It feels like news about our neighbourhood over the last few weeks has been dominated by the theme of demolition.

Some of these projects ultimately link back to SoHo’s Community Improvement Plan and the Old Victoria Hospital Secondary Area Plan, while other buildings are going down in what feels like a perfect storm of random timing — as if someone mysteriously synchronized the wrecking balls across otherwise unrelated development initiatives. Perhaps it is this apparently random simultaneity that makes the present moment feel somewhat jarring.

Add discussions regarding the Thames Valley Corridor Improvements and the Civic Space: SoHo project at Colborne and South to the above, and you have a neighbourhood that is undergoing a significant number of changes.

This afternoon, Sean Irvine from CTV News asked me what the SoHo Neighbourhood Association collectively feels about this rather ‘sudden’ jolt of changes to the landscape of the community. His question reminded me how of just how diverse the ‘we’ of a neighbourhood is. Times of change, such as this moment, highlight a perennial feature of neighbourhoods: we are an intersection of very different people. We sometimes have wildly different ideas about the future, the importance of heritage and the past, the aesthetics of beauty, and the meaning and value of sustainability.

In times of change and uncertainty, little more is more important than listening to one another.

Social Timelines: Life Lost on the Curated Projections of Other People’s Lives?

Time spent reading social timelines is time lost. Scrolling through a timeline is time consumed by the curated projections of other people’s lives, which are absorbed wholly and only at the cost of living your own.

Or, to put it another way: time spent on timelines amounts to time spent not living your life.

Spending your time on a timeline is valuable only to the extent you define value in your life by the amount of your life spent reading about the lives of others.

Time spent on a timeline is not time paused, it is life extracted. On average, then, time spent reading timelines is irredeemable and wasted.

If the most immediate ‘value’ we derive from timelines is that they distract us from ourselves — from the lives we are living, here and now — how much value should ascribe to them?

Risk err in solidarity

Risk err in solidarity with those who tend to have decisions made for them, especially when the decisions are made against their will. The historical odds indicate that people without power are generally a reliable barometer for discerning justice. Look to them, not to the career-chasing experts, bureaucrats, and courtiers. The margin of moral error is, inversely, much wider at the top of pyramid.

Crosswalk buttons

Crosswalk buttons are horrid devices. As a pedestrian, I resent that I must push a button to request permission to cross the street — just because I am not in a motorized vehicle at this intersection. Let’s talk about evils of vehicle-centric urban design.

Facebook has nothing to do with friendship

‘If I leave Facebook I’ll lose my friends’ is only a rational concern if a) you subsequently fail to communicate with your ‘friends’ in another manner or b) you have ‘friends’ that prioritize using Facebook above sharing life with you in same other way.

Losing friends because you’re not on Facebook is only a valid concern to the extent that your ‘friends on Facebook’ are not really friends at all.

A more interesting question: who are your friends when your social life isn’t dictated and monopolized by a big, nasty advertising company that literally makes money by addicting you to feelings of rage, indignation, inadequacy, jealousy, and meaningless push-button approval? That, to me, seems like the more pertinent and pressing concern.

Facebook, in fact, has nothing to do with friendship.

Grocery store strangeness

I can never get over the fact that grocery stores have ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ food sections — as if natural and healthy food is a specialized, niche product in the overall groceries market.

We have invented a strange world, people.

Let’s repurpose simpleton

I think we should repurpose the word ‘simpleton’ into something that isn’t so pejorative. There’s something to be said for circumventing the needlessly complicated. And to consider oneself a simpleton reflects a healthy sense of skepticism about the comprehensiveness of one’s knowledge.

Besides, what’s the opposite of a simpleton? A ‘complicaton’? Who’d want to hang out with one of those?

Using podcasts to augment the museum experience

I teamed up with Museum London to produce a special ‘curator walk-through’ podcast episode for the BGL: Spectacle + Problems exhibit. Grab the episode on your device, pick up your favourite headphones, and then come visit Museum London before August 26 to enjoy the full experience: art curator Cassandra Getty and members of the BGL collective provide commentary and background as they walk you through the exhibit. Experience and see the museum — and an incredible contemporary art installation — in a whole new way.

