Community Building 101

While many recognize the value and unique character that Kensington Market adds to Toronto, few appreciate that the neighbourhood — surely one of the quirkiest in the city — is also home to a large number of new immigrants to Canada, many of whom face significant economic hardships in their new homes.

Students who walk through the Market may not pay much attention to St. Stephen’s Community House, the large building that sits between Supermarket and Urban Herbivore on Augusta. But it doesn’t sell vintage clothing or cheap pints of Mill St. Organic. What St. Stephen’s provides to the community is something intangible, yet absolutely essential to thousands of people, building and strengthening the community itself.

The social service agency has been serving western Toronto neighbourhoods since 1962, and over the subsequent decades, it expanded outwards from Kensington in order to serve communities as far north as North York.

Eileen Shannon came to St. Stephen’s Community House six years ago, bringing with her a wealth of experience gained from working with a variety organizations in Toronto, Europe, and Africa. As program director, she is responsible for seven programs within the agency.

The Varsity had the opportunity to speak with Shannon at her office in the Kensington Market location of St. Stephen’s. She provided unique insights into the inner workings of the community development and social service organization, and how they keep up with the changing qualities of Toronto’s immigrant and poor communities.
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The Varsity: St. Stephen’s Community House serves areas of Toronto beyond Kensington Market. What services do you provide at the Kensington location, where are some of your other locations, and what services do they provide?

Eileen Shannon: We have eight different locations in the downtown west and we have recently opened a new location for language classes in North York. Kensington is certainly our busiest site, but not our only site. We see ourselves as being based in Kensington; this is our home community and it’s where we started. Our youth program is here, our homeless program is here, our language training and newcomer services’ main office are here, and we have a small supportive housing program on the top floor.

There is a range of programs for newcomers, programs for adults and for seniors. Some of our services are providing for the immediate area, and other services take from a broader community base — throughout the western part of downtown. There’s basically three program areas. One of them is employment services, which is located at Bathurst and St. Clair. We have licensed, fee-for-service child care in four different locations in downtown Toronto. We also have a cluster of community programs that include services for seniors, programs for the homeless, language training for newcomers, youth programs, conflict resolution resources, and wellness programs. The wellness programs include HIV prevention in the Chinese and Portuguese communities, and prenatal support for newcomers who are pregnant for the first time.

TV: Toronto has changed a lot in the past fifty years in terms of immigration patterns. How has St. Stephen’s been affected by these changes?

ES: We’ve had to really examine the question of what our geographic base is. For example, one of the biggest strengths of St. Stephen’s is newcomer services. English as a second language classes were one of the first services we offered, back in 1962. There’s been a big demographic shift in Toronto and this area is no longer the first-stop for a broad range of immigrant groups that it was up until the ‘60s and ‘70s. The shift began in the ‘80s and

‘90s — more immigrants have been living in the suburbs. At this point, Chinese newcomers are the only significant newcomer group that is still living in this area. We’ve had to come to terms with the necessity of eventually seeing ourselves as less tied to this location, though we’re still very committed to downtown Toronto.
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TV: Why are services like St. Stephen’s so essential to community-building in Toronto?

ES: The people who use this service find that it’s not simply a service — we’re not a supermarket where you just walk in and get what you need. It is also a community, a place where people make connections and can volunteer and build community by making friends and learning new skills. Both our youth program and homeless program have very extensive volunteer and peer development components. All of those skills that build strength in individuals, and build connections between individuals, [also] help to build community. For newcomers, for example, it’s a sense of belonging and connecting as well as learning about their new country and different aspects of life in Canada.

If you think about newcomers from mainland China, they could move into this area and remain extremely isolated because they can get almost everything they need in their native language. So we help individuals to integrate and to become engaged. It helps to build the community at large. Take this building, for example — we have new immigrants coming in here, we have people who are homeless, and we have young people. And though we don’t do much inter-program work, it’s still a place where all kinds of people come in and out every day.

TV: What are some of the challenges that you are faced with when trying to foster a community in the neighbourhoods that St. Stephen’s serves?

ES: Many newcomers are having difficulty and [are] living in substandard housing. When they do succeed and get through those first couple of years, when they’re learning English, and finally get a job that is close to the skills they come to Canada with — they’re moving out of this area. One of the challenges for us, as a city and as a community, is how do we retain the diversity of downtown Toronto?

What was very characteristic for a long time was not just the cultural diversity, but also the economic diversity of downtown Toronto. There had always been people who were well-off, students, new immigrants — it created an area of tremendous economic diversity, and I think this has been shrinking recently.

TV: So do you believe its better for immigrants who have just arrived in Toronto to be living near the downtown core rather than in more suburban areas?

ES: I don’t think it’s just better for immigrants, I think it’s better for everybody. I think economic diversity makes a city better — mixed income neighbourhoods are healthier than neighbourhoods that are either very poor and very wealthy. It’s well known that concentrations of poverty within cities are also concentrations of other social problems. I think it’s healthier for our community, as in our whole city, to have this kind of diversity.

When you talk about community, what exactly do you mean by the word? Community can be very small but it can also be very large. I see the whole city of Toronto as a community. What happens in one part of it affects what happens in another part, and the decisions that are made at the municipal level will affect a community the size of Kensington Market. Kensington is an extremely unusual community — there really is no area in the city quite like it. So there are specific community issues here that only have an impact on us in this area.
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TV: Would it be fair to say that some communities within Toronto are becoming more homogenous and isolated?

ES: I think we’re certainly shifting away from diverse communities. Isolated? I don’t know, I don’t have the answer to that, but I’d say a lot of suburban neighbourhoods would say they’re isolated for reasons like lack of transportation. There are many people who live in places like Jane and Finch [in North York] and Malvern [in Scarborough] who would never go outside of those areas. In our new site in North York, we’ve met some newcomers who have been here for more than a year who have never been downtown.

So there is that isolation — we’re a very big city and people do live in their own neighbourhoods. While they may cross neighbourhoods to get to work, there is an isolation in the sense that those neighbourhoods are essentially foreign countries.

A short history of the kitchen

Having authored a field guide to the universe, 2003’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson figured writing a book about a rectory in a quiet English village — his own home — would be a snap: “Here was a book I could do in carpet slippers.”

Not so much, as it would turn out. As he explains in his newest effort, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “Houses are amazingly complex repositories. What I found, to my great surprise, is that whatever happens in the world — whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over — eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house. […] Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”

Here’s just one room and what Bryson manages to say about it.

The heart of many a home: the kitchen.
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See it larger here.

We forget about this because it’s thrown with such abandon into the processed foods we eat — and, on average, we consume sixty times too much of it — but SALT is actually essential to human health. It’s one of those things that the human body can’t produce for itself, and without it, our cells shut down. It’s also “a hugely strategic resource,” according to Bryson. Consider that for a single military campaign, Henry VIII had 25,000 oxen slaughtered and salted. That’s a lot of salt. Meeting this demand required some heavy-duty travel. “In the Middle Ages caravans of as many as 40,000 camels — enough to form a column seventy miles long — conveyed salt across the Sahara from Timbuktu to the lively markets of the Mediterranean.”

PEPPER also drove men to the ends of the earth. The spice trade sparked the great age of exploration, in part, because the plants on which spices grew were just so darn picky. Piper nigrum, more commonly known as pepper, was originally limited to the Malabar Coast of southwestern India. Only nine islands had precisely the right volcanic soils to support Myristica fragrans, the tree that bears both nutmeg and mace — that’s nine islands of the entire 16,000-island Indonesian archipelago. Cloves are the dried flower bud of an equally fastidious type of myrtle tree that deigned to grow in only six islets 200 miles to the north of the mace. It was like discovering the needle in a haystack. It’s little wonder, then, that upon getting his hands on two of the Spice Islands, James I called himself “King of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Polowy, and Puloroon.” Hungry for a share of the profits (and given London valued nutmeg and mace for as much as 60,000 times their price in the Far East, who wouldn’t want a share?) eighty British merchants banded together to form the British East India Company.

The desire to find a faster route to the east also drove explorers west. They didn’t find what they were looking for, but it did alter the world map as well as what’s on our dinner plate. Upon landing in the Caribbean, Columbus and his crew came across natives using two crops totally new to the Europeans: tobacco and CORN. On the basis of corn alone, we can tell that the Mesoamericans were incredibly inventive. Corn doesn’t grow in the wild. It’s entirely dependent on humans for survival. That’s because corn has always been intended as a crop: it’s the world’s first genetically engineered food. To this day, no one is really sure how the Mesoamericans did it, or why. More amazing still, they developed a new ecosystem to go with the crop, creating grain fields from arid scrub. “They had to be created from scratch by people who had never seen such a thing before. It was like someone in a desert imagining lawns.”

