Art marks end of a com­mu­nity

Place and Place­ment at the Gal­le­ria cap­tures an anx­ious time be­fore neigh­bour­hood haven of di­ver­sity dis­ap­pears


David Ach­e­son’s sculp­ture Pres­ence is a pair of tow­er­ing pale fig­ures. One of them strides pur­pose­fully in one di­rec­tion, hunched in close scru­tiny at some­thing in the palm of its hand, while its part­ner me­an­ders off in an­other, blind­folded.

It was made 17 years ago, but here, in a tem­po­rary gallery space tucked into the doomed Gal­le­ria Mall at Dupont and Duf­ferin, it feels al­most tai­lor-made. Gal­le­ria, a relic of the city’s ur­ban past — built in 1972, it was one of Canada’s first cov­ered malls — was bought in 2015 by a pair of devel­op­ment com­pa­nies, and its even­tual fate is a thing both of in­tense con­cern and a good many mys­ter­ies, for the de­vel­oper and the com­mu­nity both.

“They’re not sell­ing any­thing — yet, at least,” said Dyan Marie on a re­cent, gloomy morn­ing, with Pres­ence loom­ing close by. “But they’re try­ing to get com­mu­nity buy-in. Be­cause they want to go high — re­ally high. And the more buy-in they have, the bet­ter for them.”

Marie, along with Darren Leu, brought Pres­ence here, to an oth­er­wise un­oc­cu­pied store­front at the Gal­le­ria for “Place and Place­ment,” an art ex­hi­bi­tion aimed at cap­tur­ing the col­lec­tive anx­i­eties of an in­creas­ingly ner­vous mo­ment here.

Names like Ed­ward Bur­tyn­sky, Noel Hard­ing and John Dick­son have lent small works to the show — un­der­scor­ing, per­haps, what’s at stake. Un­cer­tainty has be­come a con­stant fea­ture in the city’s far cor­ners such as this. Once com­fort­ably mar­ginal and di­verse, they’ve been thrust to the fore by sky­rock­et­ing prop­erty val­ues and a pre­mium on den­si­fi­ca­tion.

Gal­le­ria, an en­dear­ingly shabby bunker of brick and con­crete adrift in a sea of park­ing lot, is an ideal tar­get: Sin­gle-storey prop­er­ties with small foot­prints and acres of empti­ness are just the kind of op­por­tu­ni­ties that large-scale de­vel­op­ments, long priced out of the city core, re­quire.

For the Gal­le­ria site, ELAD Canada and Freed De­vel­op­ments, the mall’s new own­ers, pro­posed a dozen build­ings, one of them as high as 42 storeys.

At 12 acres, it will be among the largest sin­gle sites ever to be de­vel­oped in the city’s his­tory, right up there with Lib­erty Vil­lage and Ci­ty­place.

Ac­cord­ing to a com­pany spokesper­son, the city’s plan­ning depart­ment has re­quested height re­duc­tions and clar­i­fi­ca­tion on the small por­tion of the site des­ig­nated as af­ford­able hous­ing, which con­sti­tutes 150 of the to­tal 3,416 pro­posed res­i­den­tial units. It will sub­mit its revisions in Septem­ber.

The com­pany has since bus­ied it­self with a sell job of an­other kind. In the fall, it opened Reimag­ine Gal­le­ria, its com­mu­nity in­for­ma­tion of­fice where it pro­vides free wire­less in­ter­net, plug-ins for lap­tops and a slate of slickly de­signed in­for­ma­tional videos.

Un­til July 15, it hosts “Place and Place­ment,” a veiled cri­tique of the project it­self. Con­ceived by Marie un­der the um­brella of her Civic Stud­ies arts non-profit, the show, like many of her ef­forts, looks to soften the harder edges of the city’s devel­op­ment frenzy.

Her first pitch to the de­vel­op­ers was to in­stall small-scale “spot gar­dens” in the scrubby greenspaces fram­ing the mall, mean­ing to high­light the need to hu­man­ize the sud­den in­ten­sity the project pro­poses. Sur­pris­ingly, per­haps, the com­pany in­vited her to do some­thing more sub­stan­tial, and “Place and Place­ment” was born.

Eerie and not with­out an el­e­ment of threat, the show em­bod­ies an un­set­tled time for a build­ing that’s grown, with­out prod­ding, into an un­of­fi­cial com­mu­nity cen­tre for a widely di­verse ar­ray of lo­cals.

“It’ll be a huge shock to the neigh­bour­hood,” Marie said. “What we’re try­ing to say is, land­scape is im­por­tant, com­mu­nity is im­por­tant — that this isn’t just a blank slate.”

Marie, the founder of both the BIG on Bloor Fes­ti­val and DIG IN, the Dupont Im­prove­ment Group, aimed at help­ing man­age the Dupont cor­ri­dor’s re­vi­tal­iza­tion with en­vi­ron­men­tal and cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity, is no stranger to neigh­bour­hood change.

The Gal­le­ria project, though, is a chal­lenge with­out prece­dent here. Its sud­den den­sity will have as many as 10,000 peo­ple liv­ing on a site where there are cur­rently none. More sig­nif­i­cant is what it will re­place. The Gal­le­ria, shabby but vi­brant, has evolved as a kind of an­ti­mall. Few shops are chains; many are owned by first-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants.

The sense of com­mu­nity, an alien no­tion for a mall, is pal­pa­ble. On a rainy day this week, clus­ters of grey­ing Por­tuguese men gath­ered in large groups around some of the mall’s many benches, chat­ting nois­ily. The sense of im­pend­ing doom was sub­dued, but present. (The com­pany hopes to have fi­nal ap­provals by the end of 2017, but wouldn’t say when con­stric­tion might be­gin.)

“They’re go­ing to do it in sec­tions — they won’t just throw a bomb and ev­ery­thing goes down,” said Rudy Pig­nataro, one of the own­ers of Salon G & A. His fam­ily started the salon when the mall opened in 1972. “Still, it’s go­ing to get worse be­fore it gets bet­ter, and I don’t know how much time we have.”

Oth­ers, like Zam Zam, which sells sports ap­parel, or Gal­le­ria Dry Clean­ers, clock in at 25 and 20 years. “They don’t tell us much,” says Janet Lee, one of the dry cleaner’s own­ers. “One thing I know for sure is that this com­mu­nity will be gone. In­de­pen­dent peo­ple, we don’t stand much of a chance in these things.”


Darren Leu and Dyan Marie with David Ach­e­son’s Pres­ence, at the Reimag­ine Gal­le­ria site. The 1972-era Toronto mall is be­ing re­placed with a mas­sive hous­ing devel­op­ment.

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