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The Gentry and Their Flames

Some Preliminary Notes on the George Street Fires

by Some Residents of George Street

The Gentry and Their Flames

We are writing this as residents of George Street, in Toronto’s Downtown East End, specifically the houses located at 311 and 303 George. 311 is next door to O'Neill House, which is itself next to Seaton House. 311 George is also located at the beginning of a stretch of abandoned buildings, which run down the east side of the street leading up to an alleyway adjacent to the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) apartment building at 291 George; 303 George is more-or-less in the middle of this span of unused buildings. 311 George has been a collective house for three years and several of its current tenants have lived there for over 18 months, whereas 303 has been a collective for 14 months. We consider George Street our home, and our neighbours, whether housed or homeless, our fellow community members. Starting just under a year ago, there have been a string of suspicious fires in the abandoned buildings along the east side of George, including, among others, several fires in the large house occupying 305-307 George, one at 309 George (which is attached to 311), and on the morning of Thursday, October 4, 301 George as well (which is attached to 303)

The fire at 301 George started at approximately 4:20 am and lasted until around 8:00 am, when firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze. 301 George was entirely destroyed by the fire and our friends and comrades at 303 George barely managed to escape as thick smoke poured in through the walls. We watched their house slowly burn. Damage is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of dollars, including smoke damage, water damage and a partially collapsed roof, to say nothing of the personal property lost. Four people living in a rented property at 299 George also lost their housing and belongings: the front windows were broken out and their home also suffered extensive smoke and water damage. Our friends managed to get out with, quite literally, the clothes on their backs. Since the fire, residents of 303 have been briefly allowed into the house, which enabled them to retrieve a few armfuls of whatever they could salvage. In short, our friends lost their home and most of what they own and, as residents of George Street, we have strong feelings about who is, ultimately, responsible.

Situated between Dundas Square on the west and Cabbagetown on the east, both of which have seen major restructuring projects in recent years that have displaced previous residents, the Garden District area [1] represents one of the last bastions of the Downtown East's history as a working class neighbourhood. In the 1850's, the Garden District was a relatively affluent area, dominated by the large houses and churches favoured by the city's elite. We can still see this legacy today, with houses built in the late 19th century and long fallen into disrepair punctuating the many rooming houses and apartment buildings that still house some of the city's poorest residents. But these abandoned properties, many of them perfectly capable of being renovated and housing people, are considered obstacles to the gentrification that has enveloped the surrounding area. Owing to both the derelict properties in the area and the high concentration of poor and homeless people, the gentrification that has already inextricably changed the character and demographics of bordering neighbourhoods, has, thus far, been largely unable to penetrate the Garden District, despite many proposals tabled by developers and the city over the past decades. One of the primary reasons for this has been the spectre of George Street.

George Street exists in a kind of development limbo. It contains both the School House shelter, a men's shelter that is one of the only facilities in the city that allow residents to drink alcohol, and the largest homeless shelter in the country, Seaton House. Built in 1959, Seaton House is a men's shelter that has been running near, at or over capacity for years. The proximity of a large population of homeless men, many of whom have substance abuse issues, has consistently been considered an obstacle to what salivating property owners euphemistically refer to as “redevelopment”. But, in recent years, adjacent neighbourhoods have undergone rapid transformation. Building on the trend established in nearby Regent Park, where large numbers of poor and homeless people have been displaced by recent waves of gentrification, condos are being built and planned on nearby streets; new businesses, catering to young condo dwellers with disposable income, have started popping up along Gerrard and Dundas; and increasingly heavy-handed policing has harassed and targeted the poor and homeless people in the area, largely constricting their presence to George Street itself. Despite these noxious developments, the northernmost section of George Street has remained largely ungentrified and the primary reason for this is Seaton House.