When Columbus brought aboard the maize from Cuba, he began what has become known as the Columbian Exchange: a great transfer of foods and materials between the Old and New Worlds. Local cuisine was never the same again. “Imagine Italian food without tomatoes, Greek food without eggplant, Thai and Indonesian foods without peanut sauce, curries without chilies, hamburgers without French fries or ketchup, African food without cassava.”

The locavore’s nightmare didn’t reach its height, however, until new advances in food storage made it economical to ship food over large distances. “In January 1859, much of America followed eagerly as a ship laden with 300,000 juicy oranges raced under full sail from Puerto Rico to New England to show that it could be done. By the time it arrived, however, more than two-thirds of the cargo had rotted to a fragrant mush.” Between 1810 and 1820, Bryan Donkin perfected CANS. for preserving foodstuffs, though they were almost too effective: made from wrought iron, Donkin’s were almost impossible to open, especially given that the two-wheel can opener wasn’t invented until 1925. The real shift, however, came with REFRIGERATION, which in its earliest form simply meant packing food with a lot of ice: Chicago alone held 250,000 tons for railway refrigeration, but this boosted its credentials as a transportation hub. These advances in food preservation might seem small, but they permanently altered the agricultural economies of entire countries, and even continents: “Kansas wheat, Argentinean beef, New Zealand lamb, and other foodstuffs from around the world began to turn up on dinner tables thousands of miles away.”

When it came to modern conveniences, inventing the light bulb was just half the battle. How easy it is to forget that houses weren’t wired, ready, and waiting, to allow for the flick of a switch. At least two other inventors contemporaneous with Edison had produced similar inventions as his, but where Edison excelled was in creating the infrastructure to make electricity practical. Edison teamed with people like J.P. Morgan to wire a section of Wall Street, and lighted other high-profile places: La Scala opera house in Milan, for example, or the dining room at the House of Commons in London. For the purposes of our kitchen, however, he also employed a team to design how electricity would work in the home, foreseeing the need for everything from lamp stands to switches. It wasn’t necessarily intuitive. Case in point: “No one thought of PLUGS and sockets, so any electrical appliances had to be wired directly into the system. When sockets did finally come in, around the turn of the century, they were available only as part of overhead light fittings, which meant having to stand on a chair or stepladder to plug in any early appliance.”

When the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago displayed a model electric kitchen, the OVEN on display (which took an hour to preheat) would look strange to us today. “The knobs to regulate the heat were just above the floor level. To modern eyes, these new electric stoves looked odd because they were built of wood, generally oak, lined with zinc or some other protective material. White porcelain models didn’t come in until the 1920s — and they were considered very odd when they did. Many people thought they looked as if they should be in a hospital or a factory, not in a private home.”

Today, baking is practically a science — like chemistry class with an oven — but MEASURING ingredients is also a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to 1845, cookbook instructions would call for “some flour” or “enough milk.” That all changed when a starving poet named Eliza Acton decided to try her hand at something more commercial with Modern Cookery for Private Families. “It was the first book to give exact measurements and cooking times, and it became the work on which all cookbooks since have been, almost unwittingly, modeled.”

A century and a half after Columbus landed in Cuba, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of 1660 that he had tried a new hot beverage, one that he referred to as “a China drink.” By that time, most Britishers had adjusted to another novel concoction, though only just: coava, cahve, cauphe, café — it hadn’t even been clear what to call the stuff until 1650, until they settled on COFFEE. It too was considered foreign: it took a Sicilian, working as a servant for an Englishman, to open London’s first café in 1652. Were we to taste coffee as it was served back then, we might consider it outlandish as well. A consequence of how coffee was taxed, British coffee houses would brew it in large batches, store it cold, then reheat it for serving. But the taste wasn’t the point. “People went to coffeehouses to meet people of shared interests, gossip, read the latest journals and newspapers — a brand-new word and concept in the 1660s — and exchange information.” One coffeehouse, Lloyd’s, became what we know today as the Lloyd’s of London insurance market. Coffeehouse culture quickly became an entrenched part of London’s political and economic life.

It wasn’t long, however, before the China drink had taken over, and everyone in England drank their weight in TEA. “Between 1699 and 1721, tea imports increased almost a hundredfold, from 13,000 pounds to 1.2 million pounds, then quadrupled again in the thirty years to 1750.” The English loved their tea, but it posed a number of problems for them, especially in the colonies. By 1770, the East India Company wasn’t doing so hot: it was overproducing tea leaves — perishable, mind you — to the point that it had stockpiled 17 million pounds of it. When the British government repealed the Townshend duties in America, they decided to help the company out by keeping the tea tax and giving the merchants a virtual monopoly. For some reason, people in Boston were none to pleased about this, so they dressed up as Mohawks, boarded the British ships, and threw a year’s worth of tea into the harbour. If that weren’t enough, the British were also having tea troubles on the other side of the world. “By 1800, tea was embedded in the British psyche as the national beverage, and imports were running at 23 million pounds a year. Virtually all that tea came from China. This caused a large and chronic trade imbalance.” To make up for it, the English got into the opium trade. The problem was, even after turning a good many Chinese people into opium addicts and every year selling almost 5 million pounds of it to China, that still wasn’t enough to cover the English tea tab. Finally recognizing a lost battle, the East India Company decided to start producing tea for itself in the colony instead of buying from China. How could this possibly go wrong?

“Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. […] Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery.” This has been a look at your kitchen paraphrased from Bryson. For a look at the rest of your rooms, we point you toward THE BOOK.

Going Greek

Hell is other people. I should know; since leaving home, I’d been living with a gaggle of them. After a stint in residence at Vic, I moved into a student co-op and spent years having to co-exist in painfully close quarters with ten others.

So, when the university’s administration announced it was shutting down said co-op, I was nearly relieved. It was finally time to get my own little place, and start living blissfully uncooperatively.

I had a pretty domestic scene in my head. I would paint the walls a soothing pastel blue; I’d have a cozy breakfast nook, where I could stretch out the paper and read it in my underwear; the dishes would pile up in the sink without anyone saying a word. I’d have a tiny balcony where I’d go to smoke and think, or drink, depending on my whim. The landlord would be kind-hearted, with a love of home repair, and would summarily fix leaky faucets or chase out spiders as required.

Not only would this miracle place exist in a fashionable yet suitably grungy neighbourhood, but due to my tremendous skill at browsing Craigslist classified ads, rent would be so reasonable I wouldn’t need any style-crampin’ roomies.

Of course, when I started looking at places in my price range, harsh reality set in, as it is wont to do. If the price was anywhere in the vicinity of reasonable, the domicile was probably in some centipede-infested basement with one window the size of a porthole. The ceilings would be so low even a hobbit would be forced to stoop. The kind-hearted landlord I’d envisioned would end up a beer-bellied drunk who looked like he kicked puppies for fun. The front door would have the telltale dents of getting smashed in during police raids, perhaps during a crackdown on puppy kickers.

I begrudgingly set about adjusting my expectations accordingly. What could I compromise on? Maybe a roommate or two wouldn’t be so bad — so long as they didn’t mind me breakfast-nooking in my underwear.

Armed with newly lowered standards, I found a bunch of decent options full of seemingly decent people. Time would surely tell what perversions lurked behind their facades of normalcy, but sometimes you’ve gotta roll the dice. The most promising place was beside an iconic art school, and the three people already living there hadn’t left much evidence of nocturnal deviancies lying around. Instead, there were books and magazines scattered about, a Globe and Mail on the table near a well-used coffee pot, and a few houseplants that looked like they got watered more than cacti.

My kind of people, for sure. They offered me the spot right then and there, but I had just one place left to check out first.

The ad promised it all: separate pool and ping-pong tables, a massive deck, a giant TV, cheap rent, a location roughly a mini-putt away from The Varsity offices, and laundry on-site.

I know. What was the catch, right?

Of course, the advertisement had neglected to mention a rather crucial caveat: it was an honest-to-goodness frat house. Luckily, I discovered this little detail before viewing the place by looking up the ad-poster on Facebook. In his profile picture, he was sporting a Fu Manchu ‘stache, had a brewski in hand, and was wearing a shirt that — in the name of protecting the debauched — I’ll pretend said “Helta Skelta Delta.”

