April 2, 2005
The church may have never before been host to three hours of almost uninterrupted jeers, sneers, and self-righteous invective, much of it directed at people unwelcome in the neighbourhood. This was not a Christian fundamentalist gathering of homophobes and racists. This was not Alabama or some northern Canadian backwater from some pre-enlightened era. This was Toronto’s Annex, one of the city’s wealthiest and trendiest districts, and the hate-filled gathering was organized for one purpose: To help decide whether a private boy’s school located in the neighbourhood, a choir school called Royal St. Georges College, should be allowed renovations, chiefly to build a gym on a portion of its parking lot.
First let me disclose my many conflicts of interest. I live near the school and on warm spring and fall days, when the school keeps its windows open, I am cheered by the sounds of the boys’ choir that sometimes escape to the outdoors. My daughters learned to ride their bicycles in the school’s parking lot and I throw balls for my dog there. I have several friends in the neighbourhood, and also friends outside it, in areas both modest and affluent, who send their sons to the school.
Most neighbours with whom I’ve discussed the school consider it an excellent neighbour. These neighbours are all pleased by a past addition and other improvements that the school has made to the grounds and are generally receptive, if not positively supportive, of the school’s proposal to replace some asphalt with a brick building very much in the style of neighbouring houses. The school, if nothing else, is a source of gentility in Toronto’s downtown, its students remarkably well behaved; its staff always courteous, always welcoming neighbourhood use of its grounds; its landscaping a visual amenity to the neighbourhood.
Little of the good will that Royal St. Georges has earned in the neighbourhood was evident earlier this week in the church, at a public meeting organized by Toronto’s planning department and dominated by Neighbours of St. Albans Park, an abrasive group of community activists. NOSAP has evidently made an impression among residents, succeeding to convince large numbers of them into opposition on the basis of doctored documents and unfounded claims. This group has also made an impression on Olivia Chow, wife of NDP leader Jack Layton and the Annex’s local councillor, who hosted the community meeting and abetted the gathering’s boorish behaviour. And it has made an impression on me: It has demonstrated how otherwise decent folk, when placed in a group setting and incited, can descend into baseness. The bullies here are all outside the schoolyard.
The meeting’s stated purpose was to provide the school with an opportunity to present its plans to the community. No sooner had the school’s representative, an urban planner at a prominent firm, begun her presentation than Ms. Chow interrupted her to tell her that time was short, and that she’d have to limit her presentation to about 20 minutes, or about half the time that the city had told her she could have. A few minutes later Ms. Chow repeated her demand to encourage the planner to wrap up her presentation. Ms. Chow showed no such concern for time when opponents of the school seized the microphone.
Ten minutes went to a community activist from another neighbourhood who went on at length about how no developer can be trusted, but had nothing specific to say about the Royal St. Georges proposal. Another 10 minutes or so went to a 19-year-old who waxed eloquent over the many years of rollerblading and ball hockey that he had enjoyed in the schoolyard, and concluded that the school had no right to deny others that pleasure by placing a building on its parking lot. Another seven minutes went to a woman who berated the school for placing an “idle-free zone” sign on the entrance to its property, seeing in this action a cynical desire to limit vehicular pollution that could affect its students while not caring about vehicles that might idle off the school property.
And throughout, insults punctuated the meeting. Some blustered that private schools don’t belong in the Annex. Some mocked the school’s representative for being a “private planner,” with the emphasis on “private,” as if she were scum for working in the private sector. The school’s students were insulted and characterized as “sons of the privileged,” their parents reviled for their wealth, for driving SUVs, for being suburbanites, for having values abhorrent to those in the Annex.
As the evening progressed, it seemed, many became emboldened and joined the pack, cheering on those who heaped abuse, no matter how inane. Those who had come to speak favourably of the project, meanwhile, backed off, fearing recriminations and for good reasons. Even those who made small concessions to the school in speaking against the proposal drew criticism for sending mixed messages. Only one person dared to publicly defy the school’s opponents, an 11-year-old girl who spoke twice to defend the school and counter accusations made against the behaviour of the boys.
After the meeting, those who remained silent reflected on their neighbours’ ugly side. One wondered at the audacity of residents living in million dollar homes and driving expensive cars – a Hummer among them – criticizing others for their wealth. Another wondered how the property would be redeveloped if the opponents succeeded in forcing the school to leave – would residents prefer the condominium or apartment building complex that might otherwise be the site’s fate? Others still likened the participants to “a mob” and “a rabble of fools.”
The Annex is not representative of most communities and not even of Toronto. Thought to have Canada’s highest concentration of academics, writers, artists and others who tend toward the politically correct, residents here often joke about the need to conform to the Annex Thought Police. Certainly the Annex is a less tolerant, more bigoted community than many.
But whatever the district, we need a more civil way to make simple building decisions than the coercive, politicized method now in place, which gives those with petty grievances power out of all proportion to their number. The most strident opponents of the school, for example, want it out of the neighbourhood on grounds of class warfare, yet a large majority in the Annex would want it to remain. In contrast, other neighbourhood opponents have resolvable concerns – over parking, over the school’s enrolment, over architectural features – that could easily be resolved by negotiation among the parties. This is what happened before the era of public participation, when peer pressure and agreements among neighbours – not government coercion – were more the rule. It was a more civil time, in a more civilized society.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute; www.urban.probeinternational.org.