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Outperforming Gentrification

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Issue: 47 Section: Arts Geography: Ontario Toronto Topics: gentrification

August 8, 2007

Outperforming Gentrification

A profile of Jessica Rose

by Michelle Tarnopolsky

Run The ROM, The Movement Movement, 2007. Image courtesy of The Movement Movement, copyright 2007. Photo: Trevor Haldenby

On November 11, 2006, artist and curator Jessica Rose orchestrated A Funeral for a Building, a performance piece/memorial service to mark the end of an era for her Queen West arts community. Rose invited residents and community members to express their grief over plans to tear down her home at 48 Abell Street in order to make way for two condominium towers. For the last quarter-century, the 80,000-square-foot, industrial, loft-style building has provided 80 live/work studios for artists in the heart of what was recently renamed Toronto’s “Art and Design District.”

Less than two months before the funeral, on September 28, Toronto city council voted against designating the 120-year-old former lamp factory as a heritage building, which would have protected it from demolition. The timing was as harsh as the news; it came on the eve of Nuit Blanche, the inaugural all-night, Paris-inspired, city-wide contemporary art fest that artists from the Queen West gallery district had been helping the city plan for months.

Rose, a key organizer for the overwhelmingly successful Nuit Blanche, is diplomatic about what many in the arts community consider outright betrayal on the part of the city: “I’m in a complicated position,” she says. “But what’s the alternative? Not getting involved and not being able to impact things and saying, ‘Oh, you’re an agent of gentrification--I hate you’? That’s a really dumb position.” Rather than just complaining about it over cocktails, the 28-year-old is using her performance art to get Torontonians thinking and talking about the value of preserving affordable live/work spaces for artists.

Rose moved into 48 Abell with her mother 15 years ago, when it was far from the sightline of circling condo vultures. “There were 14-year-old prostitutes on the corner,” she recalls. “Everyone thought [my mom] was crazy for having a kid in this neighbourhood.” Her long bangs mostly obscure her eyes and she has a serious, almost brooding appearance that belies her moxie. “This was such an amazing building, even then,” she says. “John Scott [a major Canadian painter] lived here…all the senior faculty at OCAD [Ontario College of Art and Design]—they all lived here.”

Spurred on by her community, Rose got her first film grant at 19 and left to study filmmaking at Emily Carr shortly thereafter. By the time she came back and moved into her own loft space at 48 Abell in 2001, the neighbourhood was well on its way to becoming the contemporary art mecca it is today. New galleries had sprouted up everywhere. “To come back in to this amazing, active community—it was sort of like my introduction to the world,” says Rose. After assisting sculptor John Jackson in his studio for a year and completing courses at OCAD and the University of Toronto, she secured a job as the associate art director of the Drake Hotel and was curating shows within six months.

While there’s no question that the area around the Drake has gotten a lot trendier since the boutique hotel opened on Queen West in February 2004, Rose thinks that blaming it for the gentrification of the area is a simplistic way to look at community growth. “I really believe that if you have a good thing, you beam that out to the world. You don’t have something that’s really great and only show 10 people just so you don’t lose it,” she says. Yet a disheartening pattern emerges whenever artists move into low-rent neighbourhoods: they act as catalysts for urban renewal by beautifying live/work spaces and producing amenities (as Richard Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class, would say), which in turn ups the hip-quotient of the area, thereby increasing rent and forcing artists out. And they are not alone: all low-income community members who have made the neighbourhood a home suffer the same consequences.

Rose, however, refuses to accept this as inevitable. “There are other cities where planners or councils will hire an artist to be on their board,” she says. “What needs to happen [in Toronto] is more artists working closer with the city and guiding the people who have the ability to invest.”

While Rose has devoted a lot of time to working with Active 18, the community group formed to fight irresponsible development in the Ward 18 gallery district, she does not identify herself as an activist. When it comes to raising awareness about the importance of preserving a space like 48 Abell, she says she’s “a lot more comfortable with the artist strategy.” Sparked by her research on public art for Nuit Blanche, Rose joined forces with choreographer Jenn Goodwin in May 2006 to launch the “Movement Movement” in which they “run with art” through public spaces, like galleries and city squares, along with whoever wants to join them. The purpose is less about creating a spectacle, Rose says, and “more about bringing together the janitor who works at York University with the executive who’s obsessed with running, with kids from some high school in Scarborough and... creating a circumstance for them to make relationships with each other and with the space.” The concept behind the project--bringing attention to shared public space by activating it in a unique way--outlives the temporary act. Is it conceptual art? Performance art? Interventionist art? Social art? Rose uses all of these terms to describe it.

On May 12, 2007, Rose and Goodwin accomplished their most ambitious project to date: running through the Royal Ontario Museum with some 250 people. It was the first stop in a cross-country tour of major art institutions that will continue into 2008. At Nuit Blanche numero deux on September 30, 2007, Rose will participate by bringing the Movement back to the seat of its inception. In “an extension of A Funeral for a Building,” she and fellow artist residents will present another large-scale public project at 48 Abell.

Efforts to appeal the city’s decision, and even the backing of Toronto’s mayor, David Miller, have only helped to delay, not stop, the condo plans. In the meantime, “there’s a bunch of work that’s going on behind the scenes to save as much as possible,” says Rose.

“What we learned from Nuit Blanche is that people really do give a shit and the thought of a live/work space that houses 80 units for artists and dancers and writers getting torn down is ridiculous in any city,” she says. “It’s not just an artist issue; it’s a much greater issue about Toronto. There are so many people who love this city so much who are just saying, 'No, this should not be happening.'”

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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