Now, I wasn’t much of a bro. I hadn’t played a sport since high school, when I traded basketball for hacky-sack and drug experimentation. I wore skinny jeans, cardigans, and nerd glasses proudly. And I’d managed to make it through five years of undergraduate education without ever so much as attending a frat party. To be truthful, I felt smugly superior and yet a little jealous that I’d never gotten to experience the brotherhood and boyish hijinks that accompanied frats, or at least did in the movies.

I showed up for a tour of the place, still trying to treat this like a bad joke. I was wearing my baggiest clothes and had leafed through a sports section earlier that morning, in case anyone asked questions about what team I rooted for. But when I got to the address I was taken aback. The house was a spectacular Victorian mansion, and I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that students apparently lived here. It looked like it belonged to an eccentric millionaire, or perhaps a deposed king.
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I rang the bell, and was ushered inside by the dude in the Facebook photo. After explaining that the frat was looking to fill a few summer vacancies with non-pledge boarders, he started giving me the tour, and I grew more excited with every room. There was a wood-working area, a fish-watching nook with a giant aquarium, a red-lit space that looked vaguely like a darkroom, a pool-shooting den, two kitchens, a beautiful dining room with a live snake in it, and, most intriguingly, a locked secret room.

“You can go pretty much anywhere in the house but here,” said my host, who I’ll call Taylor. “This one’s for pledges only, and you don’t want to get caught trying to sneak in there.”

At that, I knew I had to live in this house. I hadn’t even been shown the promised giant deck yet, let alone my potential room, but as a life-long sucker for cloak and dagger, I needed in on this. When Taylor showed me my room and named a price that was the absolute most I’d be able to afford without signing up for paid medical experiments, I tried to play it coy. I managed to demur for about ten seconds.

On move-in day, the boys immediately surprised me by helping me bring my junk in from the van. In my excitement to sign a lease I had somehow overlooked the fact that, though the room had two big couches in it, there was no bookshelf. I piled my boxes stuffed with musty paperbacks in a corner, where they remained for the next 120 days.

Mostly settled in, I headed to the patio and met more of my new housemates. After only a few minutes of chatting, they invited me out the following night to Maddie Monday. Thoroughly uninitiated, I needed it explained to me that this was the big weekly Greek society mixer, when the various frats and sororities around town met to mingle. I said I’d think about it, and repaid their kindness by posting a snarky comment on the Internet asking if anyone had a lime-green polo I could borrow.

Time passed, and I grew more accustomed to what I started privately referring to as Frat Palace. At any given time of the day or night, hip-hop or classic rock would be blaring out of at least two of the many bedrooms in the place, and there’d likely be the incessant reports of video game machine guns echoing out of another. That was fine — I blasted my hipster bullshit indie rock just as loudly. The boys rarely wore shirts, and while I felt overdressed in my ironic tees, I didn’t have the midsection to join in on their displays of chest hair. I started doing sit-ups. Though the washroom on my floor had the decadence of an actual urinal in it, most of the lights were permanently burned out, so I learned to bring a lamp in when I had to shave.

Of course, I also gazed longingly at the door to the secret room, but I had yet to work up the nerve to even try and peer through the keyhole.

I soon developed the slightly paranoid habit of locking my bedroom door just to go downstairs and make breakfast. This was because weeks into my residency, I still had yet to figure out who exactly lived in the mansion and who was just hanging around. The official summer occupancy was sixteen people, but between the couch surfers, friends of roommates, and older brothers returning to hang, I could only figure out who thirteen or fourteen of the official residents were. Upon graduating, and presumably leaving the house, pledges got to keep their keys, and could return whenever they pleased.

And return they did. Years after vacating, brothers retained a loyalty to the house. They’d come by and fix things up sporadically, varnishing the deck, dusting the chandeliers, and planting flowers outside. These returning champions would actually take better care of Frat Palace then its current inhabitants, who mostly left empty cans of Red Bull and beer scattered everywhere.

Sometimes I’d get home, survey the wreckage, and picture the aristocrat who built the place being brought to the twenty-first century by the Ghost of Christmas Future. Imagine the instant seizure he’d have upon seeing how these kids were living in his once regal home!

I wasn’t much better as I adapted to the new environment. Turns out living in squalor is initially gross, but ultimately liberating when you realize nobody expects you to vacuum. And while I was mildly irritated at first when it was 6 a.m. and the Black Eyed Peas were still pulsing through the walls of my room, I eventually realized I could party like that too.
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One warm summer night I had friends out on the the deck past dawn, and they were blasting synth-heavy remixes. No one in the house said a word, but around 8 in the morning a man from the building next door climbed up the fire escape to tell us to shut up. “You gotta understand, guys,” he said. “It’s not the volume, it’s the goddamn bass.”

“Man, that guy sure hates bass,” said a brother the next day. “He complains about it, like, once a month.”

My new roomies taught me about so much more than adjusting to depravity and annoying the neighbours. Once I found two of them arguing about who was more ripped from working out. Each was adamant that he was the more jacked of the two, so I tried to settle it by suggesting they arm wrestle. They looked at me like I was crazy.

“These guns aren’t for actually, you know, doing stuff,” said Phil. “These are show muscles.”

In time, I also learned a dizzying array of high fives, how to play beer pong — the bros had constructed a table specifically for the pseudo-sport — and about the intellectual origins of fraternities. One night, a pledge earnestly explained to me about how the founding Hellenic selective societies formed as a way for university students to debate politics openly, in an era when such discourse could be dangerous. The Greek alphabet naming scheme was an homage to those ancient fathers of democracy. My interlocutor was really into it.

“During the year, we take our studies very seriously,” Dave assured me. “The boys help each other in the subjects they’re strongest in. Your priorities are to your schoolwork, and then to the frat.”

And you know what? I believed him. I’d find my housemates intently studying U of T course calendars, amidst discarded king cans.

Another surprise was the love the house had for its animals. Between the cat, the snake, the aquarium, and the occasional dog, Frat Palace was a real menagerie, but all animals were well cared-for. Take the fish: the tank was regularly cleaned, and the guys loved to watch the vibrant creatures flit through the eye sockets of the plastic skull resting at the bottom of it. The greatest tragedy in the house’s recent memory seemed to be the time that a guest at a party poured an entire can of food into the tank, and many of the fish perished. “It was horrible,” someone told me.

I grew closer to my reluctantly adopted family. We’d have long discussions about brotherhood, what it meant to choose going Greek in a city that didn’t respect or understand it, and about the volunteer work they did in the community — partly to rehabilitate the negative image of fraternities. They were fiercely loyal to one another, but spoke harshly of the one pledge who kept bringing them shame.

The most recent antic of Raymond involved wandering drunkenly through traffic, shouting into the windows of cars. “And then a fist just comes out of one window and — wham! — hits him right in the eye. He falls over and the car speeds off. He totally didn’t learn his lesson.”

Near the end of my stay in the frat, I was trying to enjoy a beautiful late-August evening out on the deck when Raymond staggered out, offering repeatedly to fight me. I left, returning hours later to find him passed out, face-up under the few stars visible in the Toronto sky.

The next day, a different brother asked me if I intended to extend my stay into the school year. “You fit right in!” he assured me. I thought of Raymond, and cruelly didn’t want to fit in.

On August 31, I ended up moving out after midnight, thanks to a difficulty in procuring a van. The boys were partying, but were good enough to interrupt a raucous game of beer pong to assist with the heavy lifting. As they helped bungee my couch to the van’s roof, they told me I was welcome back any time. I told myself I was done with communal living, and as I sped off I was eager to put some space between me and the majestic flop house.

Fast forward to November, and I’m coming home to my generally clean and quiet little home, above a shop on Queen Street. There are a few dishes in the sink, but they’re mine. I put my groceries in the fridge, where I know only I will eat them; I can do so alone and in my underwear, if I please.

When I head into my room to finish writing this, I don’t lock the door behind me, and no thudding bass disrupts my concentration. But as I procrastinate on Facebook, wading through the noise of 600 people I barely know in search of some genuine interaction, I think: “God, I miss those bros.”

Oh, and as for the secret room? I noticed that someone had left the door ajar back in August, but I didn’t even peek in. That’s not what loyalty’s about.

