Bloor West Villager
Arms outstretched, Parkdale-High Park Councillor Gord Perks points to an array of services and community investment that surround the corner of Queen Street West and Cowan Avenue in south Parkdale: The Masaryk Cowan Community Recreation Centre; the Parkdale library; the Parkdale Community Information Centre; the HOPE Garden; and a playground buzzing with children.
"This is why we aren't a priority neighbourhood," said Perks.
There is also the Kababayan Community Centre and a not-for-profit art gallery known as Gallery 1313, as well as the area business improvement office and an economic development group.
Parkdale has had its struggles with housing, drugs, poverty and health. The construction of the Gardiner Expressway cut wealthy residents off from the water and led to large Victorian homes being re-purposed as bachelorettes and rooming houses. That led to an influx of people with greater needs.
Subsequently, services were developed to respond to immigrants, adults living with disabilities and a larger single adult population.
Today, some refer to Parkdale as a model of community investment, developed at a grassroots level over time. It can stand as an example in Toronto, but it's at risk in an age of budget cuts and tightening of purse strings.
"The difference between a neighbourhood and a bunch of houses is people having the opportunity to dream together and work together to make those dreams come true," Perks said.
Parkdale was a "priority neighbourhood" before that designation existed, explained Victor Willis, the executive director of the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC), a social agency operating a drop-in centre in Parkdale for survivors of mental health ailments, the homeless, and people with disabilities.
"In the 1970s and '80s there were numerous investments at all levels of government, which helped to build a healthy community when it was acknowledged that this was actually a community in need," Willis said.
At the time there was a lack of access to services, social infrastructure and community space, but community groups, volunteers and all levels of government acknowledged that and helped to develop a vibrant and healthy community by making an investment, Willis explained.
"Those were the seeds for places like Parkdale Community Legal Service and the Parkdale Community Health Centre and the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre, the Parkdale Community Intercultural Centre," said Willis, who added PARC was started in 1980 with two people and a stove in south Parkdale.
From a grassroots point of view, groups got together, recognized there was a need and started to write grants and establish themselves.
"This is what you get when you make investments over time. You get a healthier and healthier community," Willis said.
"This is a model. It is not perfect, but it is going in the right direction and if we don't continue to support those investments and make sure that they continue to be here then we will start to see a negative impact on the health of this community."
This is a concern Perks shares. The loss of social and physical infrastructure makes for a weaker community fabric and a poorer quality of life, he said.
"Parkdale-High Park is probably the only neighbourhood in the city where we have people from right across the income spectrum living in the same neighbourhood," Perks said.
Already investment is weaning, Perks said. All programming in Masaryk Cowan Community Centre was free because the City of Toronto had identified it as a Priority Recreation Centre, which is defined as one where more than 30 per cent of the population is below the low-income cut off.
In the 2011 budget, free adult programming at priority centres was cut.
"The result is that so many people dropped out of the programs that those programs have been cancelled altogether," Perks explained.
Years ago, the Parkdale Intercultural Centre and Parkdale Project Read both began in the basement of the library.
Perks said usage is going up, but staffing continues to go down so the library isn't able to offer as many services.
"A lot of community agencies that continue today to provide great service happened because the library staff had extra capacity to support the development of that work," Perks said. "That extra capacity is shrinking."
Money for beautification projects is gone, including the one on Jameson Avenue, which features photos of community members on the planter boxes, Perks said.
"The little investments that improve public spaces are being frustrated because we have a government that is cutting spending all over the place," he said.
Parkdale is a vigorous and strong community and Perks said he has no doubt it will remain that way for some time, but it will take continued commitment from the community.
"If you don't have a local investment strategy and people come to the city with great ideas and we tell them no, then people stop dreaming together and they stop working together and the neighbourhood becomes less of a neighbourhood."