To each their own

Does Toronto have a common cultural identity? That could be argued, but as a large metropolitan area with so much vibrancy and diversity, it doesn’t really matter. After all, Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods.

‘City of neighbourhoods’ is a phrase that Toronto’s tourism industry loves to throw around, and for good reason. The phrase implies that Toronto offers something for everyone, all accessible by foot or transit.

When I started at U of T two years ago, as an out-of-province student, I was amazed that you could walk 10 minutes southwest of the campus’ sleek, historic buildings to reach Kensington Market, a centre of organic cafes, marijuana dispensaries, and eclectic street performers. A short walk led me to what seemed like a completely different world.

However, Toronto’s downtown neighbourhoods are changing rapidly — gentrification and skyrocketing prices are making it increasingly difficult for young working professionals and families to rent or even buy houses; in effect, it’s becoming one of the most unaffordable cities for millennials in the country.

Now that I’ve been living off campus for the past year, I  sometimes look around my new neighbourhood and wonder, as a student renting a room in an older residential area undergoing gentrification, if I will ever be fully welcome here. When we have such limited options, how can students integrate into the neighbourhoods we’re moving into — as some people may say, taking over — without coming across as overbearing or disruptive?

According to U of T’s Centre for Community Partnerships (CCP), there is a proper way to do this. During the first weekend of October, a small group of students and I met for an intensive training session, as Project Leaders for this year’s Alternative Reading Week (ARW). The ARW is a three-day volunteer excursion led by the CCP, during which groups of students work with communities and groups throughout the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to strengthen community bonds and self-awareness.

As expected with such a short project, we could not get too deeply involved with the community we were assigned. As such, our training emphasized listening to and working closely with the members of these groups or communities, without being dismissive, overbearing, or condescending, in order to make the most of the brief time we were with them.

One training exercise that stuck with me in particular was one that was related to Toronto’s many neighbourhoods and how quickly we, as outsiders, may pass judgment on how safe or unsafe they appear to be. We were shown photos of two areas: one was a thriving neighbourhood in Toronto’s West End, all bay-and-gable houses and vibrant storefronts; the other, a series of identical apartment blocks, plain and in need of repair.

The former neighbourhood was described as popular for young people, with a great selection of restaurants and nightlife, and, generally, a safe community vibe. The latter was described as being a housing complex where many of its residents were below the poverty line, and many more struggled with drug or mental health issues.

The twist was that both of these areas existed within the same neighbourhood — Parkdale. It was a sobering exercise for many of us, especially after we were asked to honestly choose which neighbourhood we’d rather live in. To a university student looking for a safe, fun neighbourhood to live, the first choice seemed ideal. But it’s all too easy to judge a neighbourhood based on what we find appealing or what we want from it; the reality is that all individuals have different perspectives on life and will prioritize different things.

As such, it’s important to consider that every neighbourhood’s advantages and struggles will be perceived differently by various members of the community. While considering where to live, there will be people who struggle to pay their rent, or people who want an area in close proximity to elementary schools for their children. There will also be those recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, who prioritize housing services that offer employment resources and counselling. The diversity of interests that exist within a city like Toronto helps to explain its eclectic nature.

U of T also attracts a large number of students who come from outside the city, the province, or even the country. From my perspective, moving from my small, quiet Vancouver suburb to downtown Toronto was something of a sea-change, but at the same time, university is the ideal stage in life to be introduced to new perspectives, opinions, and lifestyles.

The native Torontonians that I met during my first year were always quick to remind me which neighbourhoods were no-go zones — Chinatown late at night, Jane and Finch — and I took their word for it. It took a few more months of exploring the city to realize that it’s far too easy to lump neighbourhoods in categories of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe,’ and that this language in itself has its issues.

Despite negative stereotypes that exist about Scarborough or the East End, serious offences, such as sexual assault, robbery, and theft over $5,000, occur far more often in the U of T neighbourhood and the Bay Street Corridor than they do in East York.

But even without the benefit of these statistics, should we really be so quick to judge? Returning to the previous discussion about the ARW training session, biases are all too easy to collect and all too easy to pass on, but it is possible to move beyond them and accept that you may be wrong about some parts of the city. The least we can do is support each other and let our neighbours live their own lives. We are all part of one city.