Where everybody knows your name…

Cheers, The Regal Beagle, Moe’s Tavern, Rovers Return Inn: anyone who recognizes any of these names will know that the pub has served an iconic function in the primetime sitcom. It’s not simply an after-work hangout, but a thriving community all on its own. We’ve seen our favourite television characters form lifelong friendships, get married, and make major life revelations, all from the barstools of these second homes. In fact, did we ever see Sam’s apartment or meet Norm’s wife? The answer is rarely, if ever, because there was no need to; the Cheers bar was where the love, and beer, was brewing. But does such a mythical place exist in real life?

Toronto is a city populated by 2.5 million people. Its many districts and divisions make the city the cultural mosaic it is, but they can also have an isolating effect. Social hubs that bring a community together are essential.

I set out to see if there are places in Toronto where everybody knows your name and are always glad you came.

The names in the descriptions below have been changed by request, largely because the people interviewed did not want their wives, husbands, or 85-year-old mothers knowing what they were up to before they came home from work.
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The Artful Dodger

12 Isabella St.

“Like a day at the beach in Britain, eh Ron?”

Happy to finally have company, a lone man at the bar greets his friend who’s just arrived from work. Ron chuckles as he quibbles with his companion over which seat is his. At 4:30 in the afternoon the pub is nearly empty, and available seats are abundant — but this holds no bearing to either of them.

Ron, originally from Yorkshire, has been coming to The Artful Dodger since 1985, not long after he moved to Toronto. “You come to get drunk,” he laughs. After a pause he adds, “But also to talk to your friends — about soccer, or banking, or anything. Every weekend we’ve got a soccer pool. I’ve got friends who I met here years ago.” Ron and his friend sit in front of the television, their eyes glued to the tennis match. But for the occasional comment regarding tennis’ inferiority to soccer, the two men sit in silence and sip their pints.

Until a few years ago, The Artful Dodger was a hub for Toronto’s British population, but the cozy pub has recently opened its taps to a host of diverse demographics. “I serve anyone from two years old to eighty years old,” says the barmaid, who’s worked here for the past ten years. With an empty bar to serve, she joins the two men sitting by the television. “It’s quiet now, but come evening we get loads of different people in. About eighty per cent of those people are regulars, and I’ve gotten to know twenty per cent of them quite well. It’s a real family atmosphere we’ve got going on. I’ve seen people who’ve fallen in love and gotten married… and gotten divorced.”

Sure enough, by 6:30 the seats are filled, fireplaces are lit, and a cheerful banter runs across the rooms, bringing together the separated tables of people. A large crowd has gathered around the bar, but no eyes or ears are paying attention to the television behind it. At the centre is Ron, who is a few empty glasses into the evening and is significantly cheerier. Indeed, the place is filled with people of all ages: students who have finished class, two older women enjoying some wine, and a family that has come for Dodger’s classic dinner — bangers and mash. The three-year-old boy who sits with them is by far the most popular patron in the house — attracting visitors and acquaintances from each table. Fittingly, his name is Oliver.

Konrad Lounge

2902 Lake Shore Blvd. W.

Ramone was once a track and field star. During his career, he won the Boston Marathon and is one of Canada’s all-time great track and field athletes. He’s got a plaque hanging in the Konrad Lounge to prove it. Now he sits next to the plaque with a host of other comfortably worn locals that have collected in the corner of the bar.

He sneezes loudly.

“Gesundheit!” says the waitress as she comes around the bar and pats him on the back. “You’re supposed to sneeze into your sleeve, you goof,” she adds in a maternal tone. The waitress, Eila, was a regular at the bar for fifteen years before she started working here three years ago. “We’ve got a lot of regulars because we’ve got a mutual respect with our customers. We take care of each other. We’ve taken care of funerals if someone here loses someone. We’re a tight-knit group here.” At the end of her shift, Eila joins the group she’s just been serving.

Don’t be fooled by its name. The Konrad Lounge is more a mix of an old lodge house and a sports bar than it is a lounge. From its elegantly tiled walls hang the usual commercial posters alongside a large moose’s head. The music jumps back and forth between top forty hits and polka music, and the customers that pass through only add to the blend. The regular patrons that come in every day are mostly non-workers and retirees, but as the night progresses, the regulars that sit hunched and planted in their seats are joined by hipsters, businessmen, and an array of offbeat characters. After sitting there for a few hours, it can start to feel like something out of a Billy Joel song.

“Let’s call it a zoo but with semi-tamed animals,” Pauline, another waitress, describes.

“And that makes you the zoo keeper?” interjects Ramone.

“Yeah, but now I think I need an electrical prod,” she replies, with a loud, fervent laugh.

“I’ve worked at a lot of bars, a few in the financial district where they’re all pretentious… I won’t say whats. But this one is special because of the relationships. There are the quirks. The regulars think they rule the roost and can do no wrong.” With a wide grin she shifts her glance to the group huddled in the corner. “That’s disputable. But this neighborhood calls for raw and brutal honesty. These people, they’re fun, they curse, they swear, they’re belligerent, but at least they’re real, and because of that I get to be just like they are.”

Hot Pot Café

1336 Danforth Ave.

Through the back doors of a seemingly generic Moroccan restaurant is a vivacious café. The walls are painted a calming beige and the couches, lined with satin, are abundant in pillows. The floor is covered with hookahs while light, aromatic smoke, and Middle Eastern music fills the air. There is a low muttering of conversation in the room — primarily spoken in Arabic — as each couch is filled, to the cushion, with people. A massive silk tent is strung at the very back of the room.

Stepping into the Hot Pot Café is like stepping into another land.

On the one side of the café sits a group of women, diligently studying and working on laptops in the corner. On the other side, a massive board game of more than ten people carries on for over two hours. Scattered between these two polar opposites are small groups of friends, couples, and a gathering of middle-aged men who sit at the very back under the tent, silently smoking their hookahs and sipping traditional Moroccan mint tea while reading the news.

Located in the heart the Danforth, the Hot Pot Café is a social core for residents who want to experience something different, and for those who want to experience something a little closer to home. “Many of our customers come from Egypt, Somalia, Arabia,” says the waitress. Born in Palestine, she has worked here for just over a year. During her shift she flits from table to table, greeting customers with friendly hellos, sitting down to chat with a few of them, and even taking a pause to enjoy a puff from a hookah.

Abdul, a regular customer for the past two years, has not only become good friends with the owner, but has also helped set up the layout of the restaurant, and praises the café for the unique cultural experience it provides in the community.

“The place is great for building relationships — business, friendship, anything. It attracts a lot of people from a lot of different cultures, and a lot of different languages. You get to exchange new ideas and learn new things. As soon as I come in I’m saying ‘hi,’ ‘hi’ to most of the people in here. It’s like a home here.”

Drinks All Around!

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From the exotic to the eccentric, Toronto is home to many different pubs and hangouts that people have come to call their own. Though the differences between these three spots were numerous, there were some things that remained constant throughout. In each of the pubs the waiting staff served as a pillar that brought the customers together, the backbone behind the familial atmosphere that was ever-present in all three places. Furthermore, all of the interviewees were quick to describe their spot as a “home” and those who frequented it as “family.”

When beginning this project, and for many years watching television, I feared that the heartwarming hangout where one could always find a friend existed only in the fictional world of network television. It soon became clear that this was not the case. When asking for advice on “Cheers-like” bars, almost every person I spoke with was quick to reply, “Check out this place I go to all the time. The people there are really nice.” From their responses and the findings above, it seems clear that the welcoming pub, always there with open taps and open arms, is not just a myth originating from a sitcom, but a vital part of the many communities in Toronto.

So if you’re alone at home watching Cheers reruns, longing for your own Sam, Diane, Carla, and Woody, just take a stroll down the street to your nearest corner pub. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find there

Death by design

“When Dennis asked me if I wanted to go to Rochdale, I asked him about courses and policies. He said the students would make those kinds of decisions. Well, that impressed the hell out of me, so I said ‘yes’ right away. I guess that made me Rochdale’s first student.” — Paul Evitts, Rochdale’s first student and later a member of its Executive Council

Of all the nondescript high-rises that tower over Bloor Street, this one appears especially insipid. Known to some as 341 Bloor Street, Senator David A. Croll Apartments, or simply as “that building on top of G’s Fine Foods,” the concrete that graces its stark brutalist exterior hides a secret history, one sewn into the countercultural roots of downtown Toronto in the late 1960s.

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Rochdale College, which began as an educational endeavour, fully embraced the satirical attitude that the younger generation had towards the established social and political norms of the 1960s. Born from a desire for education that didn’t conform to existing power structures, students were encouraged to create their own courses and engage directly with their professors. (Rochdale later became famous for selling its degrees: a BA cost $25, an MA sold for $50, and a PhD for $100.)

