Toronto's East End May Be in for a G'Day
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Toronto’s East End May Be in for a G’Day

East Enders seek some new ideas for old buildings and find their answer down under.

In an effort to revitalize Toronto’s East End, two local community organizations searched the world over for a solution and found what they were looking for very, very far away. Last week, the Danforth East Community Assocation (DECA) and the Gerrard Eastwood Community Organization (GECO) hosted Marcus Westbury, the founder of Renew Newcastle, who spoke about his approach to revitalizing seemingly dead areas similar to the eastern stretch of the Danforth and the area around Gerrard Street and Coxwell Avenue. If the crowd’s enthusiastic response is anything to go by, there might be a Renew Toronto before long.

Renew Newcastle is an Australian not-for-profit that is trying to revitalize the main economic strip of Newcastle, New South Wales, by acting as a liaison between landlords of vacant spaces and local artists and innovators. (See the video above for a bit of background.) Landlords lease their property for 30 days without charge to artists who have applied for space. The occupants’ licenses are rolling, which means they can stay in the property until someone signs as a rent-paying occupant—which sometimes turns out to be the artists themselves, sometimes not. The pool of applicants is diverse. As Westbury put it, “It’s not all 20-something hipsters or retirees.” Many have become permanent fixtures in the now-bustling downtown core. Renew Newcastle has supported more than 70 projects and enterprises since 2009, ranging from Aboriginal art to Australia’s only sound-art gallery. In other words: whoa.

Newcastle is a former steel town two hours outside of Sydney. It’s the largest city in Australia that isn’t a capital, sort of like an Australian version of Hamilton. Westbury, a Newcastle native, recalled wandering though the central part of town and dreaming up ideas for all of the unused spaces lining the streets.

At the Naval Club of Canada on Gerrard Street East, where neighbourhood residents had gathered to hear him speak, Westbury projected a map on the wall and explained that Newcastle was originally built around tram (that is, streetcar) lines that carried people into the central business district, thus creating a very long, straight road system geared toward foot traffic, which is typical in many Australian cities—and in Toronto. With the eventual death of the trams and the steel industry, Newcastle seemed to have let out its last yawns, and was in danger of falling asleep forever. “It’s like a post-apocalyptic zombie movie,” Westbury joked. “If someone wanted to make a film, Newcastle already has all the sets.”

Westbury pieced together a team made up of people in architecture, the arts, business, law, accounting, and community planning. He called these people “initiativists,” a catch-all word he coined in order to avoid alienating anyone interested in getting involved. (An initiativist, he said, is “a person who takes creative initiative to explore, experiment, and try new things. Antonym: bureaucrat.” Many in the crowd marveled at both the pronunciation of the word and the fact that no one had introduced it to them sooner.)

With his volunteer crew, Westbury was able to acquire some savvy legal expertise and work his way to the heart of Newcastle using loopholes. “We did all the small things while [bureaucrats] are having the argument,” he said. Westbury explained that the group worked with what they had, and “went for easy, not ideal.” Essentially, they accomplished what they could with what they had, and tried to think of everything they did as an experiment.

Renew Newcastle sees itself as “a permanent structure for temporary things,” which is similar to an idea from Toronto’s own Jane Jacobs, who said that “Old buildings need new ideas.” Westbury rattled off all of the benefits that came with simply reviving the stores, such as increased foot traffic, reduced vandalism, maintenance, and, most importantly, a new narrative. The efforts have completely changed how Newcastle is perceived by locals and visitors alike.

Renew Newcastle has had quite a bit of success. Lonely Planet listed Newcastle as one of the top ten cities to visit in 2011—it was the first time any Australian city had been ranked. The Renew Newcastle model has been applied in other Australian cities, and eventually led to the establishment of Renew Australia, which Westbury now leads.

Councillor Mary Fragedakis (Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth), a lifelong East Ender, said she was very encouraged by Westbury’s presentation. She pointed out that her ward, north of the Danforth, has the second-largest creative cluster in the city. Recently, she co-sponsored a motion [PDF] with Councillor Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) to encourage scrapping the Vacant Commercial Tax Rebate (basically a tax break for the owners of empty storefronts) in favour of an “Enterprise Incubation” program that would encourage owners of vacant commercial properties to make their spaces available to the community. The motion cites Newcastle as a successful example of this model.

At one point, Westbury showed two photos of downtown Newcastle, one during lunch rush one day in 2008, which had two people in the background, and one from 2009, which was packed to the brim with people, colour, and festivity. The second photo, which was posted online by a local newspaper, was met with skepticism. Westbury said someone asked him if the crowds had been Photoshopped. Nope. They came from five minutes down the road. The same could happen here.

CORRECTION: March 13, 2012, 8:04 P.M. This post originally misspelled Marcus Westbury’s name in one instance. The name has been corrected, and we apologize for the error.