Moss Park : A Love Story

As Published in The Bridge for Nov. 2020.

By: Dustin Stern – Building Roots Director

Recently, I was in a conversation on Instagram with a devastated young local business owner. 

As of Nov. 24, Timeless Collective Toronto sees no way forward but to close up their physical shop (still operating online @timelesscollectivetoronto).

I started following the shop after stumbling in one day and learning about the owners’ philosophy that an artist is merely one who creates. Whether you’ve had years of success in the fashion industry or just last year discovered the healing powers of pottery and got inspired to now want to spread your shiny, pottery-shaped love, the owners would be willing to put your creations on shelf. I was touched by this, and devastated to hear of the loss of the shop.

I am waiting to hear test results from a loved one I was in brief contact with who was exposed to Covid-19, and therefore may have infected me. Home in isolation since the encounter, I do not think my risk was high, but it still terrifies me. All the people they might have infected, all the people their infector might have infected – you know the thought process.

This is all so messy. People call 2020 a horrible year, but I argue it’s as messy as it is merciless. So many firsts, so much change. The horribleness of 2020 is indisputable, so instead I focus on the messy.

Messy is uncomfortable, but no change was ever created from within “the comfort zone”. Push sometimes comes to shove whether we like it or not, and falling hurts, but it’s also how we learn to get back up. Perhaps if we’re smart, we can learn how to plant our feet and situate ourselves so the next time we won’t fall down when shoved.

For example, we could change our public perception of harm reduction initiatives and enact better laws around drug use, so that next time the city (or the world) goes into crisis, we don’t see an unprecedented spike in fatal overdoses.

We could ensure access to affordable, dignified housing for all, so it doesn’t take city parks filling up with an upsetting number of unhoused Torontonians for us to realize we are in a housing crisis that is not going away.

Speaking from my experience with Building Roots – a local grassroots organization that works collaboratively with just about every community agency and social enterprise in Moss Park (including the bridge, our proud partner and collaborator since its launch), and, most important, being on the ground hearing directly from those most vulnerable to the virus and its social implications – it’s clear that the answer is going to be found in cooperation.

Perhaps it is merely the circles I am grateful to find myself in, or being situated in the inspiringly resilient and beautiful Moss Park community, but for every story of an oversized pantry jam-packed with the local grocery store’s remaining stock of toilet paper, I can offer you three about the power of togetherness that could move you to tears.

People have found a million and one new ways to connect, to make one another smile, to ensure that no one goes hungry and that no one gets left behind. Speaking for myself, this community I have found in Building Roots and in Moss Park – people from walks of life I’ve never known existed, and displays of kindness I’d never have imagined – have made 2020 not merely a year of disaster, but ultimately a story of hope.

Thank you to all of my neighbours in Moss Park, housed and unhoused. We will get through this – and the next challenge, and the next – facing up to and taking action on our vulnerabilities, doing it together, and becoming more resilient and vibrant with each challenge we overcome.

The Transformative Powers of Art

Photo by Lisa Kates at Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts, February 13th, 2020.

Art plays an essential role in cultivating community and promoting change. What is it about art that is so powerful when employed in this context?

“There are many societal challenges we need to face right now, but instead of fighting with anger, I believe in using beauty. That’s where art comes in”. Inspiring words paraphrased from Jeremy Dutcher, a queer, Indigenous musician at a recent performance.

Art empowers people by allowing for personal expression of complex emotions and ideas. It facilitates connection and understanding in a way that is palatable and interpretable by all, regardless of cultural barriers.

These are some of many reasons that Building Roots utilizes art in our community work.

Last month, Building Roots was granted the opportunity to create an art installation for the Canadian Opera Company’s Opera for Young Audiences.

Collaborated on with OCAD grad student Chieng Luphuyong, the installation was comprised of individual triangles, each made by a child with the simple prompt to express what community means to them.

As each child planted their individual seed of expression, the art piece grew. Each contributor was empowered by having a role in its creation, all the while surrendering ego by watching it morph into something communal, greater than the sum of its parts.

The installation was eponymous with our weekly Do It Together crafting series in the Moss Park Market, inside which you’ll also find art from Creative Works Studio who provide individuals living with mental illness a place to heal through artistic expression.

The outer walls are painted by a local artist, and nearby you can find vibrant picnic benches painted by local youth with international muralist Karimah Hassan.

There is an alchemy when you combine personal expression, collaboration, and inclusivity, which manifests as change you can literally marvel at the beauty of.

This article was published in the March 2020 edition of The Bridge, a print publication “connecting people, places and ideas across our city from the downtown east”.