Being from a Bad Neighbourhood: Confronting Bad Decision Discourses in the Impoverished Inner City

Lau­ra Bisail­lon, Mehdia Has­san, Maryam Hassan

Abstract: This arti­cle con­fronts main­stream dis­cours­es about pover­ty and inner city poor neigh­bour­hoods. It argues that the ways that pover­ty and poor inner city neigh­bour­hoods are made pub­licly known in writ­ing and through visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions present prob­lems such as over­pow­er­ing struc­tur­al caus­es of health and ill­ness, reify­ing false dichoto­my of us and them, and nor­mal­iz­ing peo­ple liv­ing in pover­ty or work­ing poor peo­ple as de fac­to vul­ner­a­ble. This can hap­pen when the social rela­tions that gov­ern pover­ty and sus­tain human suf­fer­ing eschew the social rela­tions that pro­duce these expe­ri­ences. Tak­ing these rela­tions as the objects of analy­sis, this arti­cle focus­es soci­o­log­i­cal­ly on the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood in Toron­to, Cana­da, as the ter­rain of inquiry. The aim here is to con­tribute to analy­ses of the polit­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic deter­mi­nants of health as well as to cri­tiques of bad-neigh­bour­hood and bad deci­sion dis­cours­es. To do this, it bridges visu­al prac­tice with crit­i­cal social analy­sis: draw­ing togeth­er the authors’ indi­vid­ual prac­tices as visu­al artists, mar­shal­ing their social posi­tions as res­i­dents of the adja­cent St. James Town neigh­bour­hood, and shar­ing their expe­ri­ences of the Dundas/Sherbourne area. They employ insights from sen­so­ry ethnog­ra­phy and street pho­tog­ra­phy to offer an alter­na­tive source of knowl­edge about the poor inner city that con­trasts and con­tests main­stream ways of know­ing these same spaces.

Résumé : Cet arti­cle con­teste les dis­cours pop­u­laires sur la pau­vreté et les quartiers défa­vorisés. Il estime que la manière dont la pau­vreté et les quartiers désa­van­tagés sont ren­dus publics par écrit et dans les représen­ta­tions visuelles est prob­lé­ma­tique car ces per­spec­tives font dis­paraitre les déter­mi­nants struc­turaux de la san­té et de la mal­adie, ren­for­cent l’altérité et nor­malisent les per­son­nes défa­vorisées comme étant vul­nérables. C’est notam­ment le cas lorsque les rela­tions sociales qui régis­sent la pau­vreté et entre­ti­en­nent la souf­france humaine sont lais­sées de côté. En prenant ces rela­tions comme l’objet d’analyse, cet arti­cle se con­cen­tre, d’un point de vue soci­ologique, sur le quarti­er Dundas/Sherbourne à Toron­to au Cana­da comme ter­rain d’enquête. L’objectif est d’apporter notre con­tri­bu­tion aux analy­ses des déter­mi­nants poli­tiques, soci­aux et économiques de la san­té et aus­si aux cri­tiques des axes de réflex­ion du style mau­vaise déci­sion et mau­vais quarti­er. Pour ce faire, l’article relie la pra­tique visuelle à l’analyse sociale cri­tique : en unis­sant les pra­tiques indi­vidu­elles de ses auteures en tant qu’artistes visuelles, en met­tant à prof­it les posi­tions sociales de ces dernières en tant que rési­dentes du quarti­er voisin de St James Town et en partageant les expéri­ences de la vie du quarti­er Dundas/Sherbourne de ses auteures. L’analyse s’est con­sti­tuée à l’aide de l’ethnographie des sens­es et de pho­togra­phies de rue, et offre une source de con­nais­sance alter­na­tive sur les quartiers défa­vorisés qui con­traste et qui con­teste les manières tra­di­tion­nelles de con­naitre ces mêmes espaces.

Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.OI.10.2.10 | PDF

Nobody should get eulo­gis­tic over a slum. 
Hugh Gar­ner (1968)

Our fed­er­al hous­ing program…was destroyed in 1993. Imag­ine if that hap­pened to Medicare. Since the demise of our hous­ing pro­gram, there have been only piece­meal, sparse­ly fund­ed, and min­i­mal­ist programs. 
Cathy Crowe (2007)

As geo­g­ra­ph­er Nicholas Blom­ley (2004) has shown, the poor inner city of large con­tem­po­rary cities is a pro­found­ly polit­i­cal space. This point is made clear in how we think, talk, and write about poor inner cities, past and present. Nov­el­ist Gabrielle Roy (1945) and play­wright Michel Trem­blay (1978) wrote exten­sive­ly about north-south and east-west spa­tial divides, respec­tive­ly, in poor inner city neigh­bour­hoods of Mon­tre­al. As chron­i­clers of French-Cana­di­an work­ing-class soci­ety in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, their bod­ies of work doc­u­ment neigh­bour­hood seg­re­ga­tion along eco­nom­ic (and reli­gious and lin­guis­tic) lines from the per­spec­tives of those liv­ing on the so-called wrong side of the tracks. While the pro­tag­o­nists in Roy’s and Tremblay’s tales might fre­quent wealthy bor­oughs, serv­ing as maids, dri­vers or deliv­ery­men, they do so self-con­scious­ly and with dis­com­fort; they respond to being aware of the social gaze upon them, which feels uncom­fort­able; they react to being frus­trat­ed by how their soci­ety is orga­nized, such that they are posi­tioned to be impov­er­ished from one gen­er­a­tion to the next.

About these real, albeit opaque, divides or bound­aries, author Curt Moreck wrote, “Every city has an offi­cial and an unof­fi­cial side, and it is super­flu­ous to add that the lat­ter is more inter­est­ing and more infor­ma­tive of the essence of a city” (in Whyte and Fris­by 2012 540). Writ­ing about Berlin in the 1930s, Moreck was jux­ta­pos­ing a thriv­ing, under­ground, same-sex scene with what he prob­lema­tized as a con­strict­ing, main­stream, and het­ero-nor­ma­tive Ger­man soci­ety. By inter­min­gling geo­graph­ic and social ten­sions, then, we ini­ti­ate a pro­duc­tive inquiry into how minor­i­ty and major­i­ty dwellers know the same city differently.

Social researchers emerg­ing from poor inner city neigh­bour­hoods have tak­en schol­ar­ly steps to nuance, cor­rect, and con­test pop­u­lar dis­cours­es about the places they know well. Nov­el­ist Kathy Dob­son (2011, 2018) was born and grew up in Pointe St-Charles, Mon­tre­al, dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s. In her debut nov­el With a Closed Fist she shows what it looked and felt like to be raised in a fam­i­ly that strug­gled to meet its basic mate­r­i­al needs in what was, at the time, one of the city’s poor­est neigh­bour­hoods. In the sequel, Punch­ing and Kick­ing, the work­ings of pover­ty and their con­se­quences roll out dur­ing her ado­les­cence. Using the sit­u­a­tions of her life and those of her fel­low com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers as ana­lyt­ic fod­der, she demon­strates con­vinc­ing­ly that poor peo­ple are not poor by choice. Her argu­ment that poor people’s chances of emerg­ing and recov­er­ing from pover­ty and its assaults are only pos­si­ble through social, eco­nom­ic, and polit­i­cal invest­ments orga­nized in their sub­jec­tive best inter­ests has long been demon­strat­ed by the social deter­mi­nants of health lit­er­a­ture (Raphael 2016).

In The Stick­up Kids, soci­ol­o­gist Ran­dol Con­tr­eras (2013) describes life for drug thieves, many of them his friends, who robbed high­er-lev­el drug deal­ers through­out the late 1990s in the South Bronx, New York City, where his sin­gle immi­grant moth­er raised him. In rich and detailed ethno­graph­ic form, he reveals the inter­con­nec­tions between drug trad­ing, human suf­fer­ing, and social rela­tions respon­si­ble for pro­duc­ing and sus­tain­ing people’s vio­lent and self-destruc­tive prac­tices in the first place. In show­ing how the dots con­nect between the drug indus­try ‘up there’ and the chaos on the streets and inside the dwellings he knows well ‘down here’, he desta­bi­lizes ideas about the poor inner city being any­thing but pro­duced by mar­ket activ­i­ties well beyond its bor­ders. Research­ing and sto­ry­telling from places with­in the social mar­gins, as these exam­ples do, make it pos­si­ble to first doc­u­ment and then fur­nish empir­i­cal­ly sup­port­ed cri­tique, which can, in turn, serve as an alter­na­tive to sta­tus quo think­ing about what orga­nizes and sup­ports pover­ty, suf­fer­ing, and vio­lence in the poor inner city.

There are var­i­ous provoca­tive exper­i­ments with visu­al field­work prac­tice and social analy­sis where dis­junc­ture or con­tra­dic­tion pro­vides the launch­ing point for social inves­ti­ga­tion. In her 2015 exper­i­men­tal short film enti­tled El Immi­grant, art his­to­ri­an Lina El Shamy explores the loss of one’s moth­er tongue after set­tling in a new coun­try. By focus­ing on expe­ri­ences of loss, her auto-ethno­graph­ic analy­sis care­ful­ly and brave­ly shows how emi­grat­ing can pro­duce long-last­ing remorse. She iden­ti­fies var­i­ous ten­sions that stem from her family’s immi­gra­tion to Cana­da, dis­cussing how these emerged as respons­es to the orga­ni­za­tion of social and insti­tu­tion­al life in their new soci­ety. As she writes, “iden­ti­ty is not just an abstract, inter­nal­ized feel­ing; it is a lived, mate­r­i­al real­i­ty: the lan­guages our tongues (are allowed to) speak, the pro­fes­sions we (are allowed to) prac­tice, and the alien­ation result­ing from the phys­i­cal and lin­guis­tic dis­tances cre­at­ed by gen­er­a­tions” (in Bisail­lon et al. 2019 1031). Her inter­ven­tion cor­rects pop­u­lar mis­con­cep­tions that immi­gra­tion only ush­ers in oppor­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple. These per­spec­tives are too often nes­tled with­in claims that new­com­ers should be grate­ful to adopt­ed states for host­ing them in the first place.

With­in anthro­pol­o­gy, Dara Cul­hane (2017) encour­ages pay­ing atten­tion to our ways of sens­ing the world around us. Using what she calls “sen­so­ry ethnog­ra­phy” (46), and build­ing out­ward from people’s embod­ied expe­ri­ence, she pro­duces new knowl­edge to chal­lenge main­stream dis­course about what it is like to be col­o­nized, and what it is like to resist colo­nial­ism. Start­ing from social dis­so­nance, and track­ing sen­so­ry respons­es to it, car­ries the promise of show­ing how pow­er and politics—as social rela­tions rather than as con­cep­tu­al cat­e­gories divorced from embod­ied experience—pervade and shape dai­ly life. This impe­tus takes anthro­pol­o­gist Setha Low’s (1996) invi­ta­tion to social researchers: engage with the city across sea­sons and times of day, treat­ing it as a dynam­ic and liv­ing text that we sub­ject to mul­ti­ple interpretations.

