Monday, July 29, 2013

Downsview: Neighbours fight parkette at Jane and Sheppard

First the good news: a new parkette is under construction on Sheppard, east of Jane.

Now the bad news: a new parkette is under construction on Sheppard, east of Jane.

We have reached the point in Toronto where a neighbourhood grows angry and nervous when word comes that it will get a new green space.

In this case, an empty lot next to the Jane/Sheppard Library, location of a long-abandoned Toronto Hydro sub-station, is now being turned into what local Councillor Maria Augimeri calls “a reading garden.”

What a lovely idea — one you’d expect would be welcomed with open arms by all those within walking distance. The proposed space features a small amphitheatre with seating for a few dozen spectators. It will also have trees, flowers, benches, lawns and lighting.

Oh yes, the site has sat empty for years; the sub-station was falling apart and cordoned off by barbed-wire fencing.

So one could be forgiven for assuming the neighbours would be thrilled. But no, in 21st-century Toronto mere mention of such a facility strikes fear and loathing into local hearts. The concern is that it will draw criminals and attract crime.

Don’t bother with arguments about safety in numbers, eyes on the street; residents aren’t buying either. Their logic seems to be that everything is just fine as it is, even though that’s manifestly untrue.

Or perhaps it’s fear of change: Things may not be great, but leave them alone or they will only get worse.

This sort of knee-jerk negativism has become standard in cities, certainly in Toronto. The siege mentality is more widespread than ever. We no longer believe in the idea of progress; the prevailing assumption is that we have entered a long downward spiral from which there is no escape.

Who could argue?

Life feels especially hard in a time of diminished expectations. Despite what we’re told, we face a future that doesn’t look so friendly. Though crime is down and property values up, the world appears uglier than ever. No doubt, some might argue, feelings such this are experienced all the more intensely at Jane and Sheppard. With few community-building opportunities, residents, many of them in the area for decades, have grown understandably apprehensive about what they see unfolding around them. They have heard Rob Ford’s warnings about the big bad city, media conspiracies and enemies lurking at every corner, and they have listened.

We can only hope that the parkette manages to win over skeptical neighbours with its charms and obvious good intentions. Perhaps it will instill new faith in disbelievers.

Perhaps these reluctant city-dwellers chose this post-war neighbourhood in the former North York because they wanted nothing to do with Toronto and its urban pretentions. They preferred go forgo the hurly-burly of a public park for the comforts of shared isolation.

But like some enormous organism that consumes all before it, the city has now reached their corner and started to absorb them. Already the library has raised the spectre of urbanity and suggested, quite subversively, an alternate vision of Sheppard and Jane. This one imagines a public realm full life of activity — non-criminal activity — and an engaged neighbourhood.

These lapsed Torontonians will have nothing to do with it.

On the other hand, maybe they’re right. Maybe the new park will become a magnet for drug addicts, drug dealers and gang members using one another for target practice. Maybe the park signals the beginning of the end. If so, the neighbours will at least know who these kids are and where they live.
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