Similarly, Rochdale had a thriving social community: it had a bar, convenience store, daily newspaper, security force, radio station, cafeteria, library, post office, and even a theatre troupe.

An idealist’s pipedream, the college was planned as a massive social experiment. Housing roughly 840 people, Rochdale was a vertical village of anti-establishmentarians, iconoclasts, and dreamers. Students and teachers lived together, designing and teaching their own courses, all partaking in the community that the building offered. It was run like a small country, complete with executives, councils, and committees. Social norms were lax, with drugs becoming central to Rochdale’s culture. To many students, it sounded like a modern Garden of Eden.

It was also an unprecedented, spectacular failure.

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In 1967, while Rochdale College was under construction, another alternative housing project was coming alive just 300 miles away. The brainchild of recent architecture graduate Moshe Safdie, Habitat 67 was a modular housing project commissioned for Montreal’s Expo 67 world’s fair. It was an ambitious project on several fronts; as Adele Weder puts it, Habitat 67 was to serve as “a manifesto for universal, affordable urban design,” and was “Canada’s first truly ideological government-sponsored architecture.”

The project favoured the utilitarian and the affordable: 158 individual prefabricated concrete units, all piled onto each other asymmetrically, composed the core structure of the building (the original plans called for over 1,200 such units). The low cost of production was intended to keep the sale price of units low, and the tight arrangement of units was designed to foster a communal living experience through shared courtyards and open spaces; the stacking of units even meant that every person’s roof was another’s garden space. As Safdie put it, “for everyone a garden.”
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Still widely regarded as a modernist masterpiece, Habitat 67 was praised for its cubic design and use of concrete as a means of creating affordable housing solutions for low-income families. It is surprising to learn, then, that Habitat 67 has since matured into a semi-ironic mockery of the ideals it once espoused. A 1,200-square-foot two-bedroom unit costs upwards of $500,000, and Habitat 67 has become a home for Montreal’s cultural elite.

After a few years running the project as a real housing venture, the government realized how truly expensive Safdie’s proposal turned out to be. The enormous expenditure required for creating the individual units (when it came to producing concrete modules, the world just wasn’t technologically “there yet”) was added to the high maintenance and support costs for keeping the building going. Soon after the government sold all its Habitat 67 units and divested itself of the costs, real estate brokers snatched up most of the units. Capitalizing on the project’s rock-star status in the architectural community, they began charging much higher rates aimed at high-income brackets, and it worked. Habitat 67 had been effectively and almost immediately gentrified, any semblance of its utopian, communitarian, low-income ideal now completely destroyed.

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Rochdale College seemed to similarly suffer from the idealistic excesses of the 1960s. Planned as a mixed-residential building, Rochdale included standard single and double rooms in its east wing and basic apartment-style rooms in its west wing. More experimental “ashram” units were built in the middle, and were composed of four double rooms and four single rooms, all sharing one kitchen and bathroom opening into the main lounge.

In the case of those living in ashram units, the college’s reliance on self-governance meant that most responsibilities that would normally fall on the shoulders of landlords were downloaded onto the tenants themselves. As a result, those living in ashrams also ended up being the people most involved in Rochdale’s alternative education program. The divided nature of those living in the building — that is, those who only used Rochdale as a living space and those who were fully immersed in the Rochdale educational experiment — ultimately led to a mutual animosity that would last for as long as the community existed.
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Rochdale also suffered from a few serious design flaws. Most glaring was that “the shapes and sizes of individual rooms were determined for the most part by the structural grid system in the parking garage,” as Howard Adelman, one of the principal founders of Rochdale College, explained.

In fact, even the parking garage was poorly designed. As a cost-cutting measure, parking spots were downsized — meaning that every room in the building was subsequently smaller. Residents would only get a modicum of karmic justice: one of the officers working for the company that developed Rochdale destroyed his car’s fender trying to park there.

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Like Habitat 67, Rochdale College was doomed to fail. In the late 1960s, the government began a concerted effort to “eradicate” Yorkville — which by this point was the de facto hippie capital of Canada — of the drug addicts and youth that had taken root there almost a decade earlier. As police presence began to grow in Yorkville, the hippies slowly moved west down Bloor Street to Rochdale, a place already known for its relaxed attitude towards drugs. Soon, Rochdale became a drug haven. Speed became a major problem, with several overdoses reported, and a biker gang called “The Vagabonds” distributing drugs throughout the building.

Rochdale’s drug culture proved to be its undoing. By 1973, both locals and politicians were calling for the building to be closed down, and in 1975, they finally succeeded. After dragging the remaining few residents out of the building, police welded the doors shut: a final nail in the gigantic coffin that Rochdale had now become. The building was eventually repurposed as the Senator David A. Croll Apartments, a home for the elderly. It was an ironic end to one of the most interesting educational and residential experiments Toronto had ever seen. The community’s legacy persists to this day: cultural groups such as the Theatre Passe Muraille, House of Anansi Press, Coach House, and This Magazine all originated, or were developed there.

Rochdale College now exists only in the memory of those who lived there and, as with Habitat 67, as a relic of the experiments in alternative dwelling that punctuated the 1960s.

“This is the contradictory desire in our utopia. We want to live in a small community with which we can identify, and yet we want all the facilities of the city of millions of people. We want to have very intense urban experiences, and yet we want the open space right next to us.” — Moshe Safdie

At your funeral

I have often thought about death, especially how we create spaces to celebrate and honour someone at the time of their passing. Funeral homes have always held an intense fascination for me. Our ideal conception of home is a place of comfort, retreat, and rest, in which the problems of the world are left at the door. I have often wondered how we unite two things that, on the surface, appear to be so contradictory.

In a funeral home, we are forced to confront something painful and traumatic. We often describe death as a “final resting place,” and we design cemeteries for that purpose. How do we reconcile all of this? Who works to make this happen? Who helps us when we need to celebrate and honour someone’s life, and furthermore, why do they help us? I was able to speak with a group of people who are veritable experts on funeral homes, each of whom helped illuminate something that is important, but rarely contemplated.

The Funeral Services Student

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The first person I speak to is Bryn Robertson, a student in her first year of the Funeral Services Education Program at Humber College.

I ask Bryn why she chose to pursue funeral services education.

“Actually that’s the first question that anyone ever asks me when they find out what I do. I don’t really have a structured answer to it. I considered it when I was younger. You see, I used to altar serve at the church my family went to… I would altar serve a lot of funerals, and so I was exposed to it more,” she says.

She elaborates: “I considered it for about five or six years, but it’s not like other career paths where you can just jump into it. There’s an emotional weight to it and I didn’t want to put myself under any emotional distress until I knew I could and would want to do this.”

Bryn’s coursework at Humber includes anatomy and physiology, microbiology, ethical issues in funeral services, legislation, cosmetology (restorative work on the body), and pathology. Funeral services education involves at least a year of courses and another year of interning at a funeral home. “[Funeral directors] actually started out as carpenters way back when families couldn’t afford to do anything with their dead,” Bryn says, explaining the origins of the occupation.

“They used to do it as a free service and then the volume got higher, so they started charging and ended up buying out the funeral transportation service. They would go to the funeral home and they would hire a priest, and they started taking care of all of those responsibilities,” she explains.

“After a while families started getting exhausted because people would not leave their house. Everyone gets to a point where they need to be with their family and left alone. The carpenter — the funeral director at this point — started offering up his own home for the public and that’s how it started.”
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But what about the two concepts of home and death? How are they brought together? And how successful is it?

“I’ve definitely seen some families who are uncomfortable in that environment,” Bryn says. “But I’m sure that people do appreciate the fact that they come and go whenever they want, and they don’t have that pressure of keeping family and friends around if they don’t want to.

“I’d like to think that [funeral homes] are known as a safe haven. I think people really appreciate that they can go somewhere and, once it’s over, they can leave it behind. They can keep their own home a happy place.”

Meditating on Impermanence

For a more conceptual exploration of home and death I talk to Dr. Tony Toneatto, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry, and program director of the Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health Program at U of T.

I ask him about the environment that funeral homes create for families.

“They take that experience outside the usual home, but it’s given a home-like atmosphere. It’s comfortable — there are chairs and a dedicated room. It looks like home, often, in its final arrangement. It’s essentially the last place a person will be on the planet before they are put into the ground,” he tells me.

