On this week’s episode of Talking Radical Radio, I speak with Helen Lenskyj and Liisa Schofield. They are members of Queer Trans Community Defence, a group of queer and trans people in Toronto’s Downtown East neighbourhood organizing against a new LGBTQ-focused sports and recreation centre that they say contributes to the broader urgent threat that gentrification poses to their community.
Gentrification is a process of intervening in neighbourhoods in ways that (a) displace poor people (often disproportionately poor people of colour); (b) destroy poor communities (again, often but not always poor communities of colour); (c) remake those spaces for the benefit of people who are better off (and often whiter); and, (d) make people who are already rich a great deal of money.
How exactly the process plays out varies from place to place. Often, those who stand to profit from such destruction take great care to paint the changes that it involves as positive and beneficial. Sometimes, this is as simple as pointing to the great new things that gentrification might bring to a community, while leaving out how the presence of new business that existing residents can’t afford or services in which they are made to feel unwelcome is precisely a way in which people are made to feel like strangers in their own community. Sometimes, it is through framing existing residents as sources of danger — through framing them as “Other,” so they can be policed, regulated, and displaced accordingly, and so that destroying their community is itself seen as a benefit. But sometimes the process is eased by some sort of progressive veneer, some sense that the action being taken is a step towards some sort of progressive goal.
This is what the members of Queer Trans Community Defence argue is going on with plans by the City of Toronto to take the existing John Innes Community Centre in Moss Park in Toronto’s Downtown East neighbourhood and remake it into a shiny new sports and recreation facility. The new sports and rec centre is being pitched as…well, it was originally framed as “LGBTQ-focused,” though more recent communications from the city use the language of “inclusive.”
Downtown East is one of the poorest urban neighbourhoods in the country. Its residents include lots of poor people, lots of homeless people, and more than a few people struggling with addictions, living with mental illness, engaging in sex work, and so on. And it is under intense pressure from gentrification, with the neighbourhoods on all sides of it already well down that road.
Queer Trans Community Defence is a group of LGBTQ people, many of whom themselves live or work in the Downtown East, who are staunchly opposed to the new sports and rec centre. Given several decades of thriving LGBTQ-centric sports leagues in the city, they are skeptical that an entire new centre with that focus is necessary. More urgently, however, they argue that the specific redevelopment proposed in that specific location will just be one more piece of gentrifying the neighbourhood — a shiny new space in which existing poor and homeless residents (including those who are queer or trans) will not be welcomed, and which will contribute to displacing poor people (including those who are queer or trans), destroying their community, and remaking the Downtown East in the interests of developers.
Helen Lenskyj is a retired academic who has worked on issues of gender and sexuality in sport since the 1980s, and who has been an activist since the 1970s. Liisa Schofield has been involved in the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty for 13 years, doing work around welfare, disability benefits, housing, and homelessness in the Downtown East. They speak with me about their opposition to the new sports and rec centre and about the broader struggle against gentrification in Toronto.
To learn more about Queer Trans Community Defence, click here.
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show in general, visit its website here. You can learn about suggesting topics for future shows here.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.