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Unsung Heroes of the Third City

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

2011 will be remembered as the year when inequality moved from the margins to the mainstream of public discourse. No longer just the purview of anti-poverty activists, progressive economists and the political left, this year figures as unlikely as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney felt pushed to publicly acknowledge the widening gap between the rich and the rest, or as the Occupy movement has put it: the 1 per cent and the 99.

In Ontario, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, the growth of precarious employment, the dismantling of the social safety net, and the weakening of a trade union movement that once was a strong force for a more egalitarian society have allowed inequality and poverty to grow relatively unchecked for close to three decades. The idea that free markets and globalization deliver prosperity for all has been thoroughly debunked by the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Prosperity has been concentrated in the hands of too few at the expense of too many.

And as report after report has concluded, our city has not been immune from these socio-economic trends. As researchers at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre have documented, over the last 30 years Toronto has become a greatly unequal place, segregated by income into three distinct cities:

City #1 consists of the richer and whiter downtown core and the well-heeled neighbourhoods that abut the city’s subway lines.

Toronto’s middle-income neighbourhoods make up City #2, shrinking in size as we become a more socially and economically polarized metropolis. The number of high-poverty neighbourhoods in Toronto has more than quadrupled since 1980.

City #3 — or the Third City — is made up of Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, with their high concentrations of racialized poverty. Generally found in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, incomes in these “inner” suburbs have declined 20 per cent or more since 1970.

While we have become accustomed to thinking of Toronto’s Third City geographically, as particular areas and neighbourhoods, the Third City can also be understood as an urban condition: a set of experiences that together amount to exclusion from the full political, economic and cultural life of our city. For instance, living in the Third City means not having enough money to take your children to the zoo or museum; it is having to choose between feeding the kids and paying the rent; it is commuting two hours to work on inadequate public transit; it is being denied a job because of your accent, the colour of your skin, or your postal code; it is being charged exorbitant interest rates by payday lenders; it is being denied access to channels of political influence for lack of resources and excluded from civic debates.

Cuts to public transit, child care, recreation centres, libraries and community grants stand to exacerbate this exclusion. People living on low incomes cannot afford to purchase equivalent goods and services on the market — things like private child care or nursery school, owning and operating a car, fitness club memberships or summer camps for kids.

No Toronto neighbourhood has become more associated with the Third City than Jane-Finch. But behind the negative media headlines and dire poverty statistics, there are people working hard to stitch together a social fabric torn by decades of rising poverty and inequality. They are the unsung heroes of the Third City, the people and organizations we hear little about.

Women like Stephanie Payne, the indefatigable matriarch of Jane-Finch who heads up the San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA). The association’s work has led to the renewal of an apartment complex long stigmatized for its association with crime and poor living conditions. Payne and the staff at the SRRA provide programs for isolated seniors, recreation for community youth, and gang-prevention initiatives.

While she is haunted by the deaths of too many of the community’s young men, Payne carries on her work emboldened by positive results as reports find crime in the complex has declined and residents’ quality of life has improved. “This is a dynamic community and people come together when good things are happening,” Payne reflects. “But when I look at the budgets and see this program and that program have to be discontinued, I think what am I going to do with the youngsters out there, are they going to be back on the corner? If they don’t have our supports, they will be back out there. That’s what I worry about.”

Organizations such as Lost Lyrics face the same uncertainty. Lost Lyrics is an alternative education program that uses hip hop culture to reach students who struggle in the mainstream education system and are often labelled as having behavioural issues. Working out of a Jane-Finch community centre, the organization has successfully bridged the streets and the classroom, empowering young people to change their lives and critically engage the world around them. But as Lost Lyrics co-founder Amanda Parris puts it: “under this mayor, our access to resources is steadily shrinking. Our programs are in a precarious position and our capacity to sustain them is riddled with question marks.”

Christopher Penrose runs another highly successful Jane-Finch program, Success Beyond Limits, which provides summer programs, peer tutoring, and co-op opportunities for local youth. He has seen the city’s budget plans and warns: “As things are right now, pre-cuts, there’s not enough. Not enough for programming, to address all the issues our youth face. . . .

“We’ve been to funerals, we deal with youth who have lost people, we deal with young people who come to school hungry. We see the effects of poverty on a daily basis. It’s traumatic. Now we are being re-traumatized by politicians who negate our experiences, making decisions that are going to lead to more poverty, more hardship. It is more than just frustrating; it is hurtful to see the direction this city is going.”

Jade Lee Hoy, an outreach coordinator with community arts organization Manifesto, another Jane-Finch mainstay, echoes Penrose’s frustrations, “When you cut these programs, we are losing talent, opportunity and energies that could be vital to our city.” Lee Hoy notes that neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch are vibrant and resilient places with a strong sense of community despite the many challenges they face.

