By Georgina Alford
– October 2021 –
As a popular landing point for new immigrants, St. James Town has been described as one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse neighbourhoods in North America; a celebration of this diversity is reflected in The Corner’s tagline, “A World Within A Block”. The most recent census data from 2016 recorded a total population of 18,615, yet, in four years, this figure is expected to have risen well above 30,000. While the sheer diversity in St. James Town is indeed something to be celebrated, the increasing problem of overcrowding and lack of access to green spaces means that social and economic deprivation has been heightened.
In 2005, a primary care clinic run by a local hospital on the ground floor of 200 Wellesley Street closed down. A Toronto Community Housing (TCH) health promoter, who had worked in the building closely with the residents, turned to the St James Town Service Providers’ Network (SJTSPN). Several service providers imagined that the space could be used as a joint community services access point. In 2006, TCH granted the space on the condition of community involvement. After a five-year-long process deciding what the space would look like, who it was for, and how it would be run, the doors of The Corner were finally set to open. A fire that required all tenants to evacuate the building for over a year delayed the opening but provided an opportunity for The Corner to act as a hub of coordination and support for residents who had been displaced. It was decided that a Steering Committee with 8 residents and 5 agencies would guide the future of The Corner. This imbalance in membership between residents and service providers is an intentional effort to overcome the real and perceived power imbalance between agency and resident participants.
Ten years later, The Corner’s rise from the ashes is visible from miles around; splashing down the side of a building, a phoenix rises out of the city’s greyness. At its base sits The St. James Town Community Corner, seemingly insignificant underneath the weight of the floors above.
Inside, bright colours of blue, green and yellow cover the walls of the L-shaped space. The reception area is plastered with posters promoting current activities ranging from cycle repairs to health checks. Someone waits for their appointment next to a row of plastic chairs in front of the reception desk. Others sit together and chat. Just past the reception, six computer monitors are fully occupied as people write, browse, watch, print and copy. Adjacent to this area is a kitchen where cooks from the St. James Town Catering Collective prepare delicious meals. Along a corridor to the left of this space lie three meeting rooms, the bathrooms, two medical rooms and the main office. People, noises, and smells permeate through the open space. This is The Corner today: an inclusive and safe space which addresses structural issues through a continuum of services and programmes and by advocating community needs to a wider, governmental audience. Unlike community centres which are run from the top down, at the heart of The Corner’s philosophy is that the space is “owned by everyone and no one.” This revolutionary principle means residents and service providers alike can utilise the space for their individual and collective needs.
Since its opening, The Corner has continued to evolve with the community around it. The Corner @ 240 which opened in 2019 extends The Corner’s guiding philosophy to a space dedicated to the Three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Repair). During the start of the pandemic, The Corner and The Corner @ 240 both rapidly adapted their services, enabling them to continue serving the community’s needs. For example, The Corner delivered meals and food boxes to homebound clients and The Corner @ 240 sewed free face masks, repaired bicycles to assist people who were reluctant to take public transport, and fixed over 150 computers and laptops for those working and studying at home.
Indeed, by staying true to the voice of the neighbourhood, The Corner is able to adapt and overcome challenges, turning difficulties into opportunities for the broader community. A report published earlier this year entitled The Corner 2.0 – which compiled the work and stories of residents, service providers, staff and volunteers – paved insights and design principles to drive every facet of our plans to grow and strengthen The Corner’s role as the central point of care and connection within the St. James Town Service Providers’ Network.