Subscribe to the Museum London podcast on the platform of your choice.

241 Simcoe Street

There is a lively debate in my city over the proposed locations for a supervised drug injection facility. One city-endorsed location is 241 Simcoe Street — a public housing complex just outside of the downtown core.

I am a diehard supporter and advocate for harm reduction and I think a supervised injection site would greatly benefit our neighbourhood. (Full disclosure: yes, I live in the neighbourhood, too.)

However, although I was initially enthusiastic for the 241 Simcoe Street proposal, I have grown skeptical of the specific location choice over the past two months. What changed my mind? Talking to the residents of 241 Simcoe Street.

Let’s peel away all the layers of campaigning, protesting, and pontificating. What is at the heart of the debate? Imposing a supervised consumption facility in a subsidized housing complex. Let’s unpack this from a socioeconomic and class perspective.

What is the message you’d take away if you were told your apartment building was going to be assigned a safe injection facility on the premises? And what if you don’t get a say beyond the obligatory (and mostly symbolic feeling) ‘consultation’ process? No, the experts know best. They know.

After a few conversations, I can appreciate how this proposal feels like salt in an open wound for some people who are already survivors of the social stigma associated with living in a rent-geared-to-income complex. (And it ironically comes at the hands of a sector who fancies declaring itself as advocates for the underprivileged.)

In a sense, this debate seems like (yet another) example of further stigmatizing people under the pretence of ‘helping’ them. You know, addressing ‘the needs’ of ‘this population’ as a categorical monolith.

Notice the way the story is framed in the media: it is the building’s residents pitted against a swath of community agencies, faith communities, and other organizations. It doesn’t take much imagination to suppose how patronizing this might feel if it were your house or condominium in question.

What seems lost in the discussion is the simple appreciation that 241 Simcoe Street is someone’s home. Just because someone qualifies for subsidized housing, should this status mean they lose their say about what happens in their building?

Let’s use our imaginations for a minute.

Across the tracks from 241 Simcoe Street is The Renaissance, a new swanky condominium tower. Imagine if public health officials proposed a zoning change to allow a supervised drug consumption facility in the basement of The Renaissance. All hell would be summoned forth. And lawyers. There would be lawsuits everywhere — the residents, the builders, the city, the province.

Of course, one will interject, how much sense does it make to compare a snazzy, private condo tower to a publicly subsidized apartment building? Are they not legally different animals altogether? Well, yes, exactly. I think this is precisely the point. This controversy ultimately boils down to class: at the end of the day, money buys you the power to exert some degree of influence over what goes on in the basement of your apartment.

No money. No power.

And if you don’t have money, you find yourself beholden to all the bureaucrats and officials who — while insisting they serve your best interests — act in direct contravention of your stated desires. And they most probably will move against your pleadings because all the other potential venues in the city are economically walled gardens protected by the deepest pockets of the caste. At the end of the day, a) your building is the cheapest real estate for the project, b) your neighbours fit the stereotype, and 3) moving in comes with the least political fallout.

Setting aside the importance of harm reduction (in general) and safe consumption (in particular), there still remains the critical necessity of determining an appropriate, equitable location for services. As it stands, 241 Simcoe represents the imposition of a program in people’s homes. If you wouldn’t put it in the basement of The Renaissance based on the rights and privilege of those residents, you probably shouldn’t put it in the basement of 241 Simcoe Street either. How is this equitable?

How much autonomy and right to self-advocacy should a person lose if they rent their apartment from a housing corporation instead of owning a mortgage? Everyone loves to blame everyone else for NIMBYism, living in a subsidized housing unit seems to mean you can’t even advocate for Not In My Basement.

At risk of belabouring the point: I am 100% in favour of supervised consumption sites. Heck, build a facility on my block. But please don’t put it in the homes of people who don’t have a choice.

The biggest irony to me is that choice is a long established pillar of harm reduction theory, but choice is precisely the one thing that the residents of 241 Simcoe Street are not being given.