The likes of Payne, Parris, Lee Hoy and Penrose are people whose intelligence, drive and ingenuity could earn them the big bucks on Bay Street. But they don’t migrate to corporate Canada. Instead, they work daily to cobble together grant applications, counsel the vulnerable and uplift a community. They work to mitigate the effects of poverty and marginalization. And they do so with meagre budgets, little compensation, and an abiding frustration with governments’ lack of commitment to social justice and progressive change.

Of course they reap rewards as well: the joy experienced when a troubled youth turns their life around, the deep sense of fulfillment gained when mentees grow to become mentors, the satisfaction earned watching the transformation of those deemed “at-risk” into those understood by community, peers and parents alike to be empowered. They do this work out of love; love for their community and ultimately love for our city.

As philosopher Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” With cuts to city services and social programs looming on the political horizon, we are about to see just how much love our city has for neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch.

Published in The Toronto Star Dec 23 2011

Cities on High Alert

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Here’s my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star. They have a habit of changing my titles; this one was originally “The Age of Urban Unrest?”

Last week, New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg rang alarm bells when he said that high unemployment could lead to mass social unrest in cities across the United States.  “You have a lot of kids graduating college who can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here,” Bloomberg explained. The mayor was not alone in this assessment. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said as much back in 2008; “unemployment,” he declared, “represents a risk to the stability of existing democracies.”

Bloomberg’s warning came with his endorsement of President Obama’s new jobs creation bill. As a big city mayor, Bloomberg knows too well that the social problems associated with high unemployment, widening inequality, and economic stagnation are most acute in urban centres. Whereas Strauss-Kahn’s words proved prophetic, Bloomberg was learning from recent history.

Since the onset of the global economic crisis back in 2007-2008, cities have seen rising levels of violence and social unrest: riots and looting in the UK, intensified gang violence in major US cities, street clashes in Athens, flash robs in Philadelphia, mass protests in Madrid, ghetto dwellers and security forces facing off in Kingston, Jamaica, rival drug cartels engaged in shootouts in Juarez, Mexico; the list goes on. As many political observers have remarked, a driving force behind the Arab Spring – apart from an unquenched thirst for democracy – is unemployment, and in particular, extremely high levels of youth unemployment.

Non-governmental organizations have started making the connections as well. A recent report from the International Red Cross, entitled Urban Violence: War By Any Other Name observes, “Around the world, cities are experiencing an alarming increase in violence and its resulting misery…Chronic conflict makes daily life in some places almost like living in a war zone.”

And images of urban unrest not only flash nightly across our TV screens and occupy the pages of our newspapers, they also permeate our popular culture as never before: just watch recent science fiction films like Attack the Block, District 9, and Battle: Los Angeles. The city as a place of conflict and civil disorder is part of our cultural zeitgeist.

We have then, it appears, entered an age of urban unrest.

But London is not Philadelphia and Cairo not Kingston. From riots and looting, to mass protest, flash robs, and gang warfare, there are very different types of urban violence and social unrest with seemingly disparate causes. But while poverty, inequality, and unemployment do not tell the full story in all places, they do tell much of the story in many places.

In the case of the UK’s recent disorder, we have learned from The Guardian newspaper that the vast majority of rioters brought before the courts are young, poor, and unemployed. In the Tottenham neighbourhood, where the riots began, 54 people chase every one available job.

Where austerity and cutbacks to government services deepen poverty and unemployment, unrest soon follows.  Two Barcelona-based economists have published research which clearly shows a link between the variables. Empirical data on close to forty European and Latin American countries demonstrates a positive statistical association between government spending cuts, unemployment and levels of unrest, including anti-government demonstrations, riots, strikes and attempted revolutions.

In addition, path-breaking research by social epidemiologists has found that among advanced democracies, more equal societies (and by extension, cities) are also more socially stable and less violent.

In the absence of work and of hope, different ways of organizing human activity fill the social void. The anomie brought on by unemployment and other forms of social exclusion can be addressed through participation in other social groupings, sometimes a gang, sometimes a mob, sometimes a radical political or religious organization. When channelled into movements seeking to address legitimate grievances, as in the Arab Spring, urban unrest, disruption and disorder can be welcomed. History tells us that rough means can sometimes bring about progressive ends, especially when democratic channels are closed to those suffering injustice. Yet few urban denizens welcome the type of violence and disruption that causes misery, damage, and distress in their lives and in the life of their city.

