Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Saidy's Garden

Elsaida Douglas went into the central plaza of Toronto’s Regent Park one morning and began to dig a garden. She had a shovel and a few plants and she set about turning up the soil on a small plot of ground in the otherwise concrete plaza. This simple act was both one of community building and defiance. It was also timely. Saidy’s act coalesced a pool of community energy that had been unfocused until then; she gave tongue and form to an emotional expression that had been vibrating throughout the community without voice. Her colleagues in the Dreamers came out to support her, and soon others joined them. Within a week, the 50’ x 50’ area had been transformed into a lush garden with flowers, shrubs and trees of all sorts. The Peace Garden came into being.

In fact, the Peace Garden had history that antedated Saidy’s act of creation. Regent Park was on the verge of a thorough renovation – Re-Vitalization, it was being called. Canada’s oldest, and largest, public housing developments was entering a new phase. Regent originally came about in the 50’s in response to a call for urban renewal. It replaced a community of shanties and tenements that housed the working and unemployed poor in the post-war years. It brought then modern concepts of high-rise, urban villages into practice, creating a community cut off from the surrounding city in key ways. There were no thru-streets in the original project of twenty-some acres, keeping it apart from the grid of city streets and the traffic that they carry. When the development reached its full 66 acres, only Dundas Street, a busy, main thoroughfare, bisected it, creating an unintended sense of north versus south that endured the following decades.
There were also no grocery stores, banks, or phone booths to serve the roughly ten thousand inhabitants, nor a high school. This meant that, while residents were forced out of the community to meet basic needs, there was little to draw people into it’s borders, reinforcing Regent’s identity as a place apart. This car-less nature of the community was advantageous in some ways. Notably, it created family friendly areas where mothers could congregate and allow their children to run and play. But there was also the unintended consequence that it made policing more difficult. Various corners of Regent became ideal for drug transactions, and as loitering spots for the youth who turned to “the game” for economic survival and street culture status.

Elsaida’s garden was a Peace Garden for a reason. She herseIf had lost her son to the violence of game. And as had formed the Dreamers as a collective with other mothers who’d endured this loss. The name, “Dreamers”, was not only an expression of the group’s hopes for a better future for the community. It also honored Saidy’s gift or seeing and being inspired via her dreams. She’s been forewarned of her son’s death via a dream, and first glimpsed the reality of her garden through another. This lovingly cultivated plot of land was meant as a memorial to the many community youth who lost their lives as a consequence of this game, and through other forms of violence.
The Peace Garden was one in a series of responses that Regent Park has made to its various challenges. Other responses include the creation of one of the first Community Health Centres, the formation of a wide variety of small non-profits and resident groups, to promote culture, serve children, youth and the elderly, and to address issues like newcomer adjustment to life in Canada. It was Regent Park, via the Health Centre, that gave rise to Pathways to Education, a tremendously successful, multi-pronged approach to decreasing drop-out rates, improving academic achievement, and getting more youth into universities and colleges. And Pathways is now being adopted by communities across Canada, standing now as one of Regent Park’s main contributions to the rest of the world.

By the time of Saidy’s act, the community had been lobbying for more than two decades for an overhaul of Regent, to upgrade it’s crumbling infrastructure, and to link it back into the web of city streets, in the manner that Jane Jacobs, Toronto’s guru of community design would’ve advocated. What resulted was a three year process of planning and consultations that finally initiated a complete rebuilding of Regent Park – one that is to be so thorough that there are fears as to whether the identity, cohesion and activism of the former community will survive.
Last night, I did something I used to do almost daily, but hadn’t in a few years - I took a good long walk through Regent Park, to see what was new and changed. I went into the new CRC building, where a community dinner was going on, provided by other neighborhood churches on a rotating basis. I stopped by the new Aquatic Centre, just opened a couple of weeks ago, a replacement for the old, outdoor pool that was closed two years ago. I made my way to the Daniel’s Spectrum, a long dreamed of Culture & Art Centre that seemed impossibly far from realization when groups lobbied for it in community meetings five years ago. That building in now the home of various groups that previously occupied basements and converted residential units in the old high-rises: the ArtHeart arts program for kids, the Regent Park School of Music, The Regent Park Film Festival, and other groups from around the City that have joined forces for the revitalization of Toronto’s urban core, like the Centre for Social Innovation and Artscape.