From the point of view of both the city and property developers, Seaton House represents an intractable problem. The city has, essentially, run Seaton House into the ground; it is often overcrowded, its services and facilities are inadequate, and the nominal good it does [2] is constantly under attack by right-wing, and even so-called "progressive" city officials and media. While many in council and the city’s bureaucracy would love to simply close Seaton House, the high concentration of poor, homeless and underhoused people in the Downtown East End necessitate a presence for shelter services. The city has been talking about "doing something" with Seaton House for decades, promising various redevelopment and revitalization schemes while alternately unable to decide on a proposal or funding. A current proposal, tabled in 2009 in partnership with a local landowner and architectural firm, involves tearing down the existing Seaton House building, establishing a smaller shelter nearby on George (thereby displacing a majority of Seaton House's clientele from even the inadequate services and shelter they currently have access to) and constructing “private market housing”, along with student rental properties and commercial buildings, across much of the street.

You can probably see where this is going: the vacant properties, the parking lot across the street, the TCHC building and the land our homes are on will all be worth millions of dollars when the redevelopment of Seaton House (whatever form it may take) is finally approved. George Street is one of the last “undeveloped” areas of the downtown core and any development proposal that is finally approved by the city will net property owners and development firms lucky enough to get in on the feeding frenzy a substantial return on their outlay. The current residents of George Street are thus stuck between a city that refuses to act on inadequate services for a large homeless population and property developers who gamble on when the city will finally approve a proposal that will ultimately displace the final obstacle to completely gentrifying the Garden District—namely its current residents. The city continues to shrug its shoulders and the property owners bide their time, sitting on decaying buildings valued solely for their location, waiting to sell and rake in profits, all in the midst of a protracted affordable housing crisis [3]. An indifferent, ineffectual and callous alphabet soup of city services; ravenous development speculators and their slumlord cronies; the vicious and underhanded cops who enforce their dictates while drawing six figure salaries: these are the real poverty pimps in our neighbourhood and, regardless of the specifics of each fire, their actions have ensured that our street will continue to burn.

Given the above context, it's not hard to see why there have been a series of fires on George Street this summer. Regardless of the ultimate cause of each individual blaze, whether an accident in a squatted building or a landlord hiring an arsonist to burn out properties because it proves cheaper than renovating [4], the blame needs to be placed at the complicated intersection of property speculation and the stagnation of necessary city services. The people of George Street have been left in the middle and, on October 4th, it became apparent that this is more than a theoretical or sociological concern. It had, quite literally, become a matter of our lives and our well-being, as well as those of our neighbours and friends. So when we heard, quite by accident, about a meeting between Ward 27 city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, fire officials, police, landlords and "community representatives", we knew we had to attend.

We first heard about this meeting Thursday night, from the media covering the most recent fire. Unable to locate any publicly accessible information about this meeting, we eventually had to place a frantic call to a local television station's news desk in order to get a time and place: 9am, the next morning, at the TCHC building at 291 George. Over a dozen of us, including residents of George Street, members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and Common Cause, along with independent allies and neighbours, showed up for the meeting. Upon entry, we were immediately barred access to the meeting room. We asked what was being discussed at this meeting; we asked who the mysterious "community representatives" were. We were told we didn't need to know either, as it was a private meeting on private property. We were told someone from the councillor's office would speak with us afterward, to hear our concerns and update us on what is being planned for our neighbourhood. A large male police officer started shoving us out the door as the assembled experts watched in stony silence. Shouting and pushing ensued and, as we were forcibly evicted from the building, three cop cars and a van showed up, full of officers whose sole duty was to prevent us from re-entering the building.

By this point, media had shown up and we spent the better part of an hour showing them around the street and doing interviews. While this was happening, a resident of the Jenny Green Co-Op building across the street from 291 George came out and spoke with us, saying that invitations were distributed to the people in her building, with date, time, place and a message encouraging everyone to attend. We were stunned. While we still do not know who printed the invitations (which featured a picture of 301 burning), it seemed to us a strong indication that this meeting was initially to be public and that we were being deliberately excluded. We, the residents of 311 and 303, are not just residents of George Street; we are tenants of the block of buildings that have been aflame this summer. To us, it seemed unconscionable that people who had just lost their home in a fire should be excluded from a meeting discussing said fire with no explanation whatsoever. We were told, in no uncertain terms, we were not welcome; we were not even told what the meeting was about or who was attending, all while they discussed our community, our neighbours, our homes. A young woman from the area came out of the building, saying she had booked time to speak at this meeting in advance and that, because the meeting attendees claimed we had “caused a disruption”, her time to speak had been cut. This is, apparently, the level of “community representation” that those who would radically reshape our community think appropriate.