We live in an urban age.  In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population were city dwellers. Now, for the first time in human history, the world’s urban population outnumbers its rural. As never before, the fate of humanity is tightly intertwined with the fate of the city. And whether we live in Toronto or Tokyo, Lagos or Los Angeles, safety and security are necessary conditions for a flourishing urbanity and a decent quality of life. As even the conservative-leaning Mayor of New York City has realized, addressing inequality, deprivation and unemployment with meaningful government action is central to maintaining social cohesion in an era of economic uncertainty.

Published Oct 11 2011 in The Toronto Star, pg. A19

Discussing the UK riots on DisRespect Radio

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Thanks to host Geoff Langhorne for inviting me on DisRespect Radio to discuss the UK riots. We had a great conversation that covered the sources of urban unrest and the prospects for future riots in the UK and beyond. Here’s a link to the podcast. 

1763-1-disRSept1LondonRiotsVol1to58m50.mp3

Precarious life for young men in Third City

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Note: This piece appears in the opinion section of today’s Toronto Star under a different title: Life in ‘Third City’: Nasty, brutish, and short. I will post a longer version shortly, along with a list of young men who have lost their lives to violence on Toronto’s streets.

Last week, Andrew Naidoo was shot dead outside his Rexdale home. He was 15 years old.

To his parents, peers and community he was a fun-loving teenage boy whose smile lit up the hallways of Monsignor Percy Johnson High School, who cheered on his classmates competing in school sports, who liked to do the things most boys his age like to do: listen to music, chill with friends, talk to girls.

Naidoo’s death is part of a tragic trend of young men from the city’s racialized low-income neighbourhoods losing their lives to violence: Aeon Grant, Sealand White, Jermaine Derby, Abdikadir Khan, Lorenzo Martinez, Okene Thompson, Keyon Campbell…sadly the list goes on.

More often than not, they have died at the hands of those whose social and economic circumstances they share: poor, young men from racialized communities. They lived on Fallstaff, Chalkfarm, and in Jane and Finch; neighbourhoods like Malvern, Kingston-Galloway, and Rexdale.

Their names must not to be forgotten; they should be said out loud on our city’s streets, repeated and remembered. And their deaths continue to beg the question: How many more young people from the city’s low-income, racialized communities must lose their lives to violence before our governments declare a crisis?

As researchers at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre have documented, over the last 30 years Toronto has become segregated by income into three distinct cities. City #1 consists of the richer and whiter downtown core and well-heeled neighbourhoods close to the subway lines. City #3—or the Third City—are Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, with high concentrations of racialized poverty. Generally found in the in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, incomes in these neighbourhoods have declined 20 per cent or more since 1970. City #2 are middle-income neighbourhoods that fall in between and are shrinking in size as Toronto becomes a more socioeconomically polarized metropolis.

Those who inhabit the Third City live lives characterized by precariousness. High rents and dilapidated social housing make shelter precarious. Temporary and part-time jobs at low wages make for precarious employment. And a lack of regulated childcare compounds the insecurity of everyday life. 

Moreover, the Third City has become home to a drug market with street entrepreneurs perversely mirroring the pursuit of profits at all costs that marks Bay Street success stories. As young people in the Third City testify, you don’t have to be involved in gangs to get caught up in the violence, just be in the wrong place at the wrong time or a cocksure teen in a neighbourhood where a sideways glance or the friends you keep can translate into trouble.

Consequently, for many of the Third City’s youth, especially its young men, life itself has become precarious. Since 1998, the average age of homicide victims under the age of 25 has grown to 40% from 25% in the 1970s and a majority of those have been racialized youth from the Third City.

For years Toronto avoided the street violence which plagued U.S. cities. Yet since the late 1980s we’ve embarked on a path which would make manifest in our urban fabric the social problems of inner-city America. We cut the social safety net; we’ve neglected the built environment of poor neighbourhoods; we’ve failed to regulate precarious employment and create ‘good jobs’; we’ve yet to solve high dropout rates and youth unemployment, disproportionately impacting racialized youth; and we’ve rolled back equity initiatives which acknowledged the ways socioeconomic outcomes continue to be shaped by race.

Thus, the Third City was manufactured. And as it was made, it can be unmade, with policies to make more economically and socially secure the lives of its inhabitants.

We appeared to turn a corner with the tragic murder of Jane Creba: the problems of the Third City had made a violent appearance on the streets of the First, the spaces of commerce so central to Toronto’s competitiveness and standing as a ‘world class’ city. Commitments were made—however limited—to deal with urban social exclusion and the problems, including community violence, which it breeds.

Alas, with shifting political winds, support for such initiatives appears to be drying up.

