Last night, at a meeting in north-west Toronto, at a school near highway 400 and Jane Street, community police officers encouraged the community to use their parks and other public spaces. When people assert their right to use a park, they said, the drug dealers and hoodlums find another place. They don't like the light and they don't like traffic and they don't like having ordinary people going about their lawful affairs near them.
Meanwhile, closer to the south end of Jane Street, near Jane and Dundas, the neighbourhood I live in has had four murders in the past three weeks. The police suspect three of these killings have some relation to gangs and drugs. One of them probably involved mistaken identity. The most recent murder victim in the area, a fourteen-year-old, attended my kid's school last year. Two of these killings took place within half a kilometre of where two friends of ours live. At the same time, a park near the south end of Jane Street, once alive in the mornings, now stands largely deserted. But the people who use this particular park don't fear drug gangs much. People have avoided the park because the authorities have it up. They have the place under high-profile surveillance. This does not reassure people in the area, because the authorities here have a target other than drug gangs or child killers in mind: dog walkers. City bureaucrats, apparently intent on their annual spring meddle, have sent by-law officers to crack down on off-leash pets. The park, once home to dozens of people in the morning, now stands deserted. Intrusive signs have sprung up, ordering people to keep dogs on leash and on the paths.
The police, who have to deal with actual crime, want Toronto communities to claim their public spaces. The city bureaucracy sends exactly the opposite message: these spaces belong to us, not you, we will decide how they get used, the neighbourhood has no voice, and we will punish anyone who violates the ukase from downtown. This has put the neighbourhood on edge. Nobody seems to know where this impulse to disrupt the informal mechanisms of our community came from, we don't know how to deal with it, and we don't know how to resolve it. We just know that where a pleasant morning activity that did more than most other things to help people get to know their neighbours used to happen, now we have high-profile surveillance (men in black trucks lurking and taking pictures) and an empty park.
Needless to say, I completely agree with the real police: we have no better way of preventing gang activity than building involved communities. But when city bureaucrats insist that only their regulations matter, that the hundred informal relationships that make a community work do not matter, they make this process far more difficult. More than that, they foster an attitude that pits the city as a whole against the local needs of neighbourhoods. When I first came here, I stood up for a policy designed to improve the environment for the city, the policy of intensive development in areas near subway stations so that people would not need cars. I got called "Judas" for it. I have begun to see where this NIMBY impulse comes from. If those who claim to represent the "city as a whole" regularly meddle and disrespect the informal mechanisms that keep Toronto's neighbourhoods civil, why exactly should anyone, support measures designed to benefit parts of the city we don't live in?