A crowd of feminists makes its way down Sherbourne to Shuter, then east toward River. The neighbourhood doesn't seem so rough when hundreds of women march by your side to the disco sounds of We Are Family.
It's when you turn back and walk through the area alone that the panic sets in. That experience of fear is what's brought some 250 to the 27th annual Take Back The Night on September 8.
This year the march (organized by the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape ) aims its chants at the area around Regent Park, where an alarming number of female sex trade workers have been assaulted.
"Most of the reports we get from women involved in the sex industry (six to eight a night) come from Regent Park," says Wendy Babcock, chair of the Bad Date Coalition . "Women tell us they've been raped, beaten, stabbed, strangled, mutilated and tortured. And we've received complaints about police on River Street who threaten sex workers with arrest unless they provide sexual services."
The Bad Date Coalition estimates it's gotten six anonymous reports over the past six months about officers at 51 Division.
Even women who aren't involved in the sex industry feel let down by area cops. At the rally, workers from the nearby Fred Victor Centre blame slow response as a factor in women feeling unsafe. "The police haven't focused their attention here," says harm reduction support worker Silke Haller . "Even walking home from work is scary. You always have to be on guard. Women are raped and marginalized, and nothing is done about it."
However, 51 Division Superintendent Chris White says the protocol is the same here as elsewhere.
"I monitor all the public complaints we receive, and [what activists are saying] is not the case," he says. "We strive to meet our community response time regardless of location. An emergency call is an emergency call. If they feel the conduct of an officer is inappropriate, they can make a complaint using all sorts of avenues.'
While Toronto Rape Crisis Centre organizer Deb Singh isn't overly optimistic that the nighttime march will necessarily alter facts on the ground, she does say it offers a psychological booster. "Women feel they can take some of that emotional and physical power back," she says.
Still, heading home afterwards, I find myself checking over my shoulder.