It is time that we, as a city, confront some hard questions: Are we going to accept 15 year olds being gunned down outside their homes as our modern urban condition? Is this to be the fate of more of our city’s youth? Has Toronto become so divided, so polarized, that many of us think ‘our city’ is not ‘their city’ and ‘we’ therefore have nothing to worry about?

Published in The Toronto Star, June 8 2011

Who speaks for urban youth?

Friday, April 29th, 2011

In my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star, I explore the issues facing urban youth this election.

Which party speaks for urban youth this federal election? Over the past few weeks, media commentators have pointed to two important trends: First, Canada is an urban nation, with 15 million eligible voters living in urban regions across the country. Second, voter turnout among young people is depressingly low: there are 3 million eligible voters under the age of 25, yet less than a third are likely to cast a ballot come Election Day.

Polling suggests young people favour the Greens, Liberals and New Democrats: parties which have demonstrated some commitment—however limited—to urban issues in this campaign. A politically engaged youth is thus important for the civic and social health of our urban regions. But as comedian Rick Mercer has quipped, “as far as any political parties are concerned,” young people “might as well be dead.”

As any political scientist will tell you, in a pluralist liberal democracy, those who make the most noise—by voting, organizing, lobbying—are more likely to have their issues addressed by government. Pluralism implies many groups of relatively equal power jockeying for position and influence in political life. We live however in a country of great social and economic inequality where money and power, two things youth lack, go a long way to securing an audience with the governing classes. Young people have power in numbers, but organizing and exercising that power around common interests is never easy. Through advocacy groups and party politics, seniors have flexed their political muscle this election, pushing the parties to address their immediate concerns, from home care to public pensions; youth have yet to flex theirs.

Urban youth have their own issues: Environmental sustainability and the liveability of cities are major concerns. The young are more frequent users of public transit and would benefit from a federal role in building the green transportation infrastructure our country so desperately needs.  Funding for the arts and athletics are also a priority of urban youth, who recognize their value in facilitating creative expression and promoting social cohesion in the highly diverse landscapes of Canadian cities.

Then there are the myriad social problems facing many of today’s urban youth; problems the political parties have failed to highlight this campaign. For instance, in Toronto 40% of Black students do not graduate from high school. Drug addicted youth in Vancouver’s downtown east side struggle to secure housing and access to services. Racialized youth face discrimination and outright racism in urban labour markets and in their contact with police and the criminal justice system. The young are disproportionately represented in the ranks of our cities’ precariously employed; those workers struggling to make ends meet working temporary, part-time, or multiple jobs with low-wages and few benefits. And there are the extremely high rates of poverty and incarceration of young aboriginal people in cities such as Winnipeg and Regina.

As in any federal system, politicos will squabble over whose jurisdiction these issues fall under. It’s time to move beyond these squabbles and recognize that urban youth, and our cities in general, would benefit from a strong federal urban presence and the development of a federally-led urban strategy. Stephen Harper explicitly opposes such a notion; he’s committed to a model of governance in which the feds do not ‘interfere’ in the business of the provinces and municipalities.

But a top-down, one-size-fits all approach from the feds is not desirable either: Municipal governments are best placed to evaluate the needs of local populations, including youth. Cities have been important drivers in the design and innovation of Canadian social services and social programs. Any federal urban strategy with a youth component should recognise this and respect the diversity of Canadian cities. For instance, a program to address street gangs (with gang-exit and gang-intervention initiatives) in a city such as Regina in which aboriginal youth are disproportionately involved in gang life, will necessarily take a different form than programs in Montreal or Toronto. 

In any progressive era of Canadian politics, the federal government has exercised its federal spending power to alter Canada’s approach to issues that were essentially within provincial jurisdiction. In the fields of education, welfare, and health care, the feds have influenced provincial and municipal policies and program standards. Beyond providing necessary funding to cash-strapped cities, a federal urban youth strategy could establish a set of principles which govern access to programs and services without becoming excessively involved in their design and delivery. Pairing universal programs with targeted investments based on the social citizenship, social rights, and democratic participation and engagement of young people is vital to building such a strategy.

But an urban youth strategy is not likely to emerge unless it is fought for and demanded by young people themselves. In urban centers across our country, many youth are active in the civic life of our cities, but often in ways that don’t conform to the politics-as-usual of parties and elections. Other youth speak the language of distress and despair, with gunshots or requests for spare change on our city streets. Whatever the manifestation of their voice, politicians ignore urban youth at our cities peril.

Published in The Toronto Star online edition, April 29 2011, @ www.thestar.com

Does Harlem Have a Lesson for Toronto Neighbourhoods?