But why are people so terrified of death when it’s such a constant in the world?
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“I think the reason we’re frightened of death and things that are similar to death — you know, threats to ourselves, and other illnesses, old age — all of these signify an ending to our existence,” he says. “These are all terrifying to us because they strike at our belief that we’re special, that we should go on forever, ideally.”

Dr. Toneatto explains that this is why many religions are dedicated to the idea of personal immortality after death, as an attempt to ease our anxieties about the end of our existence. “People in the West often want to be buried rather than burned, so it’s like you’re still there somehow. The funeral process is one where the person looks very normal, almost like they’re sleeping. They’re made up, they’re put in their best suits. You don’t encounter the odours of decay or the look of damage someone may have experienced in the death process.”

This is normal because the terror or anxiety of death comes from a natural sense of self-preservation and a desire to continue our projects. Still, dealing with a loved one who has passed away is very painful.

“The people we love are aspects of ourselves. When we say our loved one is dead, we also know [that it’s] going to be us one day,” says Dr. Toneatto.

So then how should people prepare themselves for such an inevitability?

“One way would be to pierce denial, to see that everything on the planet dies: why should you not? The seasons, autumn, plants die, every insect dies, every animal dies. We kill half the animals on the planet: either to eat or just to expand our civilization,” he explains.

“One way is to meditate on impermanence. Nothing exists. Whether its life-form or non-life-form everything breaks down. The nature of things is to change, break down… You are part of nature, you are part of the process of death.”
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Stages On the Way to Death

Most people like to think of home as a permanent space, and death challenges that. How do you make a space dedicated to dealing with such a painful experience comforting, or even home-like? For this answer, I had to speak with two people who work in the funeral services industry.

Linda Lee and Nathan Johnson are both employees of the Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries. Both work for different sub-companies under the umbrella of the MPGC and manage diverse aspects of funeral service. Linda is the funeral operations manager for Mount Pleasant’s Visitation Centre and Nathan is a district manager working in family service for Mount Pleasant Cemetery and Toronto Necropolis. Our meeting takes place at Mount Pleasant Cemetery’s newly built Visitation Centre, which I notice captures a pleasant, home-like atmosphere without being overwhelming.

I ask Linda about the services offered by the Visitation Centre, and she explains the similarities and differences between a visitation centre and a funeral home.

“It’s complicated, because visitation centres are slightly different than funeral homes. Our company does own and operate funeral homes, which provide full services to families, from basic transfer services to elaborate three day visiting services and reception-type funerals,” Linda explains.

“The visitation centres are themselves built on cemetery property, which cannot allow bodies to be transferred immediately. We just offer an alternative chapel or alternative venue for the services to take place, but everything goes through the funeral home.”

“On the cemetery side we also deal with privately owned funeral homes, family-run businesses, and other corporations. We have crematorium facilities, we have a chapel where we can receive other funeral homes and their families, to have a service here and go up to the grounds for burial,” Nathan adds.

“We offer land for interments, niches for interment of cremated remains, and all under funeral services. Aside from that, we do a lot of outreach. What’s really special here at Mount Pleasant is that we are right at the centre of Toronto. We touch on four or five different small communities. So it’s a very active park-like cemetery.”
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Linda walks me through a typical day and explains the different aspects of funeral service such as the 24-hour phone line that can be called if deaths have occurred overnight, executing prearranged funeral services with families if they have them, and having the families meet with funeral directors.

“It’s sort of like event planning,” she begins. “Any little details like limousines, catering, whatever products we need on the day of the service, and making sure those products are finalized and ready to go.”

However, she quickly emphasizes that, while these are basic services, the actual process is more dynamic.

“There is no typical day, every day is different. We may have two or three services lined up for the day, it doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t walk through the door and say, ‘I need to speak to a funeral director now.’ So our day is very unpredictable and we need to be able to accommodate whatever comes our way.”

“The cemetery is a little more drawn out, it’s a relationship that can go on for years and years. A lot of those calls come from outside funeral homes. The immediate urgency isn’t always there, though it can be. Often it’s just a phone call saying someone has just passed away and ‘can I have such-and-such a plot,’” Nathan says.

The fact that there is no such thing as a typical day becomes obvious when I ask Linda and Nathan about the qualities that someone working in the funeral services industry needs to possess.

“They need to have a strong desire to serve a family. Compassion is definitely required, but they need to be empathic. They need to do what it takes for the family — go above and beyond good customer service. Be very detailed, be very organized because you have to do so many things. It’s not just meeting families. It’s also handling administrative files, doing paper work, and making sure details are followed through,” she says.

“Meanwhile, you have to run out the door to go to church to look after a funeral with over 200 people,” Nathan says. He characterizes funeral service as a calling and believes that those who do well in it are those really enjoy the work.

This echoes a lot of what Bryn told me in her interview, about how funeral services should be approached.

“It’s not like you’re working behind a desk and you’re dealing with somebody’s car. There’s a huge emotional aspect, and you have to be sensitive to other people’s needs, and make sure that you can’t say things like: ‘No you can’t give your loved one a teddy bear.’ You have to make sure you’re not denying the family anything. You’ve got to give it your all,” she says.

I ask Linda about how Mount Pleasant unites both the funeral and a home-like atmosphere in one setting.

“In this building in particular we’ve really succeeded in making that atmosphere as home-like as possible, and also extending our hospitality to [families] in a way that [makes] them feel that they’re at home. Décor and setting and surroundings, the serenity of the cemetery, the comfort of the furnishings, even the colour schemes used. Whenever the designers made a decision, it was based on our desire to capture the warmth of the facility. It’s really the hospitality of the staff. Even if you have a nice building and a nice setting, if your staff isn’t hospitable and caring and wanting to make you feel like you’re at home here, then it doesn’t gel.”

“I think another skill of the funeral director,” Nathan elaborates, “is answering the families’ questions before they ask them. Grief is a very unique experience with everyone, where you’re feeling all different types of things. They’re perfectly normal and everyone feels them at different times. You may have a conversation with a family that they totally forget even took place… It’s grief. It’s shock. You need to think for the family. Even during the first call they need to really feel they can trust you, because you’re really their backbone for four or five days. You need to look out for them during the whole process.”
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The design of a cemetery isn’t as set as that of a funeral home or visitation centre. In 1876, Mount Pleasant initially surveyed about 20 acres of its land and this has grown substantially. Ponds that were once part of the cemetery have dried up and are now used for grave space. Over time, different sections of the cemetery have evolved to accommodate the needs of people within Toronto, and certain parts naturally reflect different cultural needs.

“In some sections of the cemetery, the majority of the graves are east-facing. A majority of the Orthodox [Christian] families want east-facing graves. It’s not specific to them, but then you have a whole section based on the direction of the graves… If you start at the west side of the cemetery and you go this way, you can see how immigration happened in Toronto with the different families that are buried here,” he says.

My final question for Linda and Nathan is what advice they have for coping with death, and the challenges that come with working in the funeral services industry.

“I think you just expect the unexpected. You don’t know how families are going to react to different situations. They don’t carry themselves like they would in a normal part of their day,” Nathan advises.

“A lot of it is our support with each other, as funeral directors. We share our challenges. We share whatever we’re feeling. We talk it out all the time. But overall you’ll find that people in the funeral industry are upbeat, positive, optimistic people with a very good sense of humour,” Linda explains. I can see that this is an integral part of how they define themselves to the families they serve. Nathan explains that they let the family dictate the pace, but he feels that part of Mount Pleasant’s success lies in the fact that their employees are still able to show some of their personality.

“I think the industry has changed that way. It allows people to be more like themselves. It’s just totally natural,” Linda says.

“We’re very progressive, but we’re still quaint, like a small little family. We’re just local, here, within Toronto. We have ten cemeteries, three funeral homes, five visitation centres. We have 315 employees in all. We’re big enough but just small enough.”

I leave Mount Pleasant’s Visitation Centre feeling both satisfied and very refreshed. I realize that a funeral home is not contradictory in any sense. It can be a place of retreat, comfort, and rest for a grieving family. Although the experience is painful, there are those with the compassion, dedication, and skill necessary to ease the transition from grief to acceptance. Funeral homes and cemeteries are not so perplexing to me now. I can see that they can indeed be a final place of peaceful rest.

Co-Op Culture

A Brief History of U of T Co-ops

Students flock to campus co-operative residences looking for community involvement, friends, and cheap rent. Co-op housing, both on campus and in the surrounding area, is abundant. Most co-op residences are affiliated with the organization Campus Co-op — with the exception of Stephenson House, a co-op residence maintained by Victoria College.