Through this arti­cle, we build on the pre­ced­ing issues and strate­gies to enrich an exam­i­na­tion of the social rela­tions and geo­gra­phies of pover­ty in Dundas/Sherbourne, a neigh­bour­hood in the poor inner city of Toron­to, Canada’s largest city. Our approach involves using visu­al and social inquiry as valu­able and equal parts of a same whole, and there is an assem­blage of thir­ty images. The analy­sis prof­fered makes pro­duc­tive use of ethnog­ra­phy as both a mode of social inquiry and engage­ment and as nar­ra­tive for com­mu­ni­cat­ing results. This arti­cle is orga­nized into three prin­ci­pal parts, and the read­er will hear each of us tak­ing turns dis­cussing the poor inner city from our stand­points and per­son­al inter­ac­tions with this space. We con­clude by voic­ing a para­dox that is as obvi­ous as it is trou­bling in con­tem­po­rary Toronto.

Bridging Visual Practice with Social Analysis: Symptoms of Ills Rather Than Their Causes

In ana­lyz­ing how what hap­pens there is coor­di­nat­ed by and hooked into larg­er fields of inter­est and pol­i­tics, we argue that the ways that pover­ty and poor inner city neigh­bour­hoods are made pub­licly known, in writ­ing and through visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions, present prob­lems such as over­pow­er­ing struc­tur­al caus­es of health and ill­ness, reify­ing a false dichoto­my between us and them, and nor­mal­iz­ing peo­ple liv­ing in pover­ty or work­ing poor peo­ple as de fac­to vul­ner­a­ble. This arti­cle draws on anthro­po­log­i­cal research find­ings from the 1990s to today in Vancouver’s Down­town East­side, more com­mon­ly known by its short­hand, and here­after referred to, as DTES. In what fol­lows, we reveal that this lat­ter neigh­bour­hood is more sim­i­lar than dis­sim­i­lar to the Dundas/Sherbourne area. We have tak­en care to bring sen­si­tiv­i­ty to how we reflect on, and what we are able to say about, the impov­er­ished inner city and its inhab­i­tants. In this way, we raise con­cep­tu­al ques­tions in par­al­lel with prac­ti­cal ques­tions. This inquiry stems from the mate­ri­al­ly observ­able con­di­tions we encoun­tered first-hand using sen­so­ry ethnog­ra­phy to engage with Toronto’s poor inner city.

What does our ter­rain of focus resem­ble spa­tial­ly and social­ly? The Dundas/Sherbourne area is not its own admin­is­tra­tive juris­dic­tion with­in the City of Toron­to, but rather com­pris­es a small grid of a few com­pact city blocks. It gets its name from the inter­sec­tion of Dun­das Street East, run­ning east-west, and Sher­bourne Street, run­ning north-south. This inter­sec­tion is a hub for day­time and night­time activ­i­ties of both legal and crim­i­nal­ized kinds (fig­ure 1). The streets that approx­i­mate­ly delin­eate this neigh­bour­hood are Ger­rard in the north, Seaton in the east, and Queen and George in the south and west, respec­tive­ly. While the Toron­to Police Service’s 51 Divi­sion has come to close­ly police this area, which has high­er than City aver­ages of crim­i­nal­i­ty and crim­i­nal­iz­ing, these are recent prac­tices rather than long­stand­ing pat­terns. West­ern Euro­pean set­tle­ment in this “Old Toron­to” area dates back to the 1850s, and the wealthy and the poor have co-exist­ed here con­tin­u­ous­ly since that time (fig­ure 2). With­in its bound­aries is Moss Park: a three-tow­er pub­lic hous­ing project com­plex built in the 1960s—sprawling in both height and foot­print—, which pro­vides sta­ble and afford­able hous­ing to res­i­dents who are vis­i­ble minor­i­ty, sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion immi­grants, for the most part (City of Toron­to 2018a). For the area’s most impov­er­ished, there is hous­ing in the form of room­ing hous­es and shel­ters. Col­lec­tive­ly, this hous­ing stock is in very poor con­di­tion and at thresh­old- or over-capac­i­ty in terms of vacan­cy. Inter­spersed through­out this area are low-rise hous­ing coop­er­a­tives, occu­pied and vacant nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry detached homes, and attached ear­ly-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry and more con­tem­po­rary new-look­ing vin­tage brown­stones. Togeth­er, these places and spaces com­pose Canada’s most dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed neigh­bour­hoods. From Dundas/Sherbourne, and into and beyond St. James Town, is Sher­bourne Street, which ends in Rosedale. The lat­ter area has long been the City of Toronto’s most afflu­ent neigh­bour­hood; forty per­cent of res­i­dents are descen­dants of West­ern Europe, with lin­eage trace­able specif­i­cal­ly to the Unit­ed King­dom (City of Toron­to 2018b). Unlike the areas to its imme­di­ate south, this area has remained sta­ble in the midst of dra­mat­ic pat­terns of income inequal­i­ty, impov­er­ish­ment, and urban trans­for­ma­tion through gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, which have marked the City deeply since the 1970s (Hulchan­s­ki 2010).

Visualizing Sherbourne and Dundas

Inter­sect­ing at Sherbourne/Dundas
Sit­u­at­ing Sherbourne/Dundas and St. James Town

As a social sci­en­tist and uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor, I (Lau­ra) strive to offer my under­grad­u­ate stu­dents study­ing health and life sci­ences the occa­sion to explore Toronto’s poor, inner city first-hand. Gen­er­al­ly, my stu­dents aspire to work in gov­ern­ment or in the health or car­ing pro­fes­sions. Some past stu­dents have gone on to study pub­lic health, nurs­ing, teach­ing, social jus­tice, and law. As we know, car­ing work is nev­er just about car­ing. I decid­ed to bring stu­dents to the Dundas/Sherbourne area. The aim of this ped­a­gog­i­cal inter­ven­tion was to have them learn to devel­op capac­i­ties for deci­pher­ing and dis­cussing the rela­tion­ships between people’s indi­vid­ual trou­bles and the prob­lems with how soci­ety is orga­nized in such a way that peo­ple expe­ri­ence the trou­bles they do, and from there, to encour­age them to under­stand that social prob­lems need to be addressed, and their symp­toms resolved, through soci­etal respons­es. A pri­or­i­ty was to cre­ate con­di­tions that set stu­dents up to be able to knowl­edge­ably chal­lenge sta­tus quo think­ing about the impov­er­ished inner city and its peo­ple. I saw this as car­ry­ing valu­able short-term ben­e­fit: get­ting them start­ed with the sort of think­ing that would be nec­es­sary in their imag­ined pro­fes­sion­al futures, in which they need to prac­tice col­lec­tive con­cern for impov­er­ished peo­ple in the inner city and else­where. The sorts of employ­ment these stu­dents aspire to are inter­ven­tion­ist by aim, design, and effect. The spring-into-action and must-fix-it/­fix-peo­ple impulse, as the orga­niz­ing log­ic of train­ing across the health sci­ences, has been prob­lema­tized and cri­tiqued by physi­cians them­selves for how it gives rise to pro­fes­sion­al prac­tices that sup­press oth­er forms of response, includ­ing lis­ten­ing and attend­ing to oth­ers as valu­able forms of action (Mukhopad­hyay 2016). A ped­a­gog­i­cal exper­i­ment steer­ing stu­dents firm­ly to devel­op first-hand expe­ri­ence and con­cep­tu­al resources by train­ing them to see the polit­i­cal and social orga­niz­ers of poor inner city pover­ty and suf­fer­ing was valuable.

I was faced with a dilem­ma that I took seri­ous­ly, giv­en the grav­i­ty of the ill health, suf­fer­ing, and dis­re­pair that we see in the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood. How to cul­ti­vate thought­ful, schol­ar­ly prac­tices that ush­er in pos­si­bil­i­ties for mak­ing deep­er-lev­el sense of things we see at the sur­face? How to do the more com­plex ana­lyt­ic move of pathol­o­giz­ing the social rather than the indi­vid­ual? In the words of the pro­tag­o­nist in Hugh Garner’s Depres­sion-era nov­el Cab­bage­town (1968), set in a neigh­bour­hood adja­cent to Dundas/Sherbourne today called Regent Park: “nobody should get eulo­gis­tic over a slum” (1968 vii-viii). Indeed, we should like­wise not extol the con­comi­tant unem­ploy­ment, uncer­tain­ty, demor­al­iza­tion, dis­pos­ses­sion, suf­fer­ing, and pover­ty-induced ill­ness­es that peo­ple can expe­ri­ence in these contexts.

This arti­cle should thus also be under­stood as an exten­sion of a schol­ar­ly part­ner­ship between a pro­fes­sor and expe­ri­enced social researcher with her mentees, who are at once fledg­ling researchers and sis­ters. In an ear­li­er pub­li­ca­tion, the three of us trou­bled the waters of a dis­junc­ture we detect­ed in how St. James Town is made pub­licly known in writ­ing and through visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions, on the one hand, jux­ta­posed with our expe­ri­en­tial knowl­edge of this place as peo­ple who live there, on the oth­er (Bisail­lon, Has­san and Has­san 2017). Specif­i­cal­ly, focus­ing on the social pro­duc­tion of bad neigh­bour­hood dis­cours­es, we pro­duced an evi­den­tiary base to sup­port our claim that our home com­mu­ni­ty is, in many ways, a desir­able place to live (El Mugam­mar 2017). These twin projects share a con­cern about the sorts of vis­i­bil­i­ty, hyper-vis­i­bil­i­ty, and invis­i­bil­i­ty that the poor inner city and its peo­ple gar­ner in pop­u­lar dis­course. Lines of inquiry such as these human­ize the knowl­edge pro­duc­tion process. They also com­pel us to do a reflex­ive dou­ble take—to think more crit­i­cal­ly about the way that our think­ing is social­ly orga­nized such that we come to know about the often chron­i­cal­ly try­ing cir­cum­stances in which peo­ple in St. James Town, Dundas/Sherbourne, and neigh­bour­hoods like them actu­al­ly live.