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Twenty or so years ago it would be unthinkable that Canadian policy makers and urban politicians might have something to learn from Harlem in the area of social policy. This historic neighborhood just north of Central Park was in the midst of a crack epidemic which ravaged poor communities across urban America throughout much of the 1980s and 90s. The population of Harlem, like other ghettoes in the U.S., was mainly Black and nearly all poor. Crack destroyed families, led to soaring rates of incarceration of Black men, and widespread social alienation. It was the culmination of years of urban neglect, as federal and state government’s largely abandoned the American inner-city in the wake of the urban crisis of the late 1960s and 70s.

Along a range of socio-economic indicators – from homelessness to health – twenty years ago Toronto compared favorably to New York. But times have changed. That’s why the findings of a survey of Toronto’s public elementary schools, reported in The Star on Saturday, are disturbing but not surprising. The report found that poverty and ‘race’ have an impact on levels of student achievement. Most sociologists could tell you as much, but the report’s conclusions were particularly bleak: children who live in poverty or come from certain racial backgrounds are falling behind in school as early as Grade 3. The Board is already trying to address the achievement gap through programs like Model Schools for Inner Cities, which puts more resources into schools in ‘high-needs’ areas. But it’s fighting a losing battle with social trends that show racialized poverty intensifying in Toronto.

Enter Harlem and the ideas of Geoffrey Canada. While Harlem has changed since the days of crack, it remains disproportionately poor, Black, and affected by a myriad of social problems. And like Toronto, the achievement gap between students from low-income and racialized groups and others is wide: for instance, the Black-white achievement gap in New York City means that by third grade, Black students – who are disproportionately poor – are nine to ten months behind compared to their white counterparts.

Canada is the founder and director of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a project committed to ending intergenerational poverty in Harlem. The New York Times Magazine called the HCZ, “One of the most ambitious social-policy experiments of our time”, saying no effort to break the cycle of poverty in America has been “so closely watched”. The project has been profiled on 60 Minutes and Oprah and Canada has held court with Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. Following on research in the social sciences and neurology that show the skills gap between rich and poor kids opens up very early in life, Canada sought to build a program that would combine educational, social and medical services, following children from birth to college. For Canada, the idea was to create “a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can’t slip through.”

Initially the HCZ was restricted to a few blocks; it now envelopes a large section of Harlem covering close to 100 blocks and serving 7,400 children and over 4,100 adults. It combines early childhood education, programs for parents (The “Baby College”), a pre-school and grade school. As a result of this intense programming, children at the HCZ are performing at or beyond state-wide grade levels despite the continued pressures they face outside the school environment. President Obama is considering setting up similar Children’s Zones across U.S. cities as a cornerstone of his anti-poverty agenda.

Should Toronto replicate the HCZ in what the United Way calls our ‘priority’ neighborhoods, places like Jamestown, Jane-Finch, or Malvern? While targeting resources at particular neighborhoods has become a popular anti-poverty strategy for governments trying to do more with less, building universally accessible and well-funded social programs should be our priority. Expanding Ontario’s Early Years Centers to make them accessible to working parents, increasing the minimum wage, and finally making good on the promise of a universal, affordable, and public childcare system would go a long way to addressing pressing social needs. Targeted initiatives should compliment this more comprehensive approach, with programs like the TDSB’s Model Schools for Inner Cities and the phenomenal Pathways to Education worthy of increased and stable funding. Such funding should constitute any part of a serious stimulus package and be seen as an investment that will pay dividends in years to come.

For despite its success, HCZ also demonstrates the drawbacks of a small-government approach to combating poverty. The HCZ is a non-profit, community-based organization heavily reliant on private-sector donations and foundation money to survive. One would think that given its success, New York City would be looking to expand its programming and take it public across the five boroughs. But alas, in keeping with the small-government approach to big social problems, the City has not done so. And with the financial crisis hitting Wall St., the HCZ has lost millions of dollars in funding and is laying off staff and putting expansion plans on hold, imperiling the future of some of New York’s most vulnerable children.

This brings us to the difference between charity and social justice: social programs and benefits provided by the state as a matter of social rights and citizenship or services provided by non-state actors through acts of corporate and individual benevolence. Twenty years ago, many thought this distinction separated the American and Canadian approach to solving social problems and ensuring a decent standard of living for all. Despite a convergence with socio-economic trends in the U.S., in Canada we still like to think we do things a little differently. Whether we do or not could be difference between an anti-poverty agenda that is central to rebuilding our embattled welfare state in these rough economic times or leaving our future generation of at-risk youth reliant on the good deeds – and fortunes – of others.

Published in The Toronto Star, March 15 2009