Renting in Toronto is the worst, and this unusual theatre project reveals how challenging it can be
Want to learn more about housing issues? You could attend a meeting — or see The Parkdale Experience
It's one of the most livable cities in the world, but good luck finding a place. Apartment hunting in Toronto is an extra-special exercise in futility and dread, between rising prices and scarce listings. (Start cooking your first ulcer by mulling over stats reported by CBC News earlier this year, for instance.) The Toronto Real Estate Board pegged the average rent of a one-bedroom condo apartment at $1,776 as of December 2016 — while the vacancy rate was at 1 per cent, the lowest it'd been in seven years. With those numbers, renting anywhere in Toronto is a challenge, even if your salary's above average.
But a new show is bringing attention to the specific story of one neighbourhood southwest of downtown. It's called The Parkdale Experience. A hybrid walking tour/theatre project, five sold-out performances roamed Queen Street on Saturday for its one-day run — taking audience members on an 11-block trip through the neighbourhood.
This can happen in their neighbourhood and it is happening in other neighbourhoods.- Larisa Gutmanis, creator/writer/producer of The Parkdale Experience
The G-rated narrative is simple: the audience plays a low-income family on an increasingly difficult hunt for new digs. Along the way — usually while stopping at a notable neighbourhood landmark — they encounter a new character, as if the street's been turned into one of those living history museums. The characters are written as composites of real locals, albeit played somewhat comically, and each one leaves you with a new nugget of info about Parkdale housing. Maybe you'll get personal story about eviction, or some PSA-worthy tip about the Residential Tenancies Act.
According to the show's creator, Larisa Gutmanis, it's meant to be theatre for people who'd never attend a town hall. "People need to communicate more about what's going on in their neighbourhood," she says. Originally from Montreal, Gutmanis has rented in Parkdale for almost six years, landing there after a decade in New York working for HBO Films. Community meetings, she says, aren't for everyone. She herself hadn't really attended them before starting research on The Parkdale Experience — a process that involved interviewing more than 50 people in the community about housing and gentrification. But art? "Art can bring a community together."
"It's kind of a way to bring everybody together from all walks of life to inform themselves about what's going on in the neighbourhood," she says of the show and its unusual format, which was billed as a "performance scavenger hunt." And Parkdale's housing issues are unique. West of downtown, and bordered by the Gardiner Expressway to the south, it's predominantly a community of renters. In South Parkdale, 90 per cent of residents are tenants — and for many of them, the big issue of the affordable housing crisis is displacement.
The Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust (PNLT) released a study on the topic earlier this month. The report — which actually features in The Parkdale Experience — shows how the area's rooming houses and bachelorette apartment buildings are in crisis. These are the "deeply affordable" rental options available in Parkdale, and per the report, 34 per cent of the neighbourhood lives in poverty. At the moment, there are 2,700 tenants in Parkdale rooming houses and bachelorettes, and PNLT's study predicts that 818 of them are at risk of losing their homes. According to their report, 59 of these "deeply affordable" properties show signs of being either sold and/or renovated into more expensive units. At the same time, many tenants in the high-rise towers have their own concerns, including conflicts with landlords over rent increases. (One group launched a "May 1 rent strike" in protest.)
The Parkdale Experience touches on some of these issues through anecdotes and stories about the sites and landmarks on the tour. To make the show a reality, Gutmanis partnered with the Parkdale-based Unit 102 Theatre Group. Their new space on Queen Street was one of the show's "secret" locations — appropriate considering the company lost its last home when their landlord sold the building. (It's soon to become a Toronto outpost of Vancouver's 33 Acres Brewing Company.) Along with the actors, the show was produced with the help of 30 volunteers, including those from two more local arts groups, Mammalian Diving Reflex and Keys to the Studio. The production is Gutmanis's thesis project; she's a Masters student in the media production program at Ryerson.
And while the show is very much about, well, The Parkdale Experience, Gutmanis says that the project is meant to reach beyond the borders of Roncesvalles and Dufferin. She says the show's "scavenger hunt" format could be adapted to suit other neighbourhoods, for instance, and in an email, she told CBC Arts that she and Unit 102's Luis Fernandes are hoping to develop a similar production — with "a social justice message at its core" — in time for this year's Nuit Blanche.
"The ideal audience is actually people who do have their homes," she says. "It's people who have homes who don't understand what's going on with affordable housing issues in Parkdale." The show, she explains, should leave them with questions like, "How could I contribute to the community that I live in? What can I do to make it better? How can I communicate better with my neighbours about issues in the neighbourhood?"
"This can happen in their neighbourhood and it is happening in other neighbourhoods," says Gutmanis. "The people here in Parkdale are just making a little more noise."
Learn more about The Parkdale Experience on Gutmanis' website.