Final­ly, in con­tem­plat­ing how pow­er and pol­i­tics shape what hap­pens in the poor inner city, our research trio con­sid­ered the dis­cur­sive orga­ni­za­tion of our own think­ing prac­tices as researchers and res­i­dents. The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, we exer­cised our soci­o­log­i­cal imag­i­na­tions (Mills 1959, 2000) and through fem­i­nist eyes, con­ceived of our “every­day world as prob­lem­at­ic” such that we set out to inves­ti­gate the social pro­duc­tion and orga­ni­za­tion of inequities as we expe­ri­ence and observe them (Smith 1987: 105). We also took seri­ous­ly the call for soci­ol­o­gists to engage in frontal fash­ion with social suf­fer­ing and sec­ondary forms of vio­lence (Auyero 2010, Proud­foot 2019); doc­u­ment­ing “those less well-marked forms of domination—both on the side of those who exer­cise pow­er and those who expe­ri­ence it” (Har­vey 2012 528) with social suf­fer­ing and sec­ondary vio­lence. These the­o­rized ways of study­ing the social invite com­plex­i­ty and reflex­iv­i­ty, pro­mote learn­ing and dis­cov­ery, and, in our project, meant that we active­ly aimed to resist the temp­ta­tion to steer toward sim­plis­tic inter­pre­ta­tions about the poor inner city. After all, peo­ple there (here) are our neigh­bours, friends, and fam­i­lies. The three of us are aware that social imbal­ances and pol­i­cy choic­es can pro­duce and repro­duce inequities that hit poor inner-city peo­ple par­tic­u­lar­ly hard. Trans­lat­ing this the­o­ret­i­cal state­ment into prac­tice, we (Maryam and Mehdia) are aware of the rela­tion­ship between dis­in­vest­ment in social hous­ing by fed­er­al and Ontario gov­ern­ments begin­ning in the late 1980s and our decay­ing and poor­ly main­tained high rise, run by the Toron­to Com­mu­ni­ty Hous­ing Cor­po­ra­tion (fig­ure 3). Urban plan­ner David Hulchanski’s (2010) foun­da­tion­al report Three Cities with­in Toron­to doc­u­ment­ed the deep income polar­iza­tion and its effects between 1970 and 2005 in the Greater Toron­to Area. Trou­bling­ly, these pat­terns have con­tin­ued, and their effects deep­ened. In oth­er words, the con­ver­gence of pol­i­cy and prac­tice means that the social prob­lems in St. James Town and Dundas/Sherbourne must be under­stood as symp­toms of ills rather than their causes.

Our goal is to con­tribute through this arti­cle to ongo­ing debates and social analy­ses of the polit­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic deter­mi­nants of health as well as to cri­tiques of bad-neigh­bour­hood and bad-deci­sion lines of think­ing. This is because we under­stand these dis­cours­es as harm­ful because they indi­vid­u­al­ize social prob­lems while dis­tract­ing us from the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being able to see the root caus­es of human dis­lo­ca­tion. We have set out to bridge visu­al prac­tice and social inquiry, and as such, we have com­bined our own work in pho­tog­ra­phy and mixed media, which we cre­at­ed for the pur­pose of this arti­cle, with pub­li­cal­ly avail­able texts (such as pho­tographs and maps). We hope to evoke the ways in which polit­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic deter­mi­nants of health press down blunt­ly on the poor inner city, and the Dundas/Sherbourne area specif­i­cal­ly. We have teth­ered our indi­vid­ual prac­tices as visu­al artists, expe­ri­enced this neigh­bour­hood first­hand, and mar­shalled our every­day knowl­edge as res­i­dents of an adja­cent neighbourhood.

Nar­ra­tive­ly, this arti­cle is writ­ten in a dia­log­i­cal for­mat. Each of our voic­es is audi­ble and present: at times togeth­er, at times sep­a­rate­ly. Method­olog­i­cal­ly, our field­work took place over a one-year peri­od. We expe­ri­enced the Dundas/Sherbourne area in spring, sum­mer, fall, and win­ter. This was ben­e­fi­cial for a project such as this one: “hang­ing out and about” and slow­ing down to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ offers oppor­tu­ni­ties to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste the fea­tures and events of a place (Wood­ward 2008 5). We used our sens­es in all of these ways. This lengthy ges­ta­tion peri­od was pur­pose­ful. First, per­son­al meet­ings were oppor­tu­ni­ties to mature ideas iter­a­tive­ly and reflex­ive­ly. We com­mit­ted to devel­op­ing lines of nar­ra­tive and visu­al analy­ses to sit­u­ate the neigh­bour­hood cul­tur­al­ly, geo­graph­i­cal­ly, and his­tor­i­cal­ly, both inter­nal­ly and beyond itself. Sec­ond, we walked the area, togeth­er and sep­a­rate­ly. In observ­ing and lis­ten­ing to peo­ple we met, we were drawn, dur­ing repeat vis­its, to using 35 mm Canon dig­i­tal cam­eras to prac­tice street pho­tog­ra­phy; a genre through which atten­tion is turned towards minu­ti­ae and per­haps oth­er­wise over­looked fea­tures of social life (Hunt 2014). We ask that our read­ers inter­pret the visu­als in spe­cif­ic ways. First, by con­sid­er­ing delib­er­ate absences. For exam­ple, we drew from the pub­lic record to use frontal pho­tographs that we knew were tak­en to human­ize poor inner city peo­ple and their life cir­cum­stances; a choice informed by the doc­u­ment­ed harms of frontals of the mug shot sort on racial­ized (non-white) per­sons in Cana­da (Hast­ings et al 2020; Mykhalovskiy et al 2020). Sec­ond, and by exten­sion, by con­sid­er­ing that pho­tographs are active pro­duc­ers, orga­niz­ers, and coor­di­na­tors of the social. In this way, read­ers should attend to how we have assem­bled the images and in par­al­lel, how they them­selves are “acti­vat­ing” the peo­ple, places, and pol­i­tics dis­played (McCoy 1995 181). Through these explic­it onto­log­i­cal and epis­te­mo­log­i­cal moves, we have aimed to nuance and cri­tique bad-neigh­bour­hood and bad-deci­sion dis­cours­es about the Dundas/Sherbourne area.

Historicizing the Poor Inner City: Embedded in Overlapping Global Economies

We chose bad-deci­sion dis­cours­es as the ana­lyt­ic entry point into this social inquiry because these words com­mon­ly cir­cu­late in the poor inner city. Peo­ple we met in the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood used this lan­guage when talk­ing about them­selves. Still oth­ers we did not meet but saw on tele­vi­sion used this same turn of phrase (fig­ure 4) (CityNews Toron­to 2014). As we would come to learn, inner city poor peo­ple in this neigh­bour­hood, and oth­ers like it, can be heard to talk this way because, as their log­ic goes, they are indeed indi­vid­u­al­ly cul­pa­ble for being poor, for liv­ing in sub­si­dized hous­ing, for using drugs, for man­ag­ing or recov­er­ing from addic­tions, and so on.

The ways the inner city poor can talk about them­selves, with­in a frame­work of cul­pa­bil­i­ty, is not sur­pris­ing giv­en the doc­u­ment­ed effects of neolib­er­al­ism. This type of social orga­ni­za­tion artic­u­lates human worth to be under mar­ket pri­or­i­ties; com­mer­cial gain is its cen­tral pre­oc­cu­pa­tion. Since neolib­er­al­ism has evolved to be the dom­i­nant cul­tur­al-eco­nom­ic prac­tice glob­al­ly, such pri­or­i­ties have in turn shaped how we relate to oth­ers and our­selves. This phe­nom­e­non becomes espe­cial­ly prob­lem­at­ic for peo­ple who need col­lec­tive-lev­el sup­ports, since this par­a­digm pro­duces intol­er­ance towards peo­ple who are not, or pos­si­bly are not able to be, autonomous (Elliott 2014, 2019; King­fish­er 2001; Spoon­er 2018). This bind under­scores an impor­tant irony: though neolib­er­al thinkers would deny it, at some point in our lives we will all, with­out ques­tion, need pub­lic sup­port of some kind or anoth­er. Over the last fifty years, neolib­er­al orga­niz­ing shift­ed “respon­si­bil­i­ty from the state to indi­vid­u­als, fam­i­lies, and com­mu­ni­ties, [and in] the inner city space, indi­vid­u­als who are unable to care for themselves…end up aban­doned by all” (Elliott 2010: 191). What these effects have looked like, and what they have meant and felt like, for Ontar­i­ans who are poor, who are pub­li­cal­ly assist­ed, and who live with HIV infec­tion, have been well doc­u­ment­ed (Bre­salier et al 2002; Ney­smith, Bezan­son and O’Connell 2005; Vail­lan­court 2010). Crit­i­cal­ly, the mus­cu­lar­i­ty and ubiq­ui­ty of this frame of ref­er­ence, the prac­tices to which it has giv­en rise for the last five decades, and their effects dras­ti­cal­ly lim­it our abil­i­ties to be able to grasp, and step out­side of it, and we are includ­ing schol­ars, activists and every­day cit­i­zens, every­one we know and will come to know.

Making “Bad Decisions”

Doug (Ford) in City Hall
Doug (Ford) in City Hall
 John (Doe) in George Street
John (Doe) in George Street

Since 2005, anthro­pol­o­gist Denielle Elliott (2010) has exam­ined how pub­lic pol­i­cy relat­ed to health and ill­ness is enact­ed in Vancouver’s DTES. Her ethno­graph­ic work cri­tiques the rela­tion­ships between social mar­gin­al­i­ty and gov­er­nance in the poor inner city. She describes this neigh­bour­hood in British Columbia’s most pop­u­lous city as a five-block by four-block place of “unimag­in­able pover­ty, hunger, suf­fer­ing, and dis­pos­ses­sion” (182). The lived expe­ri­ence of impov­er­ish­ment and neglect that Elliott describes in Vancouver’s DTES could also apply to Toronto’s Dundas/Sherbourne area, even though that would be col­laps­ing each location’s unique his­tor­i­cal par­tic­u­lar­i­ty in terms of devel­op­ment, class strug­gle, and the ongo­ing set­tler-colo­nial occu­pa­tion of Indige­nous lands. The Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood is locat­ed on the tra­di­tion­al ter­ri­to­ry of the Anishn­abeg, Chippe­wa, Hau­denosaunee, Mis­sis­saugas of the Cred­it, and Wen­dat peo­ples. Some of these nations were sig­na­to­ries to the Toron­to Pur­chase Treaty 13 in 1805, which saw their lands ced­ed to the British regime. In Van­cou­ver as in Toron­to in these areas, we come face-to-face with deeply mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple whose social suf­fer­ing is leg­i­ble on their bod­ies. More specif­i­cal­ly, Elliott writes that

…the dis­placed, unskilled work­ing-class men, new refugees flee­ing vio­lence and pover­ty from oth­er home­lands, the dein­sti­tu­tion­al­ized men­tal­ly ill, First Nations rep­re­sent­ing com­mu­ni­ties from across Cana­da… [these areas are] char­ac­ter­ized by unsan­i­tary and unsafe hous­ing, home­less­ness, and the spread of infec­tious dis­eases like tuber­cu­lo­sis and hepatitis…combined with the effects of mod­ern illic­it phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals like crack cocaine and ‘crys­tal meth’ and an inten­si­ty of injec­tion drug use, AIDS is a dev­as­tat­ing vis­i­ble mark­er on the lives of inner city res­i­dents… [these spaces have been] transformed…by the ways in which cap­i­tal­ism has root­ed itself in the community—where every­thing is for sale (2010, 182).

