A sunday-afternoon block partyis happening on Billy Lane, a street delineated by a row of ramshackle houses. But don't look it up on a map. You won't find it. It's in Tent City, the shantytown that's taken shape underneath the Gardiner on lands flagged for a future Home Depot.A recent article in the New York Times pointed to Tent City as an example of a city fraying around the edges. A Third World in our own backyard. But in Europe, shantytown communities like this are far more accepted as alternatives to traditional housing. In fact, forward-thinking architects and artists view them as valid and viable steps on the road to sustainability.
The number of residents of Tent City, part of a growing population that cannot afford the city's soaring rents, has more than doubled in the last year. And while some believe an apartment in social housing in some far-flung suburb is preferable to living in a self-made community, it isn't the solution for those wishing to be self-sufficient.
The toxins in the land aside, the people I talk to are here by choice. They treat me like a neighbour, inviting me into their modest homes and offering what hospitality they can. They do not care to live in overcrowded shelters or on the street, and they recognize that low-income housing and shelters are built for statistics, not people.
"There is nothing accommodating about Eglinton and Midland," says Martin Liefhebber, an architect who specializes in building environmentally self-sufficient housing projects.
Liefhebber argues that while the political agenda encourages low-income people not to live on handouts, "Governments don't do enough to allow them to be entrepreneurial."
With assistance to achieve minimum building code standards and sanitation, organic developments like Tent City could thrive -- and not be considered a blight. There are precedents. Before it made its big push to reclaim its image as the capital of Germany, Berlin was home to nearly a dozen alternative housing projects like Tent City called Wagonburgen, literally wagon barricades. In the Netherlands, people build small sheds on their allotment space. With a bed and a solar panel, all they require to flourish is a small plot of land.
A well-established alternative community in Norway, Kristiansand Kommune, draws large crowds of tourists, has its own Web site and is the title of a 1996 song by the pioneering trip-hop artist Tricky. "What's the difference between that and Tent City?" asks Liefhebber. "Why is one a ghetto and the other a special place? We've never given it a chance. What we need to do is offer more possibility for creativity."
Tent City residents salvage materials that have been dumped illegally on the site, augmenting their makeshift shelters. People help each other, as they do in other small communities. Usually a skilled labourer in the bunch -- there are a number here -- builds a frame that's then covered with all sorts of found materials. Skylights and wood stoves are donated. Others buy their materials from their surrogate landlord, Home Depot.
Livable, efficient and flexible structures spring up in a matter of days. Additions are easy. Houses can remain static for years or constantly evolve.
"I built my place in four days," says one of the residents of Billy Lane, whose small house includes a wood stove and herb garden. "I've been living in it for three years now."
Indeed, hardly any tents remain in Tent City. Makeshift structures have replaced them. The materials may not be pleasing to the eye, yet the spaces created are human. Inside, they feel less like hovels and more like quaint cottages. There are strong community bonds between the clusters of homes. The place functions like a warm and welcoming small town nestled within our generally uncaring big city.
One resident calls it "a social experiment that's working."
Joep Van Lieshout, an artist whose alternative architectural works have been shown in museums around the world, has spent time studying favelas -- the shantytown structures of the poor in Brazil -- and models many of his projects on their found-materials approach. The Dutch artist says these buildings have a precedent in early Italian villages, where communities would spring up organically on a mountainside.
Moreover, designing and building their own dwellings instills pride in the community. One resident tells me he prefers the shanty house he built to the prefab homes that have been donated to some residents on the site. "I'm proud to have built it with my own hands," he says.
Van Lieshout says communities like Tent City have very positive environmental benefits as well. They recycle materials, eschew air conditioning and use relatively small amounts of wood for heating. One resident I talk to tells me he'll soon be buying a solar panel from Canadian Tire to generate his own electricity.
But for all the positives, David Hulchanski, a housing activist and a professor with the faculty of social work and the centre of urban and community studies at the University of Toronto, says Tent City is "a good option" (for only a small group of people), which it should not be. "It's transitional housing. It's not adequate housing. In fact, it's an awful way to live. It's a more visible sign of what's happening across the city."
Other advocates for the poor see the situation differently. Beric German of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) is sympathetic to those who prefer the independence Tent City affords compared to shelters, but says he'd like to see sanitary conditions improved. His group dropped off outside showers to residents last week. Tent City is "not dissimilar to some poor communities in the north,' German says. Residents share a hose. Toilets are portable. There is garbage everywhere. The soil is contaminated.
These conditions, he says, could be dealt with immediately "if Tent City were accepted" as a viable alternative.
There are signs this patched-together neighbourhood is moving closer to some of its European counterparts. On my visit, I spot two young women on bicycles gawking, impressed by the brightly coloured sculptures created by one of the residents outside his abode. He smiles and nods in their direction.