Four U of T theology students founded Campus Co-op in 1936. Rochdale, the first co-operative residence, was built at 63 St. George Street and initially housed twelve men. The residents lived on the second and third floors of the house, while the Victoria College principal’s office was located on the first.

Campus Co-op quickly expanded with the demand for cheap housing during the Great Depression, soon boasting five houses and 101 members. Co-op housing was made available to women in 1942, with the opening of the women’s-only Webb House.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the organization was in decline, prompting the hiring of a Maintenance Property Coordinator. The residences were also in a state of disrepair. The federal government stepped in and subsidized half of the rehabilitation costs, allowing them to undergo extensive renovation to meet new fire regulations.

Co-op has an extensive history of community involvement, which includes accepting refugee students during World War II and the Hungarian revolt of 1956. The organization also subsidized costs for students who were volunteering abroad.

Currently, Campus Co-op accommodates about 300 students in five regional divisions scattered within the downtown area. There is an elected Board of Directors, with representatives for each division. Committees manage Co-op’s day-to-day functions and individual houses often hold meetings to discuss living arrangements. Decisions on management, such as raising the rent, are discussed and voted on by the houses.

Stephenson House, the self-governed, self-regulating co-op residence at Victoria College, was founded during the same period, in 1940. Following his wife’s instructions, Dr. Frederick Stephenson, an Emmanuel College Professor, housed students in his property. The house was sold to Victoria College under the condition that, if used for any purpose apart from housing students, the college would be responsible for setting aside $35,000 for a co-op residence.

Originally founded as a co-op living space for students with Christian vocations who served ‘the public good’, community involvement now takes precedence over Christian vocations in Stephenson. Accommodating ten students, the house is still home to a vibrant, involved community. However, its future remains unclear.

For many years, Stephenson House was an independent organization within Victoria College, and rent was reliably low. This year the house was moved from its original location at 63 Charles Street West to a neighbouring building. Students still have their rent subsidized, though they now have to fill out a separate application for a bursary. It is currently under the administration of the Victoria Residence Coordinator and priority is given to Victoria College students who are seeking a room in the house.
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The Co-op Experience

Most residents speak highly of their co-op experiences, citing the democratic administration, the friends that they have met, and the opportunities for engagement it has afforded them.

Saman Rejali, a third-year student at U of T and current resident of Stephenson House, says her experience with co-op has been positive, particularly because of the co-op’s reputation for accommodating residents who are highly involved in the community.

“Having smart, motivated people around you is really a great benefit of the house. I’ve learned so much in the past months from the other house members that I really wouldn’t have been able to learn under any other circumstances. Because they’re motivated to study, work, and basically put their full energy on the commitments they take on, it also influences me to try to reach my full potential,” she explains.

Lindsay Denise, an OCAD student at Campus Co-op, praises the hall dinners, where she is able to socialize and meet fellow co-opers. “The food is a lot better than other places I’d visited, where friends of mine would basically have fast food as their meal plan program.” Since Co-op employs full-time cooks, “you get home cooked meals that are pretty nutritious,” she says.

Jenny Jin Hee Lee lived in Campus Co-op for a year. Among her favourite things about co-op were “talking to housemates at wee hours of the night just because I happened upon them, when I went to the kitchen to get a drink of water at 4 a.m.” She describes the atmosphere with her roommates as very casual.

“People generously share things at whims, but everything is done fairly, and any big decisions are made through democratic meetings, wherein votes of the house members are counted.”

“You just set the rules for the house and basically go from there,” says Emily Horn, another current resident of Campus Co-op. “If you live in a house where everyone wants to party, there’s lots of opportunity to take advantage. And if you live in a house where everyone likes to cook, you can hold some delicious potlucks. We do that at my place.” Since there are no dons, Emily adds, students set the rules.

“I think that the co-operative business model for housing, or any industry, provides its members with a ton of benefits,” argues Lindsay. “I experienced very practical learning and built up a vast amount of experience that I would never have accumulated in school, such as policy writing, conflict resolution, event planning, community development, and business skills.”

Campus Co-op’s concern for community involvement, as well as collaboration between members, still exists today. “There’s an opportunity to develop almost any kind of skills you want when you live in a co-op, because you can initiate projects that benefit the members — maybe it’s painting a mural, or gardening, or a newsletter,” says Lindsay.

Make It Your Own

The state of the housing that is available at co-op residences varies, and because of most co-ops’ autonomy, their condition largely depends on the residents themselves. The only exception is Stephenson House, where custodians clean the common areas.

“The living conditions in my place now were initially kind of gross,” admits Emily. “The houses [of Campus Co-op] themselves are often quite nice, but the gross factor depends on who was, or is, living in them.”

Lindsay had similar experiences: “The previous members who lived in the house I moved into left it in really bad shape. There was garbage piled to the ceiling in our kitchen, I couldn’t believe how inconsiderate others could be.”

Luckily for both of them, the issue was swiftly resolved. “I ended up giving the whole floor of the house I [lived] on a really good clean, and my roommates have been really neat and respectful. I think you can really set a precedent by setting a good example in a co-op house.” In Lindsay’s case, all housemates agreed to pitch in and do a general cleanup.

In Jenny’s experience, houses “were roomy but old and creaky,” and there were problems in the communal areas. “There was broken or torn furniture here and there, flickering overhead lights, old bathtubs, that sort of thing.

“The rooms were very large though, and I actually had a bathroom attached to my own bedroom, so I had it good.”

Lindsay temporarily moved out of co-op in 2007. “The housemates I was living with weren’t as interested in collective housing as I was, and therefore weren’t as respectful of doing chores or keeping quiet hours, or just generally being respectful of each other.” She moved back in 2008.

“Once I moved out, I learned that all of the same conflicts and costs exist when you rent from a private landlord, but outside of co-op there isn’t a framework to deal with problems. Campus Co-op has organizational structures you can use to work through problems and conflicts, and staff that can help you navigate through them.”

Examining Toronto’s arrival cities

Within the last 50 years, a vast portion of the world’s population has moved from rural areas to urban dwellings. As people participate in these ongoing global migrations, humanity experiences success, disruption, and a shifting perception of home.

Doug Saunders is a Toronto-raised journalist and European bureau chief for The Globe and Mail. His weekly column explores key background concepts behind international events. In September, Saunders’ first book was published.

Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World is a manifesto that combines scholarly work, data trends, and personal encounters. The book focuses on people migrating from a village to an “arrival city;” a transitive place where families temporarily settle to establish themselves economically and socially before integrating into the mainstream population.

Saunders studies migration across the globe and finds patterns in whether people successfully establish themselves and how they affect the countries they live in.

The Varsity spoke with Saunders by phone from his London office on the day of Toronto’s mayoral election about universities, Toronto’s arrival cities, and the changing meaning of home.

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The Varsity: Why did you write Arrival City?

Doug Saunders: I’d begun to notice in my travels a pattern among the neighbourhoods usually beyond the end of the transit lines, where people were arriving from other places, mostly from rural or village migration. And I realized that these neighbourhoods were where the really important transformations are occurring in many countries around the world.

The large force of population transition is an abstract concept that we know is happening this century. It’s manifesting itself in a certain type of neighbourhood. And I realized that you can strip these neighbourhoods down to their economic and social functions and there’s a great similarity between them.

Whether they’re a slum shack in Mumbai or an immigrant community in Los Angeles or in Toronto, if you take away some of the cosmetic aspects of them, you can find a set of functions. If you can strip it down to those functions, you can find out that when things go wrong in those neighbourhoods, it’s usually because one of these functions has been impeded in some way.

I realized there was no instruction manual for these sorts of neighbourhoods, there’s nothing explaining how this works. There’s some excellent work in scholarly literature, in social sciences, in economics, and so on, that explains parts of it. But I realized there was a need to write a guidebook that explained how these places are supposed to work and how to make them work.

TV: Have you been following the mayoral election?

DS: I’m not allowed to vote at this point because I’ve lived out of Canada for too long, but I’ve been following it with some frustration.

TV: How well do you think the candidates understand arrival cities?

DS: There’s an understanding in some branches of Toronto’s administration of how to make these neighbourhoods work. The redevelopment of Regent Park, using value-capture models where you move in middle-class condominium buyers and supermarkets and so on in order to create a revenue stream that pays for the redevelopment of social housing, is an excellent way to do things.

I spend a chapter in the book visiting Thorncliffe Park in eastern Toronto, which I looked at as an imperfect, fairly rough place, but in many ways a model for how to make a transitional city work in ways that understands itself as an arrival city.