An hour or so later, councillor Wong-Tam slunk out of the building, wordless and escorted by a brace of cops. She got into a car with her assistant and drove off to a press scrum at City Hall. Needless to say, we followed. Also needless to say, we weren't invited.

We arrived at City Hall and set up outside Wong-Tam's office. A lot of the media that had already been covering the meeting on George Street were there and we continued to speak with them. After a few minutes of this, a representative from Kristyn's office came out and ushered the camera crews past the auto-locking glass doors into the councillor's office area. We demanded to be let in too; of course, we were refused. We were then told that either the councillor herself or a rep from her office would address us after the press conference. We waited patiently.

And waited. And waited some more, still with no word from reception as to when we would be heard. The press came back out of the locked area and resumed talking with us, saying councillor Wong-Tam was well aware we were out there and waiting to hear from her. Eventually, we approached the receptionist again, demanding someone speak with us. He called into the office and received the final word: councillor Wong-Tam and her staff were "too busy" today to speak with actual residents of the street who simply wanted some answers. We left City Hall, a peculiar mix of dejected, exhausted, furious and hopeful. We headed home, to 311, fully cognisant of the long fight we had ahead of us.

That evening, we crowded into a small room at 311 to watch streaming clips of councillor Wong-Tam discussing the preservation of heritage buildings with the same media who had earlier clucked their tongues and shook their heads as they filmed our story. We had given these parasites as much as we could, trying to explain the links between gentrification, city services, developers and the fires, and they had turned our anger into another sad story, another easy narrative denouncing such familiar villains as squatters, addicts and slumlords. Before our very eyes, we watched our loss and suffering become just another chip in the muddled and glacial game the city and its propertied hangers-on play with the lives of poor people.

As residents of George Street, we have often been inoculated from the reality of the everyday struggle happening, often literally, on our doorstep. Despite being friendly with our neighbours, whether housed or living on the streets, we never really had to grapple with the violence encroaching gentrification brings with it. There was always a comfortable distance, an ability to close the gate or lock the door, and ignore the desertification of our community. The fire has changed all that. People live and die as buildings sit empty. The experts, managers, councillors and developers see us as the walking equivalent of these boarded and hollow buildings: junk to be cleared away, piles of rubbish to be swept aside. We are all human debris to those with wealth and distance. But, as those of us who live on George Street know, new promise can spring from the ash-heaps: weeds expanding sidewalk cracks, trash-choked lots speckled with flowers. Similarly, new life, an intensification of our struggle, will spring from this disaster and we will see this battle through to the end.

This battle will not be won in courtrooms, council chambers, the media, or any of the other endorsed and accepted avenues of protest. It will happen on the street, where we live and make our homes. It will be fought as a community under attack, regardless of the divisions imposed on us by those who would sweep us aside. Our resolve is stronger than ever; a new rage has welled up inside us. Gentry beware: we have ceased fighting for our ideas and begun fighting for our lives.

Some Residents of George Street
October 6 2012


[1]  So-called because of its proximity to Allan Gardens, a large park that has long served as a meeting place and hub for the community

[2]  Seaton House is one of the few “wet shelters” in the city. It houses a managed alcohol consumption program that operates on harm reduction principles. With both the School House and Seaton House, George Street contains two of the only harm reduction oriented shelter programs in the city, leaving a dearth of options for many of the area's residents with substance abuse issues. Councillor Wong-Tam, keeping with her wider support of gentrification-friendly policies, is a staunch advocate of the closure of the School House.

[3]  In January 2012, the TCHC waiting list, a good metric of people looking for affordable housing, had jumped nearly 25% since 2008 and contained over 80,000 households

[4]  Given this, it is perhaps worth mentioning that the vast majority of the burnt houses discussed in this piece are all owned by a single person, specifically a notorious slumlord who has expressed frustration with the pace of redevelopment.

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Linchpin (Linchpin Newspaper)
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Linchpin is the newspaper of the Ontario anarchist organization Common Cause.

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Burying the lead

[On my keyboard it's Ctrl/Shift+V]

The lead for this story (I think) was buried in the last paragraph: "..the vast majority of the burnt houses discussed in this piece are all owned by a single person..."

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