What I found missing on my walking tour however, is Elsaida Douglas’s Peace Garden. I was shocked to learn from passing residents that the garden was removed when a through street had to be created. I asked in vain for news about it being moved, or perhaps awaiting its own revitalization in the new park that’s to be developed next to the aquatic centre. No one could tell me anything. That made me wonder about Saidy. Where is she these days. I can’t imagine her allowing the bulldozing of her park without a fierce fight. Her original act of creation and defiance – on that day when she created her garden with a shovel and a dream – came in the face of Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s intransigence, as she and others demanded certain features in the new Regent Park. I was reminded, during that night of my walk, that creative tensions aren’t always apparent on the surface; the signs we see don’t always tell the full story.
As I walked through the Daniel’s Spectrum, however, which is vibrantly alive with art, I came upon a painting of The Peace Garden. It’s a beautiful work, by David Louis Wall. I was so glad to see that. So many signs of the old Regent – both good and bad – have vanished or are vanishing. Most of the people I happened upon and spoke with last night are new to Regent. They weren’t familiar with the old community spaces and buildings, pools and schools. But seeing Wall’s painting gave me a shot of excitement and hope. Something of the old Regent remains under this glimmering facade of the new. What’s ahead isn’t clear. But, from my way of looking at things...that’s a good thing. It reminds me that, on any given morning, an Elsaida Douglas, a private citizen, struggling and surviving the challenges of their own life, can step out into the public sphere, and surprise us.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Thoughts at Campaign's End

It’s come down to this. In just a few hours, polls will open for the final day of this long election campaign. By sometime tomorrow night, or late the following morning, we’ll know who has prevailed and will lead the US government for the next four years.

I’ve been making calls the last few days, logging into the Democrats Abroad website, and dialing households in Ohio, Colorado, Iowa and Nevada. These are four of the dozen or so “swing states” which, by virtue of being toss-ups, will determine the outcome, or so the pundits believe. Eighty to ninety percent of my calls go directly to voice mail, and I leave brief messages encouraging them to vote, and to contact the campaign if they have difficulty. And, I generally add a couple of sentences about why I’m volunteering: because Obama is growing the economy in a way that will benefit all citizens, I say, not just those who are the most prosperous. Or I say that I’m a social worker, and I recognize that what are dismissed as entitlements are investments in human beings who, as their lives improve, improve our country. Or something else along those lines.

Even when I get a live person, most of the calls are concluded without me making it more than a question or two into my script. These poor citizens have been inundated by calls, and I’m of two minds about calling them – knowing how annoyed and put off I would be were I on the receiving end. And yet, my own anxiety about tomorrow’s outcome is severe enough that I feel I have to take a part, do what I can to support the cause. And those I manage to speak to seem sympathetic, for the most part, and maneuver politely out of conversing with me.

I sound to myself like one of those political spots, like one of the sound bites that come rapid fire out of the television at every commercial break, alerting me when I’ve landed on an American as opposed to a Canadian station. Wearysome, grating, annoying is what they are – even those for my guy, because I’d like to think that our side doesn’t need to resort to such tactics.

But...such is life in America these days. Or, better yet...such is life as a human being. Because it’s true that we respond to poking and prodding, to come-ons and guilt trips, to bribes and to having our buttons pushed. I learned that when I was an encyclopaedia salesman. It isn’t so much that people are manipulated into liking what we don’t like, or into doing what we don’t want to do. It’s that we respond to encouragement to do what we think we ought to do, and to like what we ought to like, but don’t find convenient or easy or worth the cost.

