NIMBY – hear the middle-class roar

They came with their hairy dogs, determined looks on their faces and helmeted children scootering ahead of the adults holding picket signs. The people of the Beach and Birchcliffe had come to protect the Quarry.

A former dump, at one point, the Quarry is roughly 50 undeveloped acres southeast of the Main subway station. Environmentalists sing the praises of the wildlife. However, the area was zoned in the 1960s for highrise development, and the developers are exercising their legal rights. So, the community was out to defend it.

I happened on the protest by chance, with a friend. We had to stop. The banners said “Save our neighbourhood” and “1960s planning is bad planning.”

The proposed 7 twenty-story buildings would provide 1,455 units of housing, at a density 7 times what the surrounding area is now with its detached, single-family homes.

“Affordable housing!” I whooped. No one took up the call.

It’s hard to know what to think about these kind of events.

People were rising to the defense of the community, but against whom? The developer. Yes, probably. The newcomers (interlopers) – new renters or condo buyers.  Perhaps some of them.

It was easy to see what we were against, but what were we fighting for? About every person here probably has a different reason, my wiser friend explained.

It reminded me of other protests I’ve seen. The outrage against the possible arrival of big box store in South Riverdale pitched local residents against each other, often split along ethnic and income lines. The Salvation Army and Seaton House faced fierce community meetings when they moved to house homeless men in other neighbourhoods, even if only temporarily such as on Pape Avenue. (The Sally Ann, bless its soul, has a webpage on the topic of NIMBY-ism.)

These debates too often deteriorate into a debate about who is moving in, or they erupt, under a more politically correct guise, such as “Social services should not be concentrated here. We have our fair share already.”

Another recent example close to home was the call from near-by residents to have Felstead park’s playground equipment upgraded – something already on the schedule, but not soon enough for their liking. They too used the blind that as a mixed income neighbourhood, they had been ignored to the benefit of richer neighbourhoods near-by. However, as a gentrifying neighbourhood, the press was on.

Or more recently, neighbours to the south of here, feeling protective of their “own,” confronted members of a church congregation for bringing their faith to the streets, unfortunately by a fire hydrant where a gay couple live. This well-meaning crowd ended up as a “Was my face red…” front-page story in the Toronto Star.

Within the past year, another of my neighbours closed down his family restaurant when he heard an apartment building next door to him was being built to provide supportive housing to people with mental health problems. More plain in his prejudices, he refused to stay near “crazy” people.

Examples from other parts of the city include the conversion of the “Entertainment District” to a residential area and almost any neighbourhood where condos have been built close to a slaughterhouse or other industrial area. If the City of Toronto mapped out where building orders occur, they are in concentrated in the areas with higher and mixed-incomes – the gentrified and the gentrifying areas of the city.

What under lies all these is fear. People don’t want to lose what they have. When people (re-)act from a fearful place, any larger vision gets lost.

But the reality that the neighbourhoods with the highest complaints are not the places with the most problems, but rather places with the most privilege. These are the neighbourhoods where the “sharp elbows of the middle class” claim the resources seen to be due to them.

Flawed as the Priority Neighbourhood Areas were, what they did do effectively was to re-focus resources away from the noisiest, squeakiest parts of the city, to areas that hadn’t had any attention for a very long time. This leveling of the playing field probably led to some of the strongest critiques of the mayor, David Miller, that he had let things slide in the areas where, frankly, people are more likely to vote.

Instead, the Strong Neighbourhood strategy has evened some things out. The new Community Partnership Strategy is also building an evidence base so that neighbourhood comparisons can be done more accurately.

These strategies show we are a more generous city than these other NIMBY stories tell about us. When given a chance, we can dream of a common good.

But, until we Torontonians see our backyard as the entire city, inequality will continue to split neighbourhoods, into “good” and “bad’ places to live, into places where we fight each other.

The Citizens’s Handbook, now the Troublemaker’s Teaparty.

NIMBY can be countered with inclusive zoning, Naheed Nenshi, Calgary, 2008

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