In this pas­sage, we learn that among the deeply mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple in Vancouver’s inner city are Indige­nous peo­ple, who also hap­pen to be over­rep­re­sent­ed there. Though the lands in ques­tion are in the ter­ri­to­ries of the Tsleil-Wau­tuth and Squamish peo­ples, in the DTES there are Indige­nous peo­ple from many places. The pres­ence of First Nations and also Inu­it and Métis peo­ple in these areas in Van­cou­ver and Toron­to teth­ers them to rur­al and reserve com­mu­ni­ties well beyond their bor­ders. In turn, this con­nects the neigh­bour­hoods with colo­nial gov­ern­ing strate­gies that led to social and phys­i­cal appro­pri­a­tions, dis­place­ments, and dis­lo­ca­tions across Cana­da. That there are very seri­ous and per­sis­tent inter­gen­er­a­tional effects of these his­tor­i­cal, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic arrange­ments, which direct­ly shape Indige­nous people’s lives today, has been well estab­lished (Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion of Cana­da 2015).

As well as, or maybe because of, being gath­er­ing places for Indige­nous and oth­er dis­pos­sessed peo­ples in the city, these neigh­bour­hoods are hotbeds of polit­i­cal activ­i­ty. Dur­ing the last quar­ter of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and the first two decades of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, both Toronto’s and Vancouver’s poor inner cities have been shaped by the pol­i­tics of left-lean­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Orga­niz­ing around labour, hous­ing, and antipover­ty issues, such work is informed by local his­to­ries of work­ing-class and fem­i­nist polit­i­cal mobi­liz­ing. In both places, social and health ser­vices’ agen­cies oper­ate in great con­cen­tra­tion and with vig­or­ous inten­si­ty. Offer­ing “hous­ing, food, health care, advo­ca­cy, and sup­port, among oth­er ser­vices”, these groups are a com­bi­na­tion of state-run, state-spon­sored, grass­roots, and Chris­t­ian (his­tor­i­cal­ly, for the most part, but as of late, not entire­ly) human­i­tar­i­an agen­cies (Elliott 2010 184) (fig­ures 5 and 6). Recent­ly, a poi­soned drug sup­ply has pro­duced a lot of suf­fer­ing and many deaths in Dundas/Sherbourne, which has the sec­ond-high­est num­ber of calls to 911 for over­dose and sites offer­ing over­dose pre­ven­tion, super­vised injec­tion and con­sump­tion in the City of Toron­to (Street Health 2019). “The scale of grief and loss is ter­ri­ble” (Kol­la in Singer 2019).

Experiencing Others’ Religiosity

Christian Charity
Chris­t­ian Charity
Sikh Charity
Sikh Char­i­ty

The pres­ence of these social and health agen­cies and their col­lab­o­ra­tions with each oth­er hitch what hap­pens in the Dundas/Sherbourne area to munic­i­pal, provin­cial, nation­al, and glob­al pol­i­tics, prac­tices, and pri­or­i­ties. By day as by night, we find a wide cast of char­ac­ters inter­min­gling: sex work­ers, peo­ple who use recent­ly legal­ized and ille­gal drugs, real estate agents, police offi­cers in plain and uni­formed cloth­ing, social work­ers, med­ical prac­ti­tion­ers, aca­d­e­m­ic and clin­i­cal researchers, mem­bers of city hall, land devel­op­ers, front­line care work­ers, peer sup­port work­ers, and oth­ers. All of these actors have some sort of social and eco­nom­ic stake in the Dundas/Sherbourne com­mu­ni­ty. In sum, an ori­en­ta­tion towards Canada’s poor inner cities through the lens of these issues and inter­sec­tions com­pels us to see how these spaces are very much “embed­ded in mul­ti­ple and pow­er­ful over­lap­ping glob­al economies—prostitution, wel­fare pro­vi­sion, illic­it drugs, and research” (Elliott 2010 182).

Fur­ther­more, the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood and oth­ers like it in Toronto’s poor inner city, includ­ing St. James Town, have become con­tigu­ous, all-sea­son con­struc­tion sites. We res­i­dents seem to have almost nor­mal­ized cranes and dig­gers, drills and dump­sters, debris and mud, noise and dust, and traf­fic pylons and for sale signs that pop­u­late our inner-city land­scape (fig­ure 7). On the oth­er hand, we have lit­tle choice but to com­pete with these effects and vie for space along side­walks, adapt­ing to the heavy infra­struc­ture works that have steadi­ly increased in num­ber and also inten­si­fied in activ­i­ty over the last five years (fig­ure 8). When we walk through the streets of Dundas/Sherbourne, we see a res­i­den­tial hous­ing stock and an urban form in com­plete and utter trans­for­ma­tion, result­ing from the pres­sures asso­ci­at­ed with gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. Con­do­mini­ums are replac­ing shel­ters and room­ing hous­es. Cost­lier cafe­te­rias are sup­plant­i­ng cheap­er eater­ies (fig­ure 9). These pres­sures are the lat­est iter­a­tions of longer his­tor­i­cal pat­terns in this area, and the Ontario Coali­tion Against Pover­ty notes that

Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, which began in the 1960s, has inten­si­fied over the last fif­teen years. Work­ing class peo­ple and the unem­ployed, who have been wel­comed in Down­town East Toron­to since the mid-1850s, are now being dis­placed by large devel­op­ers spec­u­lat­ing and buy­ing prop­er­ty in the neighbourhood…the cor­ner of Dun­das and Sher­bourne remains one of the most impor­tant parts of our neighbourhood…the poor have a long his­to­ry of fight­ing for hous­ing at the Dun­das and Sher­bourne area. In the 1970s, the City of Toron­to was fac­ing a cri­sis as more and more room­ing hous­es were disappearing…more than forty room­ing hous­es were […] bought by the city in the late 1970s, after poor peo­ple fought back against spec­u­la­tors buy­ing up room­ing hous­es dur­ing St. James Town rede­vel­op­ment (OCAP 2018)

Transforming Non-Stop

Our Backyards
Our Back­yards
Our Homes
Our Homes
Our Shelters
Our Shel­ters

The sit­u­a­tion described above is arguably most trou­bling (because most tan­gi­ble) for per­sons who can least afford to have sub­si­dized hous­ing units dis­ap­pear through demo­li­tion or con­ver­sion into lux­u­ry con­do­mini­ums. Seaton House, on George Street in the Dundas/Sherbourne area, for exam­ple, is a drug treat­ment facil­i­ty and men’s shel­ter that is home to about six hun­dred (fig­ure 10). Col­lo­qui­al­ly, this insti­tu­tion is more com­mon­ly known by its nick­name: Satan House. Seaton House is home to men, many of whom have lived there for upwards of ten years, it is their com­mu­ni­ty (fig­ure 11). As the neigh­bour­hood ‘revi­tal­izes’, Seaton House is expect­ed to close. Walk­ing along this street is uncom­fort­able, dis­turb­ing, and frus­trat­ing in the extreme. Here we see peo­ple manip­u­lat­ing crack pipes; col­laps­ing cen­tu­ry-old homes, torched and hol­lowed out; under­cov­er police in unmarked patrol cars; hard­ly an idle pedes­tri­an; men and women crouched on the pave­ment, orga­niz­ing sacks of drugs among them­selves; and peo­ple in torn clothes, with eyes the size of din­ner plates, ram­bling around talk­ing to them­selves. Here, we find a col­li­sion of pol­i­cy, gov­er­nance, finan­cial spec­u­la­tion, and every­day life. It would seem that peo­ple have accept­ed that the neigh­bour­hood is this way. The col­lo­qui­al name says it all.

In the late 1990s, I (Lau­ra) vis­it­ed Vancouver’s Japan­town (Paueru-gai), just north of the city’s DTES. This vis­it was where I first saw peo­ple smok­ing crack. I remem­ber see­ing a woman crawl­ing around the side­walk, appar­ent­ly search­ing out small bits of some­thing or oth­er that I could not imag­ine were to be found wedged into the recess­es of con­crete she was fix­at­ed on. Years lat­er, when I moved into Toronto’s poor inner city, I again saw peo­ple using crack on George Street. Here, women and men, poised on all fours, were creep­ing along the asphalt in search of resin, just like the woman in Vancouver’s Japan­town. There is some­thing dras­ti­cal­ly wrong with our way of orga­niz­ing and redis­trib­ut­ing resources, not to men­tion our valu­ing human life, when we see peo­ple flopped out on the side­walk, with­in view of a new­ly sold mil­lion-dol­lar home, whose For Sale sign, like a bea­con, announces to the passer­by that the struc­ture was “sold over ask­ing”: a telling sig­nal about the realtor’s or buyer’s indebt­ed­ness, which in turn demon­strates how the per­son is wed­ded to Cana­di­an bank­ing and insur­ance interests.

Like the streets to its north, east, south, and west, George Street is the focus of intense pri­vate sec­tor land spec­u­la­tion. Since dis­in­vest­ment from social hous­ing at the fed­er­al and Ontario provin­cial lev­els began in the 1980s, cou­pled with the total absence of rent con­trol mech­a­nisms lim­it­ing the pri­vate real estate mar­ket in Toron­to, land-use deci­sions, prac­tices and trends will con­tin­ue to press down most harsh­ly on the inner-city poor. Lat­est reports indi­cate that men who dwell in Seaton House might be re-housed into a series of small­er shel­ters through­out Toron­to (Cana­di­an Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion 2019). The three of us won­der where they will be dis­persed, where they will live, and what will hap­pen to them.

Observing George Street

Sheltered until when?
Shel­tered until when?
Valuable to whom?
Valu­able to whom?

Experiencing the Poor Inner City: “The Law is a Key Social Relation”

We all imag­ine what poor inner city neigh­bour­hoods are and are about when we make deci­sions about how to inter­act with them. How do we cir­cu­late through them: foot or car; fre­quent or avoid; speak to peo­ple or not? All of these expe­ri­ences inform what we know about the poor inner city; they also shape how we know it. In the case of Dundas/Sherbourne, which is nei­ther an easy nor a beau­ti­ful place, I (Lau­ra) want­ed to design a ped­a­gog­i­cal exper­i­ment that could help stu­dents devel­op lines of ques­tion­ing to explore the social orga­ni­za­tion of the inner city through which they could human­ize ways of think­ing about the peo­ple and sit­u­a­tions there. I want­ed to sub­vert the extremes of fairy tale or hor­ror sto­ry nar­ra­tives about this neigh­bour­hood by hav­ing stu­dents con­sid­er who lives in the poor inner city, and what their lives there are like. What time of day or night do peo­ple work, if they are able to work, and indeed, if they are employ­able at all? A larg­er ques­tion I was draw­ing them towards was this: how might what hap­pens in our lives be con­nect­ed with what hap­pens in oth­ers’ lives? In this ped­a­gogy, I was attempt­ing to accli­ma­tize stu­dents to the “arbi­trary acci­dents of his­to­ry” that are fea­tures of human exis­tence when we grap­ple with answer­ing impor­tant exis­ten­tial ques­tions such as these (Mukhopad­hyay 2017). We can lay a strong foun­da­tion for this type of encounter by intro­duc­ing messi­ness and con­tin­gency into our class­rooms, and indeed, by lead­ing stu­dents beyond the uni­ver­si­ty walls and into spaces that will chal­lenge them to con­tem­plate answers to hard and nec­es­sary questions.

