The Palace Arms, a 19th century rooming house at King and Strachan, has served as an affordable home to poor men.
Like a guy named Rick. He seemed to be always fiddling with some old bicycle, or making adjustments to a rickety cart he would haul around the neighbourhood collecting bottles. But he always jumped up when he saw me coming, offering a wide grin on even the grayest morning—and coming up with something nice to say about the weather.
He had the same routine for anyone who passed and dared to meet his smile with a smile.
I was sad to learn, several years after I had stopped going into the office, that the Palace Arms was slated for demolition. Condos will be going up where the building now stands.
That’s 92 tiny rooms, each a final fragile foothold for lives already tottering near the brink, shattered.
I saw an article about the Palace Arms posted in a neighbourhood Facebook group—a story that recounted how the building manager, Donald Myette, had tried to keep this tiny community together. He cobbled together plumbing in subterranean rooms. He turned a blind eye to squatters who sheltered in the basement and tried to self-medicate themselves out of this world.
He cleaned up the rooms after residents had fatally overdosed or hanged themselves.
I was hoping to find a little empathy from others in the Facebook comments—and maybe even a sense of the staggering blow being dealt to these people.
Instead, I found comment after comment expressing relief that these “panhandlers and crackheads” were being scattered like cockroaches.
“I’m not sad to see this place go,” one woman, who lives in nearby Liberty Village wrote. “I hope with the loss of it I will be able to go to the gas station without constantly being harassed for money.”
A local man expressed relief that he’d no longer be asked by a Palace Arms woman if he might like a “date.”
That poor, well-to-do, chihuahua-walking, condo-owning man. Imagine having to put up with a desperate woman on a street corner asking him if he might like to have sex for money.
One commenter did dare wonder whether we should think about the actual people—the people who had nothing at all, except a lifetime of tragedy and all the attendant addictions that came with it.
The response was as swift as it was eviscerating.
“Perhaps you don’t actually visit the gas station regularly enough to see these how rude, bold, and inappropriate these people are,” one woman seethed. “Perhaps you have never had a child accompany you while being harassed for money, cigarettes, bus fare…”
She concluded her angry screed with, “The public’s safety should not be at risk because of other people’s bad life choices.”
I also live in the neighborhood. I’ve never heard of a single crime being committed outside the Palace Arms. No murders. Or any violence except for the kind people inflict upon themselves behind those closed doors. Countless times I’ve walked past the place in the dead of night. I got crooked smiles, a snippet or two of conversations, pleas for money, and the occasional proposition.
But in Liberty Village, where the self-proclaimed “good folks” live, there have been muggings, murders (and more murders), devastating meth lab explosions, and massive police raids uncovering gangs and guns and drugs.
I wonder if someday Liberty Village will also be earmarked for demolition. Will people be relieved that they no longer have to walk past roving gangs of coked-up young professionals who violently proposition women in their path—and want to brawl with everyone else?
Probably not. Because Liberty Village culture is our culture. It’s the one we recognize and want to be a part of. It’s the cold culture of steely winners.
Losers aren’t allowed in this club, even if they bring more to a community than acres of mass-marketed condo.
Certainly not men like Rick, who smile at complete strangers.
And certainly not the rest of those beautiful losers, still clinging to hope under the uncertain shelter of the Palace Arms.