Toronto’s biggest arrival cities are not within Toronto as such. They tend to be in Peel region, sometimes in York region — in the great suburban expanses, in the west and north of Toronto. The amalgamation process fifteen or so years ago didn’t go far enough. There needs to be a government that incorporates York and Peel.

Peel is probably the largest receptor of immigrants in all of North America. You could even point to sort of the high-rise neighbourhoods that encircle Pearson Airport as being the greatest landing pad neighbourhood in North America, not in quality but volume.

This is tragic because, with some exceptions, Peel and York regions are not places that understand themselves as arrival cities. They don’t want to understand themselves like this, and they don’t cater to voters who come from that constituency. I think a lot of Toronto’s problems come from the fact that it can’t govern its most important arrival cities.

It didn’t help in this election to have a candidate [Rob Ford] going on that immigration was something they could stop, as if they could build a moat around Toronto or something. Toronto will be the second-largest immigrant city of North America after Los Angeles for the next twenty to forty years. That’s a very safe assumption based on any possible circumstances.

So it will continue to be a city of arrival cities and I think there was a failure during the election campaign to discuss it on that level, although I suspect some of the candidates had a lesser degree of understanding.

TV: You mention Thorncliffe Park in your book as an ideal arrival city —

DS: It’s actually not ideal. It has some things going for it. It’s not a beautiful neighbourhood, and it’s not entirely peaceful.

There are [metal detectors] when you go through the doors at an elementary school. It’s sort of what you’d expect in a transitional neighbourhood. It has some model things in it in terms of how a neighbourhood can improve itself by understanding itself as an arrival city.

TV: So, it’s relatively well-managed.

DS: Yes.

TV: And what other arrival city areas in Toronto are well-managed?

DS: The classic example is the first-generation arrival cities of the decades immediately after the Second World War when the final waves of Europeans, mostly from the South and East of Europe came in, and then large numbers of Chinese. Those are all immensely successful arrival cities without having any policy designed to do them that way.

Canada was lucky for many decades. Toronto just got lucky with arrival cities because it had a huge base of low-cost housing that was undesirable to the mainstream populace i.e. the Victorian rural-houses. Keep in mind [that] in the early 1970s, Victorian housing was considered disgusting and vulgar among the white middle-class of Canada. So it was left to poor immigrants.

This base of cheap housing was located perfectly for the economic and social interconnection with the larger economy of the city. It had quick transit links already built into it. It was sort of the ideal arrangements for an arrival city already set up. And also the business and citizenship part that was easy to get at least until the mid-’70s. You could easily start a business, even within your own house. The zoning laws were not terribly prohibitive, and you could get away with ignoring them. Citizenship was generally available.

None of those circumstances now exist with the current wave of arrival cities that have popped up during the last twenty years. Those first-generation ones like Chinatown, Little India, and Little Portugal just don’t have the capacity left in them, and the property values are beyond the range of the latest wave of immigrants. The latest wave of new arrival city immigrants tend to be on outskirts of Toronto.

Thorncliffe Park is a good example of a working solution. There are others, but it really stands out. There are places like Malton and Jane and Finch that didn’t work. A large part is because of few physical connections to the larger city.

TV: How well do you think Canadian universities accommodate arrival city families?

DS: The university remains the main target for arrival cities. Much of the capital stored up in any neighbourhood is to get the first Canadian-born generation into university, often at an incredible cost. Certainly, the proportion of people in Canadian universities, specifically Toronto universities, whose parents came from a village somewhere else without a university education is quite high. It is a big target. Could we do better on that? Are our educational funding policies properly oriented towards that? Do we understand that university is so important to first-generation communities? I think Canada’s much better than other places but there might be more that could be done.

I think the mistake the government’s making is that because neighbourhoods are poor, that that’s their nature, without realizing that there are neighbourhoods that are poor because a lot of people pass through them. In fact they’re sending a third of their youths into university and into the middle-class and taking new people in from the village at an equivalent rate. That makes these neighbourhoods look like they’re poor and government always assumes they’re poor. But if you track any one family you’ll see they’re having a great degree of social mobility and that new poor people are moving in.

There needs to be an understanding that, rather than social work and welfare, what these neighbourhoods often need is help with university, small business formation. Things like this that give social mobility rather than things that relegate poverty.

TV: Your paper underwent a major redesign last month. The Globe is gearing itself to university-educated sons and daughters of immigrants. Is this a good idea for corporations, and how can they be effective?

DS: I hope so. I think that’s a group of people who want to be tied into the institutions of the core of Toronto society and Canadian society. The newspaper I work for is part of that, as are financial institutions, political institutions, and so on.

I think the success or failure of Canada in the next generations will depend on whether the people who are coming through these arrival city neighbourhoods are able to link themselves into the Canadian establishment in the way that previous generations have been able to do.

So, I think it’s an acute understanding that a newspaper like this, just like a political party, or a bank, or any business institution of Canada, needs to be helping lift themselves into this up-and-coming generation of new arrivals as we’ve done in the past, mostly by luck — and as we may have to do in the future through skill and strategy.

TV: How do you define home?

DS: [long pause]

TV: You can collect your thoughts.

DS: [laughs] I wrestle with that question a lot. I’m not going to be so shallow as to say that home is wherever I lay my hat. I do keep attachments to all the places I’ve lived before.

On a personal basis, I find it hard not to consider Toronto home. Because it is where I lived the most and I still have a home there. And because my understanding of the world, in many ways, is forged by my understanding in what took place around Toronto during important years there.

But you can have more than one home. I don’t think people need to be worried about people who arrive in Canada having a sense of origin related to some place elsewhere. Canada got away for many years with having a sense that Britain was its home.

During the World Wars you could print headlines referring to Britain as home and everyone would know what you were talking about. It took about two or three generations until a generation of Anglo-Canadians didn’t instinctively think of Britain as home. I’m far enough in from British immigrants that I’ve come to live here and this is one of the more alien places in the world. The English are an ethnic group, but despite supposedly being my ancestors, they are often opaque and incomprehensible to me. [laughs]

I think that eventually happens with anyone from anywhere. I think [it’s a] larger problem when people’s ties to an originating country become their only link to anything. With my chapter on Slotervaart, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, the Moroccan immigrants had every desire to become fully integrated Dutch citizens.

But the physical, infrastructural, and political and bureaucratic barriers meant it was much easier for them to form linkages via satellite to Morocco, which they fled, than it was to form any kind of economic linkages to Amsterdam, which was only a few kilometres away from them.

You have to be very careful not to be putting into place supposedly temporary immigration programs that force people to make linkages back to an originating country more strongly than a place they now live. People have a sense of home when they have networks linking them into it.

You can live in a site for forty years, like the Turks did in Berlin, without considering it home because the place is not allowing you to buy the land under your feet, start a small business, send your kids to university, and so on. All those things were forbidden to the Turks and so of course they weren’t able to see Germany as home, in spite of wanting to do so.

Governments telling people to integrate is missing the point that people do integrate culturally if they have the citizenship and the economic and bureaucratic ability to connect themselves physically and economically. I’m convinced culture simply follows after physical and economic conditions.

TV: How do you think notions of home shift during the migration process?

DS: The important thing to understand is that the transitional culture in the arrival city is sometimes more intense than the village. The first generation born in the arrival city develops strong connections to their parents’ culture of origin; it’s not uncommon and it’s documented worldwide.

There is a transitional culture for the first few generations where people have a divided sense of where home is. But we don’t need to get too pinned down on specifically what home is. If conditions on the ground are favourable to people, then it will become home to them.

TV: Your book focuses on humanity’s imminent and permanent migration from predominately rural to urban. How will this change our perception of home?

DS: There are ties to the village that people maintain for a very, very long time. In Canada you have a huge number of people who identify with a village somewhere. I know Italians in Canada who, after sixty years, still visit once every two years or something. There are lasting senses that there’s a real home elsewhere. It’s the natural human quest for authenticity and it does die away after a few generations.

As we become more urbanized, I think the village will become a place that’s sort of a repository for romantic connection rather than a place of mere survival. As the rural space becomes more productive and is used more as a place for producing nutrients for the world, then suddenly the life-and-death survival aspect of those places can be replaced with a romantic idea.

Certainly in France, which is completely urbanized now, the romantic attachment to the village is key. Once you’re fully urbanized you get a population who gets use of the village as a choice and not out of means to survive and produce agriculture.