For inspi­ra­tion, and to gath­er ideas about how to go about accli­ma­tiz­ing stu­dents to uncer­tain­ty while also ask­ing them to devel­op the reflex­es to ask ques­tions from the stand­point of peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, I did two rounds of groundwork.

I first began by attend­ing an inner-city pub­lic screen­ing and pan­el dis­cus­sion of Hugh Gibson’s (2016) fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary film The Stairs in the spring of 2017. This film chron­i­cles the ways drug pol­i­cy, the law, polic­ing, and the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem inter­sect to shape the lives of street- and drug-involved peo­ple in the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood. Over a five-year peri­od, the film focus­es on three res­i­dents and sup­port work­ers: Greg, who uses drugs; Mar­ty, who for­mer­ly used drugs; and Rox­anne, who was involved in sex work (fig­ures 12, 13 and 14). Deeply com­pelling, the film suc­ceeds in show­ing the strug­gles and skills nec­es­sary to live with and amidst deep human suf­fer­ing, both of one’s self and of oth­ers we care about. Impor­tant­ly, the film shows just how close­ly enmeshed impov­er­ished people’s lives are with the law, the police, and the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tems. This point was poignant­ly con­firmed in find­ings from more recent field­work pub­lished as Per­ils of “Pro­tec­tion”, a report doc­u­ment­ing sex work­ers’ expe­ri­ences with law enforce­ment in the Dundas/Sherbourne area and in oth­er com­mu­ni­ties across Ontario (Chu, Cla­men and San­ti­ni 2019). Soci­ol­o­gist William Carroll’s the­o­ret­i­cal claim that “social life as we know it is marked by inequities that are deeply struc­tured, yet con­tin­gent, fea­tures of human orga­ni­za­tion” (2006 234) is empir­i­cal­ly demon­strat­ed in Gibson’s film and the Per­ils of “Pro­tec­tion” report.

Watching “The Stairs”

Greg and Companion
Greg and Companion
Marty and Friend
Mar­ty and Friend
Roxanne(left) and Friends
Rox­anne (left) and Friends

What Greg, Mar­ty, and Rox­anne show us is that becom­ing impov­er­ished, being poor, recov­er­ing from addic­tions, find­ing a bed in a shel­ter, stay­ing out of harm’s way, trav­el­ling from one bureau­cra­cy to the next, tak­ing care of one­self, and also fig­ur­ing out how to care for others—all of these actions require a per­son to learn these skills and to prac­tice them to stay alive. Elliott reminds us that dai­ly, “the urban poor grap­ple with their own fail­ing health and the ill­ness and/or death of friends and fam­i­ly mem­bers due to AIDS, hepati­tis C, pneu­mo­nia, bac­te­r­i­al infec­tions, and oth­er chron­ic ill­ness­es” (2010, 183). These social rela­tions con­verge to sup­port soci­ol­o­gist Adele Clarke and col­leagues’ (2003) asser­tion that the inten­si­ty of health pro­gram­ming in the poor inner city has often been demon­strat­ed to over­take as well as ‘bio-med­ical­ize’ people’s lives.

As we can see, the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood is a place of para­dox. While its build­ing stock and sur­round­ing urban land­scape are vis­i­bly neglect­ed, the area is an object of focus for some of the most intense law enforce­ment and police scruti­ny in Toron­to. As there is a dense net­work of health and social ser­vices, and there is also deep and ongo­ing dis­pos­ses­sion. As with Vancouver’s DTES, here we see that struc­tur­al deci­sions and prac­tices gov­ern­ing the poor inner city simul­ta­ne­ous­ly mar­gin­al­ize and cen­tral­ize poor peo­ple who live, work, or move through the area. One line of thought is that such spa­tial clus­ter­ing is help­ful for peo­ple need­ing care. The trou­ble with this per­spec­tive, how­ev­er, is that the peo­ple access­ing care there do not nec­es­sar­i­ly share this view. Rather, this is the point of view of per­sons who do not live or reg­u­lar­ly fre­quent the streets and alley­ways of Dundas/Sherbourne yet are nonethe­less deci­sion-mak­ers for the area (fig­ure 15). An assump­tion, sup­port­ed by the a pri­ori belief that poor peo­ple actu­al­ly use said ser­vices, is that ser­vices offered are work­ing for peo­ple, despite all evi­dence to the con­trary, or else the ser­vices would cease to be need­ed and would not need to be so ‘dense­ly’ offered. This line of think­ing miss­es a cru­cial point.

The idea of a slow march to the elim­i­na­tion of home­less­ness and hunger neglects to real­ize that poor inner city peo­ple are not sta­t­ic. As Greg, Mar­ty, and Rox­anne graph­i­cal­ly show and teach us, impov­er­ished peo­ple in the inner city are, in prac­tice, extreme­ly mobile. This is the case pre­cise­ly because stay­ing alive when one is poor is a full-time com­mit­ment. Based on anthro­po­log­i­cal and geo­graph­i­cal field­work with peo­ple with HIV infec­tion access­ing food banks (Miewwald, McCann, Temenos and McIn­tosh 2019; Picotte 2014; Toron­to Food Pol­i­cy Coun­cil n.d.), and also Bisaillon’s (2010) first-hand expe­ri­ence at food banks serv­ing peo­ple with HIV infec­tion in Mon­tre­al and Toron­to, we know that poor peo­ple cir­cu­late far and wide through­out Cana­di­an cities to obtain food, goods, and var­i­ous social and legal enti­tle­ments. In fact, impov­er­ished peo­ple spend most of their time and ener­gy on try­ing to find food, shel­ter, take care of them­selves, and stay out of harm’s way (fig­ure 16). Mov­ing about the City of Toron­to, with its 96 food banks, twen­ty-two of which are in the admin­is­tra­tive ward in which Dundas/Sherbourne is locat­ed, is a nec­es­sary strat­e­gy and mat­ter of sur­vival for impov­er­ished peo­ple. Tak­en togeth­er, it has been demon­strat­ed that these forms of activ­i­ty, and the knowl­edge that one must hone to accom­plish them, are forms of work and types of emo­tion­al labour (Bre­salier et al 2002; De Vault 1991; Ehren­re­ich 2017; War­ing 2004). These mobil­i­ties have costs for peo­ple in terms of their time, avail­able ener­gy, and the chron­ic anx­i­ety that need­ing to do them in the first place pro­duces for them.

Being Poor is Hard Work

Harper was Wrong
Harp­er was Wrong
Marx was Right
Marx was Right

In a sec­ond stage of ground­work aimed to imag­ine what a future pos­si­ble vis­it with stu­dents to the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood could con­sist of, and bear­ing in mind the social con­text out­lined above, I (Lau­ra) did some recon­nais­sance walk­a­bouts through its streets, back alleys, and oth­er pub­lic recess­es. As I made my way around the area on foot, I saw and acci­dent­ly tread on used con­doms, nee­dles, and oth­er dis­card­ed injec­tion equip­ment. And as I bent in to take a clos­er look, I had sec­ond thoughts about bring­ing stu­dents to the area. Would the built and social envi­ron­ments sim­ply be too bald or bold for them? I also won­dered whether I was best posi­tioned to guide stu­dents. The idea was for us to go expe­ri­ence and, through dis­cus­sion with each oth­er, work to devel­op under­stand­ings about the social pro­duc­tion and orga­ni­za­tion of pover­ty. The promise was that we would come away with polit­i­cal­ly inci­sive and social­ly sit­u­at­ed lines of think­ing to analyse the polit­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic deter­mi­nants of health and thus be well informed to be able to cri­tique bad-deci­sion and bad-neigh­bour­hood lines of think­ing. A fine line need­ed to be very care­ful­ly attend­ed to, how­ev­er, since I want­ed to avoid using or fetishiz­ing the neigh­bour­hood as a ped­a­gog­i­cal resource for stu­dents’ edi­fi­ca­tion. This was a seri­ous con­cern that orga­nized the field­work process from start to finish.

As I con­tem­plat­ed these issues and the ten­sions they evoke, I came across a news­pa­per arti­cle that dis­cussed the work of Joyce Rankin, a reg­is­tered nurse at Street Health. This orga­ni­za­tion has been oper­at­ing health and social ser­vices in Dundas/Sherbourne for over thir­ty years as an advo­cate for peo­ple who are the most mar­gin­al­ized. In June 2018, it opened an Over­dose Pre­ven­tion Site with extend­ed drop-in hours “as a response to the increased lev­el of over­dos­es in our neigh­bour­hood, in our dri­ve­way, and among our clients” (fig­ure 17) (Street Health 2019).

A short time before, I learned, Rankin had been bestowed the Nightin­gale Award for her activist nurs­ing and front­line ser­vice over many years (Forani 2015). As I read about the agency’s work, I imag­ined an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring stu­dents there to have them learn about the “harm reduc­tion mod­el [and to] see the impacts of the social deter­mi­nants of health in action” (Street Health 2019). When I called her to explain the learn­ing goals and pol­i­tics orga­niz­ing my inter­est, Joyce agreed to receive us.

In the end, five stu­dents were avail­able to attend the planned vis­it to Street Health (fig­ure 18). They were racial­ized women in their ear­ly twen­ties. Four lived in Toronto’s out­er east­ern and west­ern sub­urbs, and one lived in the inner city (Mehdia). I learned that some of these women had grown up in afflu­ent house­holds. With­out excep­tion, how­ev­er, all of their par­ents were born out­side of Cana­da, mak­ing them what has come to be called in migra­tion stud­ies, first-gen­er­a­tion Cana­di­ans. The women told me that after grad­u­a­tion they envi­sioned careers in social work, nurs­ing, arts edu­ca­tion, or the law. Pre­cise­ly because of the type of pro­fes­sion­al roles they talked about want­i­ng to ful­fill, I want­ed them to encounter the peo­ple, pol­i­tics, and prob­lem­at­ics fac­ing Toronto’s poor inner city. Giv­en the state of glob­al flows of peo­ple and resources in 2017, it seemed that the his­tor­i­cal moment was a rel­e­vant one to have stu­dents think about the impli­ca­tions of these trends in their home city. As I would come to find out, our vis­it to the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood was the first expe­ri­ence they were to have with this spe­cif­ic area of the poor inner city.

