Partying Till the Break of Don
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Partying Till the Break of Don

The “Night In The Big House @ THE DON JAIL,” scheduled for tonight, was to be the rave of the season. But a note posted to the Facebook event page on Thursday morning called it off: “As of 10am on Thursday, June 04, 2009 the Ontario Realty Corporation, an arm of the provincial government and the agency that controls the Old Don Jail has cancelled our event on Friday, June 5, 2009 and ALL other events for the Old Don Jail in the near future.”
Why? Says Paula McColgan, a spokesperson for Bridgepoint Health, the company that owns the old jail: “It’s not that all future events are cancelled. We do however need to ensure that planning and logistics regarding noise, parking, security, etc are all in place prior to events given that on the site there is also an operating hospital and an operating jail.”
Yes. On the site of an operating hospital and an operating jail, those things are important. But it’s also only part of the story.

The Distillery District, Mark Kingwell once snarked in The Walrus, has a “creepy extermination camp vibe.” This, as countless location scouts have noted, is very true. But at least the District’s eras of Auschwitz set-dressing and high-society cocktails were well set apart by the property’s redevelopment.
Kingwell went on to quote Justin Davidson: “I have to admit to some queasiness about the current enthusiasm for fitting out power plants, factories and warehouses as post-industrial pleasure domes. Isn’t there something inherently decadent about taking the means of production and transforming [it] into the means of consumption for the bourgeoisie?”
Which brings us to the old Don Jail building, which hasn’t been used as a prison since 1977. But the newer east wing, opened in 1958, is still in operation.
“For the last few months, Slingshot Inc. has been working to bring the [old Don Jail] up to fire code,” according to a month-old article on Slingshot is a marketing and communications firm getting into the venue-management business. “Once those minor upgrades are done, they should be in a good position to obtain occupancy permits from the city” in order to run it as an event venue and hold all manner of soirées. But, oops. Turns out the place doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Managed by the Ontario Realty Corporation on behalf of the Province, “There are guidelines regarding the use of the Don Jail and a license is required from ORC for each event,” Bridgepoint’s McColgan tells us. Bridgepoint was first tipped off that the event might be problematic when “they found out late [Wednesday] that the event was posted on a rave website.”

Examples of the types of events that would be appropriate, given the location and neighbouring facilities, would be corporate events, guided tours, filming, photo contests, private dinner parties, etc. These are being undertaken to raise funds for the new hospital, with construction beginning this Fall.
The event that has been canceled for tomorrow evening was advertised as a Rave (on a rave website), for 350 people with full access to the entire jail. This advertising was not accurate or appropriate. Current fire regulations do not allow for 350 people do be in the jail at any time. As well, access to the entire jail is not permitted. Access is the same as it was during Doors Open, which is limited to a few areas of interest.
Assurances were given that there was no public advertising and that this was to be a managed private party. In fact this was not the case, as the event was advertised on a number of public websites. As well, the area is not zoned for this type of use (i.e. raves).

In other words, appropriating a site of affliction for entertainment purposes isn’t the prerogative of just any type of bourgeoisie; you must be this upper-middle-class or higher to ride.
We kid. We sympathize with the neighbours and hospital patients who are reluctant to turn over their ‘hood to large-scale music events.
But how was it that Bridgepoint didn’t know what The BIG Night was? We called up Destiny Productions’ Ryan Kruger on Friday morning to ask him. Destiny was one of the promoters throwing the party. If there was a miscommunication, “It would have been between Slingshot and Bridgepoint,” he says. “Slingshot was well aware of what we were doing.”
As for capacity and access concerns, Destiny’s official event listing did offer that “While its truly The BIG House with the entire facility open to explore, jails have very few emergency exits and therefore lower public gathering capacity than you might think! Capacity is restricted to 300 patrons.”
This, Kruger says, is because they were told by Slingshot that “the capacity was 300. 292 is the exact number. The event would be in the main area and some smaller rooms attached to the main area,” but he had hired a tour guide to lead people through other parts of the building during the event.
And about the advertising? “At the end of the day,” Kruger tells us, “we didn’t advertise it anywhere. It was only on our own website. There was never a flyer printed for this event. We didn’t approve any promotional material.” There was nothing “beyond our own site and our own Facebook event.” But isn’t Facebook mostly public? “If it’s a Facebook [event], the only people that can see it are the people that are invited. I would consider that a private event.” Okay then.

The Ontario Realty Corporation, on the other hand, says that their issue was not at all with the nature of this particular shindig. Rather, they simply hadn’t reached any sort of agreement with Bridgepoint for the use of the venue in the first place, for any event. In other words, someone jumped the gun.
Julia Sakas, a communications advisor with the ORC outlined the crucial points for us:

1. The licensing agreement that would allow for use of the facility was being discussed by ORC and Bridgepoint. No agreement is in place.
2. It would have been prudent to have a license agreement in place before booking events.
3. ORC didn’t cancel the event. There was no access agreement in the first place.
4. The distinction between the rave being a public or private event is immaterial. Without a license, any access, public or private, should not be permitted.
5. All facility uses require a licensing agreement that takes into account the condition of the facility, the safety and security of the public, as well as the requirements of the adjacent program uses (i.e. the hospital and the attached correctional facility).

And, most interestingly, “The license agreement is for permission to use the facility, not just for a specific event. ORC will continue to discuss an access agreement with Bridgepoint.”
“All along everything was fine, everything was fine, and then boom,” Kruger says. “We were just event promoters renting a venue. There was never a thought that there was something that was not allowed. There was never a question that there was gonna be some issue around it.”
“It was all news to me in the last 24 hours that this was happening.”
Slingshot co-founder Chris MacKechnie was the point person on this. Torontoist sent MacKechnie an email on Thursday afternoon but hasn’t yet heard back. Attempts to reach him by phone yesterday and this morning were unsuccessful.
We like how Slingshot’s Don Jail Events site asks, “Looking for inspiration? Download our compilation of great Prison movies, songs and television shows, any one of which could bring your event to life.” We were going to offer the ironic suggestions of American History X, Oz, and the Stanford Prison Experiment, but the actual list renders satire redundant. And indeed Oz is included on it. Sigh.
We await the day that the ex-Queen Street Mental Health Centre is opened up to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest–themed receptions.
With legwork by Kaori Furue. All photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist. Thanks to Nicole D’Cruz for the original tip.