open at 4 p.m.) Four inspectors were there prior to opening, caught three rats, and gave them a red notice. But Breakfast Television was there earlier and broadcast live rattage at 7 a.m.
To recap: TPH had an inspector examine the establishment four hours after receiving the tip but couldn’t find anything. They followed up the next morning, saw rats for themselves and shut the place down until such time as the owners “disinfect the premises and provide the city proof that a certified pest control specialist has dealt with the situation.” Because of the 6-11-7-12 news cycle and a murky presentation of the timeline, Public Health was made to seem less responsive than it actually was.
Just after midnight Friday the Happy Seven staff was working hard doing… something. We were too shy to gawk directly into the window, but it appeared to be a good housecleaning. Perhaps “renovation” wasn’t the right descriptor, but we did like it as a euphemism. Maybe the police would be more forgiving of a Renovation Music Night.
Photo by Jonathan Goldsbie. Additional reporting from David Topping.