Visiting Street Health

Syringe, Saline and Sanitized
Syringe, Saline and Sanitizer
Nurse, Professor and Students
Nurse, Pro­fes­sor and Students

According to whom are we Vulnerable? Mehdia’s Experience in the Poor Inner City

As a stu­dent in Dr. Bisaillon’s class in 2017, I (Mehdia) signed up to take part in her pro­posed group vis­it to Street Health. I was curi­ous to learn about the organization’s direct ser­vice work. Before vis­it­ing Dundas/Sherbourne with class­mates, my first-hand expe­ri­ence of this dis­trict was min­i­mal. For the most part, I had usu­al­ly crossed the inter­sec­tion of these two streets sit­ting in the back of my family’s car. I had nev­er explored the area on foot, despite the fact that I was raised there and still live a short walk away.

I have lived in St. James Town my whole life. What is more, the inter­sec­tion of “Dundas/Sherbourne” car­ries half of the named loca­tion where my home is: Sher­bourne Street. And yet, when I vis­it­ed Street Health, it dawned on me how pre­cious lit­tle I knew from first-hand expe­ri­ence about this spe­cif­ic part of the poor inner city. As we were prepar­ing this arti­cle, Dr. Bisail­lon chal­lenged me by ask­ing, “How is this is the case, Mehdia?” mean­ing, how could I have lived so close but have few tan­gi­ble con­nec­tions with the place and so lit­tle knowl­edge about it? Reflect­ing on my answer, I real­ized that I have more or less delib­er­ate­ly avoid­ed going there because, dur­ing my life­time, at least, this area has had a rough and tough rep­u­ta­tion, and it is wide­ly doc­u­ment­ed to be a dif­fi­cult area.

It might seem odd to those unfa­mil­iar with Toronto’s inner city polit­i­cal and legal geog­ra­phy that I had not been to this area. How­ev­er, it makes per­fect sense that I did not go there con­sid­er­ing the rep­u­ta­tion of this neigh­bour­hood, not to men­tion how it looks when we actu­al­ly go there. What do we see? There are shod­di­ly sub­di­vid­ed, derelict structures—ruined room­ing hous­es; pass­word pro­tect­ed, pad­locked perime­ter fences; mas­sage par­lors edged by church­es; con­struc­tion cranes keep­ing com­pa­ny with bull­doz­ers. Signs of mate­r­i­al depri­va­tion and the effects of addic­tions and ill­ness are pal­pa­ble. Yet, glossy posters and plac­ards inform res­i­dents and passers-by that glass-tow­ered con­do­mini­ums are on their way up (fig­ures 19 and 20).

Seeing Everything for Sale

Condos and Cutbacks
Con­dos and Cutbacks
Cranes and Crack
Cranes and Crack

As I thought about how to pre­pare for a vis­it Street Health, I decid­ed that I would draw inspi­ra­tion from soci­ol­o­gist C. Wright Mills’ (2000) idea of soci­o­log­i­cal imag­i­na­tion. Mills’ approach involves cul­ti­vat­ing a will­ing­ness to see the world from the per­spec­tive of oth­ers and also orga­niz­ing one’s inves­ti­ga­tion to explore how personal/experiential hap­pen­ings con­nect to those of a public/societal kind. Prac­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, researchers map inter­ac­tions between fea­tures of biog­ra­phy, cul­ture, his­to­ry, and soci­etal struc­ture. Mills under­stood this onto­log­i­cal and epis­te­mo­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion as the promise of social sci­ence because of how it enables analy­ses when put into prac­tice. As it hap­pens, hav­ing learned this approach from Dr. Bisail­lon has been some­thing of an occu­pa­tion­al haz­ard: now, I must see the con­di­tions and prob­lems around me, and those that I read and hear about, in the the­o­ret­i­cal frame of the soci­o­log­i­cal imag­i­na­tion. Whether as a for­mer grad­u­ate stu­dent in Thun­der Bay or as a res­i­dent of St. James Town, I am now habit­u­al­ly “com­mit­ting soci­ol­o­gy” as modus operan­di and way to frame, describe, and inter­pret the world (Bisail­lon, Has­san and Has­san 2017 109).

On arriv­ing at Street Health, our small group met with Nurse Joyce Rankin, who intro­duced the organization’s his­to­ry, pro­vid­ing details about its mis­sion and the way Street Health works with peo­ple who seek care and ser­vices there. Street Health clients live in pover­ty, work in the sex trade, man­age addic­tions, and live with chron­ic ill­ness. The basic prin­ci­ple orga­niz­ing their ser­vices is to ease the neg­a­tive effects inner city poor peo­ple expe­ri­ence due to struc­tur­al inequities and inter­sect­ing forms of oppres­sion. For exam­ple, not hav­ing an address is a huge imped­i­ment for un-housed or itin­er­ant peo­ple; the Street Health office pro­vides a civic address for its clients. A fixed address plays a cru­cial func­tion by mak­ing all of us insti­tu­tion­al­ly leg­i­ble in data­bas­es at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment. An address is a neces­si­ty, sig­nalling a place at which to receive mail. With­out an address, one can­not receive a provin­cial health card. With­out a health card, one can­not eas­i­ly access care at a hos­pi­tal or clin­ic. Adapt­abil­i­ty and empa­thy gov­ern Street Health’s work. They aim to ‘meet peo­ple where they are’ in both metaphor­i­cal and mate­r­i­al sens­es of the expres­sion, since where we live and social­ize are also the places we gath­er infor­ma­tion, make deci­sions, and form bonds with others.

We also spoke to clients who were at Street Health while we were there. For exam­ple, Mar­ty works as a peer sup­port work­er (this Mar­ty is the same “Mar­ty” who is fea­tured in Hugh Gibson’s doc­u­men­tary, The Stairs [2016]). He is also a Dundas/Sherbourne insid­er who is recov­er­ing from drug use and work­ing hard, as he told us, to resist the pull of drugs. Mar­ty was born into a large fam­i­ly, but his con­nec­tions with his kin have waned. He has expe­ri­enced home­less­ness on and off dur­ing his adult life. He now lives with his cat in a one-bed­room apart­ment with a bal­cony and an address in the Dundas/Sherbourne neighbourhood.

Marty’s tra­jec­to­ry gives him per­son­al insight to under­stand and empathize with Street Health clients, with whom he shares many lived expe­ri­ences. Mar­ty talked to us about safe-injec­tion kits, drug use, addic­tions, and the sex trade with remark­able frank­ness. He spoke of his pro­fes­sion­al role and respon­si­bil­i­ties as a peer-sup­port work­er, and he expressed frus­tra­tion about sys­temic issues that make his job chron­i­cal­ly dif­fi­cult. For exam­ple, he described the ways that addic­tion bespeaks trau­ma and shapes neu­ro­log­i­cal wiring. He also elab­o­rat­ed on the ways that, in one way or anoth­er, the police and jus­tice sys­tems are dai­ly fig­ures in his clients’ lives. But he finds mean­ing in work­ing with the Street Health team, and he cares about the peo­ple he con­nects with while try­ing to fig­ure out how to sup­port them in ways that make sense with­in the con­text of their lives (fig­ure 21). Watch­ing how he car­ried him­self, lis­ten­ing to the silences between his words, I could clear­ly see his knowl­edge and wis­dom were hard earned. The con­cept of the per­son­al being embed­ded in the polit­i­cal and vice ver­sa now makes empir­i­cal sense to me, as it nev­er had before.

As it turned out, Mar­ty had a great deal to teach us. A key Street Health ser­vice is to pro­vide safe injec­tion kits, and these are avail­able at the agency’s recep­tion desk. Nor­mal­ized. The kits are assem­blages of var­i­ous mate­ri­als for peo­ple who use injec­tion drugs to do so clean­ly and safe­ly, such that they do not con­tract blood-borne infec­tions such as hepati­tis C or HIV infec­tion. Harm reduc­tion sci­ence has demon­strat­ed that injec­tion kits save lives and that it is also good eco­nom­ic prac­tice (Zlo­torzyn­s­ka et al 2013). Infec­tion and dis­ease are cur­tailed through san­i­tary con­di­tions and where peo­ple are social­ly sup­port­ed. Mar­ty walked us through how he assem­bles and pack­ages safe-injec­tion kits. He also demon­strat­ed how peo­ple use the mate­ri­als to pre­vent infec­tion. Injec­tion kits are nor­mal­ized and dis­played in a ‘help your­self’ man­ner at Street Health’s recep­tion desk. The self-ser­vice is prac­ti­cal, and I should think it goes a long way to ease social stig­ma asso­ci­at­ed with drug use. The vis­i­bil­i­ty of the kits can also be spring­boards for dis­cus­sion and peer learn­ing. Since it is obvi­ous that all class­es of peo­ple use ille­gal and recent­ly legal­ized drugs, mak­ing safe-injec­tion kits and oth­er harm reduc­tion mate­ri­als acces­si­ble in facil­i­ties in all neigh­bour­hoods in Toron­to is a pur­pose­ful action to alle­vi­ate stig­ma, pro­mote safe health prac­tices, and expose peo­ple to sources of health care and addic­tion coun­selling and referrals.

Joyce, Mar­ty, and oth­er front­line work­ers at Street Health must work hard to sus­tain the ser­vices they pro­vide to clients. They lob­by all lev­els of gov­ern­ment for finan­cial sup­port to train stu­dents on pro­fes­sion­al place­ments and work with near­by hos­pi­tal-based researchers. They must apply for cycle after cycle of project fund­ing, and they also cul­ti­vate rela­tions with pri­vate donors for mon­e­tary back­ing. They take time to work with groups of stu­dents such as us. Col­lec­tive­ly, this group of peo­ple is work­ing to keep fin­gers pressed on the places where peo­ple feel harm. They par­tic­i­pate in try­ing to effect struc­tur­al change and to dis­man­tle that which pro­duces sick­ness and suf­fer­ing in the first place. They want peo­ple to think crit­i­cal­ly about the caus­es of pover­ty, and then do some­thing about those caus­es. At Street Health, I saw peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion who were vis­i­bly unwell. I am cer­tain that these unknown-to-me peers did not choose to be liv­ing on the street or in the unsafe con­di­tions of Dundas/Sherbourne. A fact long estab­lished in the social deter­mi­nants of health lit­er­a­ture is that health and ill­ness are shaped more strong­ly by our social con­di­tions than by our bio­log­i­cal bag­gage (Bryant 2016). As I con­duct­ed this field­work, these issues and per­spec­tives began to crys­tal­lize into an observed reality.

Joyce and Marty’s work is emo­tion­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly tax­ing in an ongo­ing sort of way, which rais­es a long-stand­ing ques­tion: who cares for the care­givers? (Con­tenta 2019) The car­ing work they dis­pense to peo­ple they know and care about is drain­ing not least of all because of the fact that their work should not be nec­es­sary at all. Death by over­dose and oth­er trau­mat­ic ends are all around them. They want to keep peo­ple alive and for the peo­ple around them to suf­fer no longer. They might also feel ten­sion with what they do, with how they earn a liv­ing, since their work is pred­i­cat­ed on the pover­ty and suf­fer­ing of the clients with whom they inter­act every day. Being poor, hous­ing inse­cure, and crim­i­nal­ized for engag­ing in sex work: these are the predica­ments con­fronting peo­ple who come to Street Health. As racial­ized, gen­dered, and eco­nom­i­cal­ly impov­er­ished peo­ple who might also use drugs, their expe­ri­ences with social insti­tu­tions are chron­i­cal­ly fraught with ten­sions. Peo­ple in the poor inner city are posi­tioned to expe­ri­ence var­i­ous sorts of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties as an ongo­ing fea­ture of their existence.