I get how hard politics is. I get that it’s so much about getting us to feel better about what isn’t easy or what costs too much. I get that it’s sometimes about prettying up some ugly choices, and about uglying down the choices the other side wants you to make. And I sincerely wish that it were more workable to talk politics in a different way. Of course, that can be done, if winning, if achieving the desired end is not paramount. I sometimes spoke to my encyclopaedia clients as though it didn’t matter if I got the sale or not. And, truth be told, I rarely got those sales, unless the buyer had negotiated all their questions and doubts and fears of a bad deal before sitting down with me. You learn quickly in sales that when you let people drift away to “think about it”, it’s a sale you’ll never see. They may buy, but it’ll be the next guy, or next year, or never.

Yes, it’s a bit cynical. But when it comes to this political game, it’s more real than any set of books anyone will ever buy. And the buying time is now. No longer time for folks to “think about it”. It’s act now, or forever hold your peace.

On the other hand, it’s estimated that thirty to forty percent of voters will have already cast their ballots before tomorrow dawns. This is no longer a 1-day event. Election Day itself becomes more and more symbolic and ritualistic. People have been voting for weeks already.

I voted three days ago, doing so electronically for the first time. I completed my ballot on-line, then sent it back to Washington State by email. I haven’t set foot in Washington State for almost 20 years, but for voting purposes, my address is still 1600 S. Massachusetts, in Seattle, a fitting address for the occasion.

I intended to use this post to lay out my most compelling reasons for supporting Obama. But I don’t really have the patience or inclination to do that. Instead I’ll give my strongest non-reason, which is how bizarre this all looks from beyond the borders of the US. Gallup did a poll awhile back, asking nationals of several other countries whom they’d like to see win this race. The results were overwhelmingly for Obama. And I see this reflected is most of the conversations I have with non-Americans about the state of US politics. To them, it’s like a bizarre and severely dated sideshow.

It strikes most non-Americans I encounter as extremely backward that, after being the sole developed country without any kind of national health care system for so long, that it was fought against so vehemently and hysterically, and that repealing it is a core position of a candidate that could actually win. It strikes many as absurd that religious fundamentalism has become so enmeshed in politics that it dictates what candidates can and cannot say, and that it has contributed so enormously to an anti-scientific mind set that stubbornly scoffs at climate change and even at evolution. And, most take it as extremely unfortunate, if not insulting, that the US seems to care little about the values, interests and opinions of the rest of humanity (except Israel). And finally, in a country once so proudly egalitarian in principle, how odd that so many working class Americans are more committed to supporting the interests of the wealthy, than the interests of the poor.

Happy Election Day to All of us, America!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Brishti - Hindi for Rain

     A friend and colleague welcomed a daughter into the world, barely two weeks ago. He and his wife gave her the name Brishti, then watched over the last little while, as rain swept through this part of the world in unprecedented quantities, bringing, along with its usual offerings, a new degree of awe at what nature can make of such common, simple elements as...rain.
          I said to my friend what I often say to new parents - and mean, to the depths of my heart - that they've performed the ultimate act, one of potentially unlimited beauty and good, and that they will never surpass it. I also expressed my envy. It's not a bitter envy, but it's envy nevertheless. Because I have no children, nor any hope that that will change. I used to dream, and believe, that I'd have many children. And that forward-looking hope still stands as a solid and tangible joy in the arc of my life, which, like all real joys, lingers in my soul even now, long after hope itself has faded, and its fading has been accepted. I remain a joyous father-to-be at heart. And I'm glad to say that it yet informs my walk through life, my work and all my other creative aspirations.
     I believe it's true that sometimes the lack of something enhances what we see and value in it. Me, I notice children, and I marvel at the ways and means of their growing into whatever they will become. My work has long been with children who are at the very outer reaches of that state - that is, with what we now call adolescents, and young adults. No, they aren't really children anymore. But it's so true, all that's said and written about the importance of those early years, about the child making the man or woman, about those first years being the formative ones, the molding of which we are never entirely free of. We never completely outgrow the child, do we?
     Increasingly, as I near the age of sixty, I see the child who lingers in those around me, and in myself. And I notice that the awareness of that child makes everyone more beautiful....
     And so, Brishti - Hindi for rain. Welcome to the world, and to all its forces that will shape and intermingle with you. Welcome to a future that each and every day will bring you something new. Welcome to Living! And may you never grow too fast.