The Asylum Grounds

A Debate
by S.J. Russell, February 14, 2003

Asylum: institution for the afflicted, esp. insane persons; refuge; sanctuary.- Oxford Dictionary

These almost unbelievably contradictory definitions stir one's anger. How preposterous that an asylum should carry any good connotations, so obviously has the good will been exhausted. Those who run asylums know this. Their reflex is to de-asylum everything, to remove any trace of asylum from the business of treating mental patients. Sure in Toronto the original 1850 asylum was demolished in 1975, the institution well-disgraced by then. It is now even the idea of asylum that must fall. The idea of asylum must pay for its sins and others. Mostly others. Patients who need asylum will no longer be accommodated. They are out of date. Do not come to the practitioners seeking asylum, refuge or sanctuary. That day is done.
             At 1001 Queen Street we still see traces of asylum, of refuge and of sanctuary in the form of the final swath of historic asylum grounds --a decent-sized downtown park-- and the remnants of an enfolding wall, inherited by the institution that survived the asylum's demolition. These hospital holdings now face redevelopment, the trees are to be cut down by the dozens, a major road will bisect the zone and the grounds are to be sectioned into the urban grid. The prescription for this site is the same prescription that the patients must face: asylum is over, the city has arrived, and you can, will, MUST cope with the full-throttle. There will be no physical margin of error for you. Stay on the sidewalk. You can expect from the invading community all the support they've traditionally shown you.
             There is talk in this plan of breaking down barriers between the mentally ill and the rest of society. It strangely echoes the "old fashioned" notions that the insane needed fresh air and trees to bring them inner calm. The new version of that being the insane need the rational street grid and productive citizenry outside their window in order to become rational and productive. Neither vision rings quite true. The main difference that I can see is that the "old fashioned" vision brought the creation of a park, and the new vision brings the destruction of that park. I have new respect for the "old ways".
             And how strange a turn for the institution. The real world has been making some small progress to accommodate needs of the mentally ill. A mesh of rods is being strung across the city's premier suicide magnet the landmark Prince Edward Viaduct. It doesn't pretend to cure illness but a barrier makes the physical environment more forgiving.
             So let's have barriers where they are needed. Let's provide asylum if it is needed. Let's not be dogmatic. Reintegration? Of course -- when and if it's possible -- let's do it flexibly and safely, gradually if necessary, from within a building within a park within a city

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