Living in a ‘Bad Neighbourhood’


And here, I write the word vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty with hes­i­ta­tion while at the same prob­lema­tiz­ing it and its appli­ca­tion. Who gets to assign vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to oth­ers? After all, this term arrives from a bureau­crat­ic cat­e­go­ry that pub­lic health per­son­nel, aca­d­e­m­ic researchers, and clin­i­cians use to make vis­i­ble, and also inter­vene on behalf of, large swaths of peo­ple: Mar­ty and oth­er res­i­dents of Dundas/Sherbourne, my fam­i­ly, oth­ers I care about, and also me (fig­ure 22). What char­ac­ter­izes vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, who car­ries the term, and is it enabling or dis­abling? Why and how does, or will, it affect all aspects of people’s exis­tence? I am call­ing atten­tion to the pol­i­tics, fields of inter­est, and human prac­tices that bring this con­cept to life and sus­tain it. Ulti­mate­ly, I am sub­vert­ing by invert­ing hier­ar­chies of knowl­edge, urg­ing a revised start­ing place for inquiry. What do peo­ple who are deemed vul­ner­a­ble think of this con­cept? Peo­ple who are writ­ten and talked about with­in this frame of ref­er­ence rarely or nev­er, in my expe­ri­ence to date, refer to them­selves as vul­ner­a­ble. My par­ents are racial­ized immi­grants liv­ing with me in poor­ly main­tained pub­lic hous­ing in Toronto’s poor inner city, but we do not use this lan­guage to describe our­selves, and nei­ther do we eas­i­ly accept that this cat­e­go­ry be applied or used to define us. Per­haps I will have the good for­tune to meet Mar­ty again, intro­duce him to my sis­ter, Maryam, and hear what he thinks about my dis­cur­sive resis­tance to main­stream brush stroking, type­cast­ing peo­ple like him, me, and us as vulnerable.

Since vis­it­ing Street Health, I have tak­en to ask­ing peo­ple in my midst in Toron­to what they know about the area. When I probe, though my inter­locu­tors have usu­al­ly not been there, they con­cur that Dundas/Sherbourne is, in their view, most cer­tain­ly a “bad neigh­bour­hood.” This returns me to the con­tra­dic­tion that I illu­mi­nate and open with above: that some can live so close to this part of the city and know noth­ing about it while oth­ers spend their whole lives there work­ing to help peo­ple ful­fill their needs.

Seeing is Believing…in the Discursive Organization of Knowledge: Maryam’s Experience in the Poor Inner City

Until July 2019, I (Maryam) had a full-time job as a legal admin­is­tra­tive assis­tant work­ing at a mid-sized law firm in North York, which lies to the north of the City of Toron­to. I remem­ber var­i­ous encoun­ters and con­ver­sa­tions I had with co-work­ers dur­ing my time there, espe­cial­ly inter­ac­tions that left me ques­tion­ing what it means to live in a “bad neigh­bour­hood”, and indeed what liv­ing in such a place might say about me, as a per­son, and also about my fam­i­ly. When I tell acquain­tances or co-work­ers that I live in St. James Town, a com­mon reac­tion is shock. They tell me that they would not have guessed that this is where I live. Some peo­ple have warned me to be care­ful when out in the neigh­bour­hood late at night (fig­ure 23). Still oth­ers have tried to teach me self-defense strate­gies. My com­mon response is to laugh, albeit rather ner­vous­ly. I explain that I do not feel fear­ful, since it is my home com­mu­ni­ty. Peo­ple have told me that they won­der how I can live in an area where there are so many “crazy” peo­ple walk­ing, talk­ing, and scream­ing on the streets. Inter­est­ing­ly, when I ask them if they have been to St. James Town, few have. I am told that they know the neigh­bour­hood through main­stream media reports.

I remem­ber hav­ing lunch with a co-work­er, and dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion, he asked me where I lived. I replied, “down­town Toron­to.” He said, teas­ing­ly, “Oh! I knew you were going to say that! In one of those expen­sive high-end con­dos, right?” I was tak­en aback, won­der­ing why he would assume that. As I told him that I grew up and still live in one of the nine­teen high-rise apart­ment tow­ers in St. James Town, I watched his jaw drop. He lat­er took me aside and apol­o­gized. He clar­i­fied that he hoped that he had not offend­ed me, since that was not his inten­tion. He told me that the issue for him was that he could not imag­ine that some­one like me would have been raised in “that kind of area.” When I asked him what he meant, he spec­i­fied that he was refer­ring to a poor inner city neigh­bour­hood. He con­tin­ued by say­ing that because of the way I dress, speak, and car­ry myself, “No one would assume that you come from a ‘bad neighbourhood’.”

This exchange encour­aged me to reflect deeply on how soci­ety sees and also labels peo­ple who, in pop­u­lar dis­course, are under­stood to hail from “bad neigh­bour­hoods.” What is a per­son from a “bad” or “good” neigh­bour­hood sup­posed to look like? Act like? Sound like? Be like? Main­stream media can por­tray peo­ple from poor inner city neigh­bour­hoods stereo­typ­i­cal­ly; that is, if we are fea­tured at all out­side of sen­sa­tion­al­ist sto­ries and hyper­bol­ic head­lines root­ed in deviance. Per­haps we are thought to be lazy, not par­tic­u­lar­ly edu­cat­ed, way­ward, or just not good sorts of peo­ple to know.

As the col­league with whom I was hav­ing lunch looked at the rings and watch I was wear­ing, he said that he would have thought that I came from what he called an aris­to­crat­ic or elite back­ground. ‘The way I car­ried myself, with “ele­gance and grace”,’ he said. “I nev­er would have imag­ined some­one from St. James Town being as edu­cat­ed and well man­nered as you.” Over the years, and now, when peo­ple learn that I have spent all of my life in St. James Town, they want to have these sorts of con­ver­sa­tions with me. I do not like hav­ing these kinds of con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple, since they feel pathol­o­giz­ing of my fam­i­ly and neigh­bour­hood in addi­tion to being tedious because pre­dictable and repet­i­tive for me. Maybe one day I will sit down and write a nov­el inspired by our fam­i­ly life as res­i­dents of St. James Town. Bor­row­ing nar­ra­tive cues and clues from nov­el­ist Kathy Dobson’s With a Closed Fist (2011) or Punch­ing and Kick­ing (2018), I could imag­ine titling my debut nov­el some­thing along the lines of With a Ring on my Fin­ger, and Watch on my Wrist: Grow­ing up in Toronto’s Poor Inner City.

We (Mehdia and Maryam) have begun to track a curi­ous pat­tern in how guests who vis­it us at home react to our apart­ment. Peo­ple have expressed sur­prise, com­ment­ing that our three-bed­room flat is wel­com­ing, aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing, and cul­tur­al­ly curat­ed with tastes, tex­tures, and traces of Afghanistan (fig­ure 24). The appear­ance of our domes­tic space, indeed, con­trasts with the pub­lic areas inside and out­side our high-rise apart­ment build­ing. Every­where you look in and around the vicin­i­ty of our build­ing, there are signs of dete­ri­o­rat­ing struc­tur­al con­di­tions: the inte­ri­or hall­ways, ele­va­tors, and sur­round­ing streets are vis­i­bly rut­ted and deeply worn.

Peo­ples’ reac­tions to our home and build­ing have giv­en us pause. We try to see things through their eyes and to walk in their shoes to con­tem­plate our com­mu­ni­ty with fresh eyes. We are not indif­fer­ent to out­siders’ per­cep­tions of St. James Town. What does it mean when peo­ple express relief that, between the walls of our apart­ment, we live well, while using the pub­lic sphere, our neigh­bour­hood, as its unde­sir­able foil? We won­der whether our par­ents have, at some lev­el, paid extra close atten­tion to rear­ing us and pro­vid­ing a cer­tain type of home envi­ron­ment in response to what they know to be pub­li­cal­ly held ideas that St. James Town is a “bad neighbourhood.”

Some vis­i­tors have asked my par­ents why they have decid­ed to remain in St. James Town for more than two decades. We are not aware that our par­ents, set­tling here as new immi­grants, had much choice in the mat­ter. We live in sub­si­dized pub­lic hous­ing, and we are in close walk­ing dis­tance to schools, hos­pi­tals, and the sub­way line. While some of our guests have com­ment­ed that, in their view, we do not seem to “fit” into St. James Town, this judg­ment pinch­es at us. We are uncom­fort­able with the implic­it judg­ment of our neigh­bours, teach­ers, and friends. And, while some guests have giv­en their sug­ges­tions about “bet­ter” neigh­bour­hoods or small­er cities to which we might con­sid­er mov­ing, we are not aware whether our par­ents are either inter­est­ed in or finan­cial­ly able to move to a place that oth­ers might deem safer or more suit­able. We have made our home here, we have been well edu­cat­ed here, we have con­tributed here, and we are sat­is­fied liv­ing in the poor inner city.

Learning in St. James Town

Of Sherbourne/Howard
Of Sherbourne/Howard
Of Afghan Diaspora (I am Complex)
Of Afghan Dias­po­ra (“I am Com­plex”, Maryam Has­san, 2018, Acrylic on can­vas. 32x36")

Moving into the ‘hood: Laura’s Experience in the Poor Inner City

In fall 2015, I (Lau­ra) was treat­ed to a his­to­ry les­son about the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood. My teach­ers on this occa­sion were two mid­dle aged, white men seat­ed on the curb in an alley­way behind the Peo­ple with AIDS Foun­da­tion on Ger­rard Street, where I was destined.

As I approached the men, I said hel­lo. I smiled because they looked like they were enjoy­ing them­selves. It was ten o’clock in the morn­ing, and Bruce and Noah (I will call them) were drink­ing beer and talk­ing. We began to chat. Bruce told me that he was born in this very com­mu­ni­ty. He spent his child­hood weav­ing up, down, and through this part of Toronto’s inner-city con­crete jun­gle. Bruce open­ly dis­cussed moments of his life stretch­ing back to the 1970s, explain­ing that he had moved away many years ago to take up var­i­ous hard-labour jobs in Alberta’s petro­le­um patch. When he sus­tained an injury on the job, he was unable to return to work, and he nev­er again found sta­ble work. He was not eli­gi­ble for work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion or employ­ment insur­ance pay­ments, and so he looked for work, doing “odd jobs, here and there,” to get by. Though he has no fam­i­ly remain­ing in Toron­to, he thinks that he might stay in the city. His col­league, Noah, revealed that he was born in New­found­land, and has lived on-and-off in Toron­to since the 1980s. Not find­ing work in Atlantic Cana­da, like Bruce, Noah left home, migrat­ed west and set­tled there, “work­ing in oil.” When he sus­tained an injury that evolved into a dis­abil­i­ty, he, too, was unable to find paid work, and was inel­i­gi­ble for gov­ern­ment income sup­port programs.

