It's rare that anyone at the end of the day in the middle of a frenetic election campaign is energized, but Gord Perks is bubbling.
"It's so neat," he says with a grin. "People here are saying to me, "So you're against gentrification, right?'" He speaks like a thirsty person who's just found water.
To hear candidates tell it, Parkdale contenders and voters are meeting and being inspired. Thank lucky 14: with 14 contenders for the Ward 14 council seat, November 14 could be the day Parkdale-High Park gets the representation it deserves. After Sylvia Watson's vendetta against local groups specifically and all things living generally, no place deserves it more.
The centre-right Watson leaves a void in the ward bounded by the lakeshore, Keele and Parkside Drive and the CN train tracks, which is otherwise repped by the NDP. There's no front-runner, only a herd of most-likelies. Each candidate knows Parkdale, feels excluded, is pro-transit and paints him- or herself (with varying degrees of success) as an enviro type. Everyone sees a need for more social programs.
The distinctions are found not in what, but why.
Well, here's a question: would candidate John Colautti, Watson's former assistant, continue her legacy? "She was in a hurry to get things done," he tells me. "That's good, but you need to step back and listen sometimes."
He feels he's gained a reputation as a people person. "People are saying, "Oh, you're the one who helped.' It's important to create meaningful input early in decision-making. Speak to the policy maker, then go to the community, then back to policy."
His own policy on consultation doesn't cohere beyond being in favour of having one. At least he gets specific on housing: "Instead of housing people in places with poor maintenance," he says, "we should give rent supplements. Instead of taking care of a building, take care of the people." But if affordable housing is taken out of the planning mix, would supplements keep up with property values?
Former federal community development officer Ted Lojko, another candidate, would rather fix than nix. "You look at the conditions of private units, it's bullshit," he says. "The city has to start clamping down on [landlords]."
Lojko, whose firm, Urban Environment Group, has built 400 affordable units, believes such housing is good for the economy. And he thinks there are limits to gentrification. "People obviously want to feed off [Parkdale's] beauty. But when people revamp, we lose the background facade that draws filmmakers." His main thrust is negotiations with upper governments, and opines that Lib councillors should be lobbying the province, Tories working the feds. "Instead of the mayor being the emissary, he should be the wedge to start the process."
Lojko seems to be starting with ecology. Given the leafy imagery in his material, I ask him what he brings to the race. His answer is his work during the Lastman era to raise private-sector investments for the Sheppard subway. So he is, by all indications, aware that there is an environment.
David White needs no reminder of that fact, though he sometimes forgets that it extends beyond the lake. He speaks eloquently of the need for an accessible waterfront and little else. A former councillor, he returned to politics through the Palais Royale parking lot debate. "A positive outcome [of that issue] is that the city has agreed to a waterfront plan, and that gives potential to include the people."
With generous prodding, he speaks of his work directing the Supportive Housing Coalition and his passion for a decentralized City Hall. "A Ward 14 councillor [currently] has to read detailed zoning reports for Scarborough. I'm advocating that community councils' powers be substantially increased. People are ready for that," says White, who has the support of John Sewell.
Candidate Rowena Santos also has a high-profile backer, MPP Cheri DiNovo. Santos, executive director of philanthropic fundraiser Emagine, believes in local orgs. "The city talks of essential services without looking to on-the-ground organizations that already have those connections. It comes in with programs that compete with community organizations," she says in a gym on Roncesvalles that's home to the Boxers Against Guns and Drugs program she champions.
"If we're in deficit, we shouldn't reinvent the wheel," she tells me, citing a poll showing that non-profit directors are more trusted than pols.
This is fresh thinking; it's not surprising that Santos has a past in brand management. That's what also gave her the idea for a billboard tax. "They encroach on our public space," she says, "and I know how much these guys are making. There's no reason we shouldn't be taxing them."
Unfortunately, the branding approach falls flat when it comes to questions of crime and poverty. "Queen Street is incredibly dirty, so crime thrives there," she states. Um, right. And? "And we need to really connect with our police officers, have them out there for more enforcement." Okay.
As for gentrification, "if we show them we are in control of our neighbourhood's identity, gentrification will be something we can be balanced about. We can communicate that Parkdale." But who are "they?" And what is Parkdale anyway?
"It's not one neighbourhood," says Perks pensively, sitting in Poor John's Café on Queen. "It's four. The one unifier is that people feel excluded from City Hall." A core member of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, he muses that enviromentalism is actually the locus for every issue in the city.
"Environmental issues are about justice, power and people," he says. "In cities, social issues overlap. And the organizations that work on them have been growing closer and closer." Perks has already had a hand in policies on the green bin, the Metropass and pesticides. He names all the folks in Parkdale who were instrumental in them and rails against Watson.
"I don't know how she can sleep at night, representing these people so poorly. On every street I meet someone I know from some struggle, and I just think of the lost potential."
He rubs shoulders regularly with lobbyists at City Hall, who, I remark, sometimes seem to be the real government. "That's why Miller's government is so fragile. This is the most progressive government in Canada, and it's fragile. That's why citizens need to help it do what it's capable of." He feels Parkdale is a perfect place to lead by example. "The idea that I could be in a space where I could get things done in three years rather than 20 is really exciting,' he says buoyantly.