Community organizers keep searching for the answer—but public consultations aren't getting them any closer to it.
At the third public consultation for the proposed Moss Park recreation centre, the word that went unspoken, while unmistakably present, was “gentrification.”
The neighbourhood is one of the poorest in the city and one of the most densely populated. No matter where people stand on the influx of wealthy residents almost certain to flood the surrounding area once the many condos currently under construction are completed, there was consensus that the eponymous park’s current facilities are unsuitable and strained; they already serve 100,000 people. But how do you create a space that will meet the needs of the area’s neediest and long-term residents as more people, likely far more affluent, move in? And what do you do when some in the area seem happy to forego the neediest among them and embrace the change?
Gentrification has become a dirty word in many urban circles even as people continue to accept, in less obvious form, the conditions that made it so: outright displacement of poor and racialized residents is bad but “revitalization” is a bonus. It can be difficult to tell if safety, inclusion, being “welcoming and accessible to everyone”—all buzzwords and phrases used liberally at the July 20 consultation by organizers and attendees alike—are truly meant to make a space available to everyone. This includes sex workers, drug users, and the people who use the many shelters and social services in the area.
It may also be a quiet way of signalling a desire to “welcome” a new, different group of people.
The potential recreational centre in Moss Park ignited opposition and calls of gentrification when it began as a proposal for an LGBTQ-focused sports centre rather than one catering to the residents of the area. That’s since changed. The City and The 519—a city agency “committed to the health, happiness, and full participation of the LGBTQ community” that secured an anonymous donation for one-third of the centre’s costs—have embarked on a series of public consultations ostensibly intended to secure both the input and the support of the many communities represented in Moss Park. There have been the three public consultations and a number of smaller “focused conversations” with youth, Indigenous groups, shelter and service users, and housing and neighbourhood associations.
“Our focus is primarily reaching out and connecting with people in the Moss Park community who historically have been systematically excluded from decision-making,” says Jaymie Sampa, one of the community organizers of the the smaller, demographically focused meetings. She estimated she and her four co-organizers have conducted about 35 meetings.
A recently released report on the results of all the community engagement to date dealt with some of the complexities of improving services without pushing out the highest-need community members. For instance, the study notes that “safety is the most commonly cited concern among people who use the park and its facilities—and it’s a frequent issue mentioned by those who don’t.” Yet the answers to this problem diverge wildly, often based on past experiences with police, the colour of an individual’s skin or their life circumstances. And the answer probably won’t be found no matter how many focus groups the Moss Park community organizers have, because the conditions creating those disparities will remain.
So, still, the problem of what to do. The public consultations and private discussions conducted so far show that it will be a fine needle to thread, adequately responding to the many and varied needs of the community. And all the while, new condos keep going up.