We made bad deci­sions,” said Bruce in a mat­ter-of-fact way, speak­ing on their col­lec­tive behalf. Noah nod­ded his head in agree­ment. They went on to say that they have lived for some time in near­by Seaton House. Though these were not their part­ing words to me, this is the sen­tence that, at the heels of hav­ing heard details of their lives, sat very heav­i­ly with me. The state­ment “we made bad deci­sions” has a sig­nif­i­cant orga­niz­ing pres­ence in this arti­cle and informed the choice of subtitle.

My fam­i­ly and I moved into a hous­ing coop­er­a­tive in St. James Town in the spring of 2015. For a time, I was acute­ly ill. Through the painful expe­ri­ence of being sick, fol­lowed by a try­ing and long-term process of get­ting well, I came to know about the Sher­bourne Health Cen­tre and the ser­vices it offers to inner city poor peo­ple (fig­ures 25 and 26). It serves a great num­ber of impov­er­ished peo­ple. In fact, it offers ser­vices to all res­i­dents of the inner city; I accessed ser­vices vital to my recov­ery, despite our being far removed from liv­ing in pover­ty. Walk­ing was a big part of the activ­i­ties I did to get bet­ter. I have set foot in a great num­ber of the pub­lic streets and shad­owy recess­es in the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood. In its streets and in its wait­ing rooms, doctor’s offices, recep­tion areas, ele­va­tors, parks, bus stops, gro­cery and liquor stores, com­mu­ni­ty cen­tres, movie the­atres, room­ing hous­es, thrift shops, and alley ways, I have lis­tened to, and learned from, peo­ple of all ages, colours, sizes and shapes, born in Cana­da and elsewhere.

Caring at Sherbourne Health Centre

Caring Mosaic
Pub­lic art for caring
Caring on Wheels
Wheels for caring

Dur­ing my reg­u­lar walks in the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood from 2015 to today, I have come to under­stand it as a place of con­tra­dic­tions. This is because it is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a place of mis­ery and car­ing. Signs of social suf­fer­ing and ill­ness are vis­i­ble on people’s bod­ies, in the form of facial scars, miss­ing limbs, bro­ken teeth, and sunken cheeks. The bod­i­ly effects of suf­fer­ing, struc­tur­al vio­lence, and aus­ter­i­ty on the most impov­er­ished are gut wrench­ing and con­sid­er­able: home­less­ness, sick­ness, dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion, and itin­er­an­cy. Absent and dis­ap­peared bod­ies also have a pres­ence in this area. I have seen them remem­bered by makeshift memo­r­i­al instal­la­tions made of can­dles or by inscrip­tions and sketch­es placed on the patch of greasy pave­ment on the side­walk across from Seaton House (fig­ure 27). In near­by Allan Gar­dens, an open-air mur­al instal­la­tion was mount­ed in June 2019 and a dozen large pan­els were sus­pend­ed, hang­ing over­head for pub­lic dis­play. Indige­nous women artists work­ing in var­i­ous media and world regions had their work select­ed for this six-month exhi­bi­tion. As I learned from attend­ing the inau­gu­ra­tion, where I spoke with orga­niz­ers and also artists (for exam­ple, the woman shown walk­ing under the over­head ban­ner of her cre­ation, fig­ure 28), the instal­la­tion was part com­mem­o­ra­tion for mur­dered and dis­ap­peared Indige­nous women, part cel­e­bra­tion of their con­tin­ued pres­ence and resistance.

Memorializing our Dead

Morning Glory, Mourning Friends
Morn­ing Glo­ry, Mourn­ing Friends
Mural Artist, Missing Women
Mur­al Artist, Miss­ing Women

Through the field­work and writ­ing process of this arti­cle, we won­dered how to ade­quate­ly dis­man­tle and dis­place the idea that Dundas/Sherbourne is a bad neigh­bour­hood pop­u­lat­ed by peo­ple who make bad deci­sions. First, this com­mu­ni­ty has not always been a health and social-ser­vices ghet­to for the urban poor. It has not always looked or felt the way it does now. In the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, wealthy west­ern Euro­peans set­tled in and built up Dun­das, George, Ger­rard, Jarvis, and Sher­bourne streets. The grand vil­las locat­ed up and down these roads—of those that have not come under the wreck­ing ball, many of which are used as room­ing hous­es and group homes—testify to the immense wealth that these set­tlers amassed by grow­ing local, nation­al and glob­al man­u­fac­tur­ing dynas­ties. Allan Gar­dens, as a pub­lic botan­i­cal gar­den set inside a pub­lic square of the same name, was designed as a place of leisure for these near­by res­i­dents (fig­ure 29). Today, this square is an impor­tant neigh­bour­hood land­mark. Its grounds are beau­ti­ful­ly land­scaped in spring, sum­mer and autumn. Along its south-fac­ing street is a con­cen­tra­tion of health and social agen­cies set up to serve peo­ple who gath­er in the park when it is warm enough dur­ing the last decade: racial­ized new immi­grants and Indige­nous per­sons for the most part. While the veg­e­ta­tion inside the green­hous­es is in fine shape, the humans who con­gre­gate or for­mer­ly con­gre­gat­ed out­side its entrance are any­thing but, as we can see (fig­ure 30). The pub­lic bench­es and water foun­tain were removed in June 2019, prompt­ing one Indige­nous woman with whom I spoke to say, “They took away their homes.”

Sec­ond, amidst the myr­i­ad sorts of social suf­fer­ing not­ed and dis­cussed in this arti­cle, the three of us have observed and expe­ri­enced deep car­ing in the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood. Since mov­ing to Toron­to in 2013, it is in its streets, and those imme­di­ate­ly sur­round­ing it, that I have lis­tened to some of the most can­did and frank sto­ries about the human con­di­tion I have ever heard. My exchange with Bruce and Noah relat­ed above is an exam­ple of this. Their state­ment about hav­ing made bad deci­sions is a refrain com­mon­ly sung by poor inner-city peo­ple. Peo­ple I have met there (here) can and often do talk about them­selves puni­tive­ly, con­demn­ing their bad deci­sions that they under­stand led them into dif­fi­cul­ty. So goes their log­ic. And yet, this can only ever be part of the sto­ry, since, as we have illus­trat­ed, what they say and do are set with­in broad­er social rela­tions. The obser­va­tion “We don’t hold back when we talk to our­selves about our­selves” (West 2017) is con­sis­tent with how I have heard peo­ple judge them­selves in Dundas/Sherbourne. I yearn for peo­ple to cen­tre the pol­i­tics that orga­nize how we live and also how we fall sick, since this car­ries the promise of help­ing every­one to be kinder with oth­ers and them­selves as they (we) rec­ol­lect pasts and talk about presents.

Being (and not) in Allan Gardens

Colonials Gather
Colo­nials Gather
Post Colonials Gather
Post Colo­nials Gath­er and Not

Toronto’s Grave Paradox: Flagrant Wealth Flanks Gut-Wrenching Poverty

When we (Mehdia and Maryam), cross Allan Gar­dens on foot from its north­east to south­west cor­ners, as we do when we leave home, head­ing in the direc­tion of down­town Toron­to, we have looked around, won­der­ing: how might aspects of our lives be sim­i­lar to those of the peo­ple gath­ered in this square? It is only by acci­dent of birth that we are born into the fam­i­lies we are. We have lit­tle con­trol over much of what hap­pens in our life. What is more, it is unlike­ly that there is any fam­i­ly any­where in the world untouched by addic­tions and the chron­ic prob­lems they induce. Reflect­ing on Allan Gar­dens as a land­mark, until recent­ly a hub for poor inner city peo­ple to ‘just be’ in the Dundas/Sherbourne area, per­haps some­day, if the bench­es and drink­ing foun­tain are restored, and the peo­ple who once gath­ered there return, we will stop: strik­ing up a con­ver­sa­tion with some­one sit­ting on one of the bench­es, as Dr. Bisail­lon did in our walk­a­bouts. We would approach a woman, who would like­ly be racial­ized. We would be inter­est­ed to lis­ten to what she might be will­ing to share about her expe­ri­ence in this square, and in Toronto’s poor inner city, and maybe oth­ers like it across Cana­da. Her first-hand knowl­edge of these spaces would go a long way in nuanc­ing and per­haps cor­rect­ing pop­u­lar fram­ings about the poor inner city and its places and pol­i­tics. What works well, and what does not, and in whose inter­est, is best revealed by those of us in minor­i­ty and mar­gin­al­ized posi­tions that stand out­side the main­stream in the so-called social margins.

A grave para­dox in the City of Toron­to, and one that is ripe for all to observe and expe­ri­ence, is the fla­grant wealth that flanks gut-wrench­ing pover­ty and pal­pa­ble suf­fer­ing in all of its inner city neigh­bour­hoods. Dom­i­nant por­tray­als of Canada’s largest urban cen­tre com­mon­ly show­case its count­less con­do­mini­ums for high cost, fash­ion­able food menus at fan­cy restau­rants, and parades of prod­ucts at pop-up stores. The hous­ing, eater­ies, and offer­ings in the com­mer­cial spaces in the Dundas/Sherbourne area do not square with these depic­tions, and this is not what Toronto’s inner city should be like. In this nar­ra­tive-dri­ven arti­cle, we bridged visu­al prac­tice with social analy­sis by com­bin­ing sen­so­ry ethnog­ra­phy and street pho­tog­ra­phy to con­tex­tu­al­ize the peo­ple, places, and pol­i­tics in the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood. In doing so, we con­front­ed pop­u­lar dis­cours­es of pover­ty and the poor inner city to deliv­er a cri­tique of bad neigh­bour­hood and bad-deci­sion lines of think­ing. Ulti­mate­ly, the three of us hope that if Greg, Mar­ty, and Rox­anne, as pro­tag­o­nists of Hugh Gibson’s doc­u­men­tary film The Stairs, were to read this arti­cle, they would agree that we have avoid­ed fetishiz­ing peo­ple and their lives’ cir­cum­stances in favour of hold­ing up for analy­sis and debate the social pro­duc­tion, orga­ni­za­tion, and coor­di­na­tion of that which goes right and wrong in the Dundas/Sherbourne neigh­bour­hood that they know so well.

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We are grate­ful to Pro­fes­sor Nao­mi McPher­son of the Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia Okana­gan who pro­vid­ed valu­able com­ments on drafts of this arti­cle. We thank two anony­mous peer review­ers for their par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful feed­back. We are also thank­ful to Joyce, Mar­ty, Mon­i­ca and oth­er Street Health staff who received us on that damp day in 2017.