Home >> The Politics of Art at PARC
At Toronto’s PARC (Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre), art-making is a radical form of storytelling and a tool for survival. Born in 1980 as a drop-in centre offering basic services to former psychiatric patients, PARC evolved to provide employment, to advocate on issues of poverty, mental health and homelessness, and to become a vital neighbourhood institution. This exhibit, co-created with members of the organization, takes you inside the unique experiment that is PARC.
Art-Making as Radical Storytelling
For more than three decades, the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre (PARC) has been a place where people rebuild their lives. In the early days, members were given membership cards but today PARC folks will proudly tell you that you become a member by simply walking through the door.
Over its impressive 30-plus year history, PARC has become a unique experiment. It remarkable that this experiment has sustained itself over this length of time, through succeeding waves of federal, provincial, municipal and local change. Also extraordinary is the quality and volume of powerfully moving art work that has come out of the PARC community since its earliest days.
PARC’s survival and the central place for its art-making as a radical form of storytelling are in fact closely connected. Over and over again, PARC artists describe their work as a form of survival not as a hobby or a profession. In this way PARC artists share much with “outsider, vernacular and underground” artists, people whose work passionately expresses individual and collective experience in a less than friendly world. The contemporary art scene has much to learn from PARC artists in this regard.
Whether in poems, stories, paintings, music, craft-work or performances and installations, one of the most noticeable qualities of art at PARC is how the personal and the shared narrative intertwine. The creation of a shared narrative, out of an alienated, fragmented one, is an essential building block in the path to recovery, or to use the title of a favorite Music Night from PARC’s past: “The Road to Soul”.
It is possible then to read, see and hear PARC artwork as a history of how one community has responded to de-institutionalization over the past forty years. Unlike much of the scholarship, journalism and government reports written about both PARC and this larger story, in their art the members are the centre of their own story and tell it in a way that they want to tell it.
This “storytelling” has many sources, including the Music Group, led by the extraordinarily talented Zepheniah James and his band; PARC’s Poetry Nights; the longstanding Writing Group (now in its twenty-fifth year); the numerous exhibits and shows of the Tuesday Night Art Group. In partnership with Making Room Community Arts, PARC members have created a handmade canoe, a giant art raft, wall-sized portraits, lightboxes and the “Market” that celebrated PARC’s 32-year history through a number of installations and performances. The Knitting Group can be found at work both in the drop-in and as part of local events such as the recent Roncey Rocks and the Parkdale LabCab Festival. Recently, long-time PARC staff person and artist Bob Rose wrote a series of five short stories documenting some of the incredible lives of those he had met at PARC over the years. Finally, The Living Archive Project (LAP) has created a number of videos that tell members’ stories in their own words and images.
To find out more about these stories and how they contributed to PARC’s history, click an icon in the window of the PARC building on this site’s main page.
Please Note: We have tried to identify individuals in the PARC photos used on this exhibit and ask them for permission to post their image on the History in Practice website, but we know that this has been an imperfect process. If you can help us identify unnamed individuals, or if there is a photo of you that you would like to have removed from this site, please let us know and we will make the necessary changes.
Conflicting histories: A timeline of PARC and the Parkdale neighbourhood
- Easy rail access and a mix of large Victorian homes in Parkdale make this ‘Village by the Lake’ one of Toronto’s first commuter suburbs; in the summer residents flock to Sunnyside Amusement Park.
- The Depression puts an end to Toronto’s construction boom; many large homes in Parkdale are divided into multiple units, making way for a working-class; the neighbourhood is soon labeled a slum.
- Gardiner Expressway built between 1955-1964 cutting off Parkdale from the lake; high-rise buildings are erected to house displaced middle class however most families flea the neighbourhood.
- 1000's of long-term patients are pushed into Parkdale after being discharged from nearby Queen Street Mental Health Centre (now CAMH) and Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital (closed for good).
- PARC is created as a kind of sanctuary where psychiatric survivors can go, be heard and connect with peers. (1980)
- First psychiatric survivor, Pat Capponi is hired at PARC; an outspoken writer and advocate, Pat brings much-needed attention to Parkdale’s housing disaster.
- 2 integral PARC programs start-up: Writers Group and trips to Camp Kandalore. (1988)
- PARC members and staff develop a community based on dignity and respect (many cockroaches and mice are also along for the ride).
- Meanwhile real-estate boom attracts first wave of gentrifiers to Parkdale; buyers are drawn to the Victorian housing stock but lack understanding of neighbourhood’s internal workings
- PARC buys the building at 1499 Queen St. W.
- 2 members are hired as Drop-in Workers
- PARC’s Writers Group publishes Kiss Me You Mad Fool – a full-length collection of prose and visual art
- The murder of PARC member, Patty Stewart, is a catalyst for the formation of a Members Steering Committee
- On the evening of February 20, 1997, beloved PARC member, Edmond Yu, is shot and killed by police on TTC bus while experiencing a mental health crisis.
- PARC’s service delivery model expands to include housing, outreach, kitchen and employment
- Caribbean, South Asian and working artist communities are attracted to the cheap stock of loft and apartment-style housing in Parkdale
- Mobilized by the death of Edmond Yu, PARC creates 10 units of supportive housing on the 3rd floor of 1499 Queen St. W.
- In partnership with Working for Change (formerly Ontario Council of Alternative Businesses) 2 employment facilitators are hired, developing skills and creating wage-earning opportunities for PARC member
- PARC’s mission is solidified: “A community where people rebuild their lives.” (2006)
- Peer crew leaders are hired to work in the kitchen helping to serve over 100,000 every year
- Harm reduction group Imperial Breakfast Club forms
- Knowledge is Power – a 14-week anti-oppression training program is created and offered to service-users at 4 Toronto Drop-In Network sites, including PARC. For its work developing the curriculum, PARC is recognized with an Access, Equity and Human Rights Award. (2007)
- PARC’s Drop-in opens 7 days/week
- 194 Dowling Avenue is identified as site for supportive housing project; negative reaction from Parkdale residents sparks creation of Ambassadors Project, training PARC members as public speakers and changing attitudes around the neighbourhood
- Tibetan and Roma communities call Parkdale home; neighbourhood is now considered a ‘landing strip’.
- Full-time chef hired in PARC’s kitchen
- Tenants move in to Edmond Place – a unique peer supported housing building for people with lived experience of mental health and addiction issues
- PARC’s Writers Group publishes a second collection of prose and visual art called Let’s Face It
- A Members' Census is completed to better define the issues, experiences and specific needs of PARC members
- Gentrification moves west to Parkdale, introducing new cafés, restaurants and condos; Parkdale is popular for young singles, couples and families seeking active community as well as attractive and affordable property and rental rates.