The Asylum Grounds

by Gene Threndyle October 2001

It's no mystery why the arts community in downtown Toronto has taken a last stand in the vicinity of the mental hospital on Queen West. It's about rent. Further east Queen Street was main street for bohemians in this city in the seventies and eighties. As the rents went up the artists went west. No one's expecting FTV to do a street style shot anytime soon from the corner of Ossington and Queen but if the management at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has its way, that intersection will resemble Queen and John by the end of the decade.
             Someone with a taste for community meetings can keep themselves busy at least two nights a week in Toronto. The whole process of public consultation has become a mini-industry complete with jargon like 'stakeholders' and 'clients' and 'linkage' and 'renewed focus'. Finally, if you're like most people you need more than a taste, you need a strong constitution and a cast iron stomach.
             After going to a years worth of Power Point presentations, styrofoam models and otherwise dreary circus productions on the proposed changes to Queen Street mental hospital site, I feel like I may change my own status from stakeholder to client. As a neighbour, I have been offered cookies and juice, sandwiches and fruit in an effort to draw out my concerns and opinions. This is not so that they can be addressed but so that they can be spun like straw into gold.
             At one of the first meetings that I went to, a company called Urban Strategists or Strategies who have been hired to mastermind this change did a description of the neighbourhood as it exists now. The nice man talked about many things but never once mentioned the visual arts or any arts. I pointed this out and suggested that if they were successful in their ambitions they would drive the arts community further west into Parkdale. That maybe inevitable anyway but Queen and Ossington is low rent not because of the stigma of the Mental Health Centre so much as the fact that crazy people don't have a whole lot of money, generally speaking. Even now the empty store fronts are becoming restaurants and galleries sending up rents and re-sale value as new people move in.
             None-the-less, one of the driving forces behind this re-development is the removal of the 'stigma' of mental illness. To do this they are going to extend Ossington Street, Adelaide Street and two other streets through the site. Much of the green space will be lost and they would like to remove the wall along Shaw Street. They want to include a grocery store and a coffee shop, an art gallery, townhouses, underground parking and oh yeah, a medium security jail. That's there now and it's getting bigger.
             They want to do all of this within 10 years and they are willing to consult. The more public input the better since it's much easier to spin 500 separate voices that 50 united voices. If you can make development and land speculation seem like neighbourhood improvement all the better. Who cares about trees and green space when you can remove the stigma of mental illness.
             The wall along Shaw was originally further east and enclosed inmates of the asylum and the fields that they worked. Previously to this the insane had been kept shackled and in jail on Yonge Street. The asylum was an improvement, a place of relative safety and refuge. That wall kept out the rigidity and meanness of Victorian Toronto and gave some freedom to the mentally ill before the age of medication.
             When the fields were sold off in the last half of the 19th century, the patients were made to take it apart and rebuild it brick by brick where it stands presently. If that wall is a reminder of something nasty in our collective mind perhaps we shouldn't be so willing to wipe it out and forget it. That wall is a monument to generations of people misunderstood, locked away and conveniently forgotten. That wall does not mark their grave, but it marks their lives.
             The Queen Street Campus should be improved but by not seeing the importance of the things that exist there now like the green space and the wall, we commit the same error as previous generations. Although the land is not being sold, the last of the land is being taken. The existing buildings that replaced John Howard's domed asylum were meant to remove this same stigma as was the removal of the wall along Queen Street. That didn't and it's a safe bet that this won't either.
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