Cops and Condominiums: Poverty and Gentrification in Toronto's Downtown Eastside

By Alex Balch

According to the Toronto Star, I live in the worst neighbourhood in the city.

This past April, in an innocuously titled article “Dundas-Sherbourne poised for a surprising rebirth”, The Star's Robyn Doolittle pointed out that Toronto's downtown eastside “consistently tops every major Toronto police crime indictor list” — routinely beating the more notorious neighbourhoods of Jane and Finch, Rogers and Keele and Weston and Lawrence.

In the article Doolittle rightly — albeit disingenuously — attributes the area's high levels of criminality to its heavy concentration of poverty:

Bordered by Carlton St. to the north, Parliament St. to the east, Queen St. to the south and Jarvis St. to the west — an area less than one square kilometre in size — this tiny quadrant of the city harbours three of the city’s largest homeless shelters, 32 legal rooming houses and 14 suspected illegal ones, more than a dozen abandoned lots and buildings, and one of the largest clusters of social housing in the city.

So what solution did the Star's Urban Affairs correspondent offer up to remedy this crime-ridden 'quadrant'? New public housing units? Increased social investment? Community policing initiatives?

Condos.

Rather than an honest look at the very real problems faced by the area's residents, the article was instead an unapologetic fluff piece for gentrification. The downtown eastside, with its cheap property rates, old Victorian houses and close proximity to the city core, has long been slated for redevelopment. Real estate developers view the neighbourhood – nestled between a constantly expanding Ryerson University to the west and north and the increasingly gentrified neighbourhoods of Regent Park and Cabbagetown to the east – as an untapped resource and prospective cash-cow. The only thing standing in their way is all the unsightly poor people.

According to the capitalist logic of the cheerleaders of gentrification, the only way of solving this dilemma is by transforming the area into a “mixed income neighbourhood”: a magic act produced through frenzied condominium development and the influx of private investment (think Starbucks) that these new tenants inevitably attract.

Gentrification is intimately connected to the capitalist conceptualization of progress. Often crouched in euphemistic terms such as “urban renewal” or “revitalization”, it is at is core simply an investment; a re-commodification of urban space into new mass-produced zones of consumption.

This is the strategy at play on the corner of Dundas and Jarvis, where a massive 46-story condominium development has been proposed by Great Gulf. A billboard at the construction site advertising the condos as the “best #%&@ deal in downtown Toronto” provides an insight into the type of young, urban professional that the owners are seeking to draw into the area. The units, starting “in the mid 300's”, are expected to be available by 2015. According to the developers, over 80% have already been pre-sold.

Alongside changes to the neighbourhood's urban geography, this type of “progress” brings rising property values and evictions, which push out poorer and otherwise marginalized residents, and ultimately leads to an inevitable clash between new tenants and the area's established population. Pioneering yuppies may be content to ignore the existence of a large homeless shelter on their block in exchange for relatively cheap rent, but as social demographics shift, pressure on the shelter and its residents inevitably builds. Newly constituted merchant/tenant associations and emboldened real estate speculators often use anti-poor sentiment and fear of crime as an excuse to lobby city councillors to freeze construction of new public housing units, and for the closure of drop-ins, health clinics and other services depended on by more precarious members of the community.

These new tenants are also much quicker to call in the police to “deal' with issues of trespassing, loitering, vagrancy, graffiti, drug use and prostitution. This inevitably translates into increased police harassment and abuse of poor people – already a serious issue in the downtown eastside.

On George Street, located just south of Allan Gardens, police brutality is daily reality. This is particularly true of the strip running between Dundas and Gerrard, a single city block home to two homeless shelters – including Seaton House, one of the city's largest –, several abandoned and decaying old houses, a poorly maintained TCHC apartment building and a smattering of private residences.

Police maintain a near constant presence on the block. Swarms of bicycle cops patrol the area, hassling members of the local homeless population. According to one long-term resident, the Toronto Police Service routinely sends rookie cops onto the street to get them used to wielding their new-found impunity. Police officers often handcuff residents while conducting illegal searches – a blatant violation of search and seizure rights that would cause legitimate outrage in more affluent neighbourhoods. The street is home to a high concentration of racialized residents, who also face frequent racial profiling.

Crime is certainly a problem on George Street. Heated arguments between street-active residents often break out into fights; high levels of substance abuse and addiction mean that break-ins and theft are commonplace; violence against women is a major problem. But heavy-handed policing, combined with a strategy of confinement – homeless people sleeping in Allan Gardens, or panhandling in the surrounding area are often ruffed up and told to “stay on George Street” — does little to resolve these problems. It simply makes them worse.

So how can these issues be addressed? Is the area doomed to choose between corporate gentrification and perpetual decline?

“There's nothing wrong with making the neighbourhood a more attractive place to live,” says Gaetan Heroux, a member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) who has been organizing in the community for decades. “The question you have to ask yourself is for whom?

“The neighbourhood has a long, long history of providing housing and services for poor working people – including a large population of unemployed that have historically been coming to the area since the 1830s. So it's a neighbourhood that has a long history of poor people living there, and working there.

“And what we've seen is cuts to housing and services that have been going on for decades now. As a result of these cuts, people's living conditions have deteriorated and there's serious, serious overcrowding in places like Seaton House. A large section of the rooming houses that have existed for single men and single women in the area have disappeared.”

If you ask local community organizers and service providers, they will tell you that what this area desperately needs is more affordable housing, and harm reduction services to help people with substance dependencies and mental health issues. Unfortunately, this type of investment runs counter to the aims of those who would prefer to see the area blanketed in condos. So, in the absence of private investment, where will this money come from?

“It's going to come from us,” says Heroux. “we as a society have a responsibility to make sure that we have housing... that we have income support that will protect people in cases of crisis or economic depressions. We have to have services, like daycare, schools, healthcare. All of those things were fought for, and many people believe that it's the state's responsibility to take care of all that. But the only way for the state to take care of that is to make sure that some of the wealthiest people in this society pay their share. Right now they're not paying their share.”

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