I’ve been writing about standardization in community ESL programs. I realize that this can be quite an emotional issue for me, so I’ve decided to back off a little. I think I can get more clarity if I focus on a situation that has many parallels to Overland’s, but one where I have no personal involvement.
If you grew up in west of centre Toronto, you are probably familiar with Dufferin Mall. If you didn’t, you’re unlikely to have any real reason to go there now. When I first moved back to Toronto in the early 90s, It was a nondescript shopping centre in the inner suburbs. There was a certain drab sameness to its retail outlets; also one was more likely to be the victim of a crime when shopping there than at other Toronto malls.
There was a feeling that change was needed, and the mall was re-worked. Rather than gentrifying it with upmarket stores, the management brought in a few businesses that were more attractive but at relatively low pricepoints; more importantly, they brought in public services, locating literacy and social work programs right in the concourse of the mall. It is considered a an urban planning success.
Across from the mall is Dufferin Grove Park, This peaceful wooded area had previously provided a venue for the exchange of recreational drugs, but when the mall was revamped, a similar process took place in the park. The residents banded together to make it a space that could benefit the whole community. Communal vegetable gardens, an ice rink with a skate exchange, family events, the first Toronto pumpkin parade: involvement made it possible to achieve change at a very low material cost.
The park escaped official notice for a while, but eventually Toronto City Parks caught up with it. They began to ask questions about liability (Did the rink supervisors have proper credentials?) and fairness (Why should Dufferin residents enjoy these benefits when people of other high needs neighbourhoods did not?; Why were the park staff not drawn from the pool of unionized City workers?). The community argued back, stressing the importance of staffing the facilities with volunteers who had a stake in the community. There was also the fact that many of the DG projects (communal bread ovens, compostable toilets) would not have succeeded in a different neighbourhood.
Now DG Park is part of the Toronto circuit, a popular space for farmers markets and other city events. However, there is a sense that something has been lost. The Friends of Dufferin Grove website reveals a legacy of bitter disputes; interspersed with these articles are baleful quotes on totalitarianism from the likes of Hannah Arendt. In a sense, the space no longer belongs to the community, but rather to Toronto as a whole.
But the question remains.** How close does a community have to be to create a meaningful communal experience? How do we prevent that closeness from becoming insular and elitist? Beautiful things are achieved when a community works together informally, but at the same time, we cannot discount the rules that enshrine fairness, efficiency and safety. Is it inevitable that these rules will extinguish the spark of originality that can arise from spontaneous collaboration?
At some point in the 1980s, a catchy slogan started to appear on T-shirts; “Think globally; act locally.”*** The words seemed at once revolutionary and intuitive, and many of us internalized them. However, we never really stopped to examine the implicit corollary: that there was some kind of continuum between our local actions and global effects, that our small personal good deeds would naturally radiate outwards to embrace a wider community. What if this does not happen? What happens when our local actions stay just that — local?
*I’m also putting off writing about my next Overland topic: the role of the Union. I’m scared that my family will disinherit me after they read that one.
** A similar issue arises regarding fundraising for elementary schools. However, some family members were on the other side of the fence on that one.
*** Here’s a new and sexy iteration.