The System Made Me Do It

I somehow found myself thinking about a passage from Hannah Arendt’s 1951 landmark Origins of Totalitarianism while I was at the Thames Valley Family Health Team conference a few weeks ago. (I posted more about the conference earlier.) The event was about delivering primary health care, and Arendt’s book is about totalitarian regimes, which makes following connection feel somewhat spurious at best. But there’s the kernel of an idea here that I need to flush out.

In the panel discussion, we briefly touched on the systemic stresses and pressures felt by healthcare providers. For instance, if your caregiver is rude, impatient, or insensitive, the ‘system’ might try to excuse the behaviour based on ‘bigger’ issues such as underfunding, understaffing, etc. But one of the panelists, my friend Bharati Sethi, called this justification into question. Is there ever a point where work-related stress legitimizes treating other people without basic human decency and dignity? Where else in society do we expect this equation to fly?

Case in point. Later that week I was in a bustling, understaffed pub with some friends. The immediate and multitude ‘job stressors’ at hand did not impede our server from treating us kindly and taking a personal interest in us. Paying attention to us was their job.

In the healthcare sector, there is a lot more at stake than getting the right pints to the right customers (as crucial as this is). Primary care often represents the front lines for responding to significant physical and psychological crisis. Decisions are critical. A server at the pub who pays close, friendly attention to the needs of their customers is a good employee. The doctor who brushes me off or doesn’t care enough to listen to my symptoms and the subtext of my story might be bordering on malignant practice.

This is where Origins of Totalitarianism comes in. (I should emphasize that my intent here is not to compare healthcare to totalitarianism in any general sense, but to interrogate a specific feature of bureaucracies at scale.) In explaining the logic of totalitarian regimes, Arendt points out that “before the court” of terror, everyone who carries out the brutal decrees of a totalitarian government is “subjectively innocent.” The murderers aren’t really murderers; they are just obeying orders from the next level up. Likewise, the ‘next level up’ are just intermediaries and themselves not even lifting a finger to inflict any harm. At the very top, it is not so much an individual in charge as some dictator executing “historical or natural laws” — “suprahuman forces” — that are made all the more self-evident by their execution. To carry out their atrocities regimes need to figure out a way to make everyone find a way to believe themselves innocent. (See Origins of Totalitarianism, page 465.)

I hope it is evident that I am not trying to make a one-to-one comparison here. The point is much more subtle. The idea that an individual caregiver in the healthcare system might blame their lack of empathy, compassion, or patience on ‘the system’ itself echoes a similar kind of systemic scapegoating. It is simply replacing ‘The devil made me do it,’ with ‘The system made me do it.’ This is a perennial issue with huge bureaucracies in general: the organization, the institution, the structure itself becomes an ‘it’ that is itself inscrutable and above punishment. Once ‘it’ is to blame, all recourses to social accountability are made null and void.

I don’t mean to belittle the importance of leadership and workplace environments. If you stress your staff, you shouldn’t expect to deploy a team of relaxed, sensitive, listeners onto the floor or into the clinic. But the problem, at every level of the equation, is the temptation to excuse poor human-to-human experiences on some ‘thing’ that we call ‘the system’ that is patently beyond any single individual’s control. If it is ‘the system’ that makes you maltreat people, you have caught a tiny glimpse, according to Arendt, of how totalitarianism gets away with evil.

Perhaps thinking about Arendt in the context of a complex healthcare environment offers us some ideas about contributing factors to inequitable and unequal treatment.

Later, in her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt proposes the concept of the “banality of evil.” By ‘banality’ Arendt supposes that it doesn’t necessarily require a deranged sociopath to commit horrendous acts, just a simpleton who gets caught up in a narrative and executes a job description without thinking critically for themselves. In a healthcare context — where patients are often treated like widgets on a conveyor belt — perhaps we come to expect a kind of ‘banality of rudeness’ or ‘banality of impatience’ as staple features of bureaucracies. Perhaps this narrative about the nature of organizations is precisely the story we need to reimagine.