The comments on my now-month-old cover story for The Grid, “Spent,” about being young and getting by on not very much money in Toronto, were wonderful in a way only mostly anonymous comments on a subject like kids-these-days can be: mean, helpful, stupid, funny, thoughtful, outraged, everything. (That three of the article’s five main subjects—Josh, Julian, and Colin—couldn’t resist defending themselves and that their replies only constitute some of the highlights is what I mean when I say the comments were wonderful.) They’re all gone now, though, thanks to a server crash that wiped out a couple months worth of comments on every Grid article that had the misfortune of being published between mid-March and mid-May. But they really were too good to never be seen again, and it took only a few minutes of searching to find a cached version on Google that, for now, still had all of them preserved. If you haven’t yet, read my feature (or maybe don’t bother? many of those commenting didn’t!), and then, please, go on ahead:
You have heard that things are hard and getting harder for twenty- and thirty-somethings. This is true in Canada, as the Globe has spent much ink on showing lately, and especially true in Toronto, where, as I wrote in my cover story for The Grid last week, the cost of living keeps growing while wages don’t: in 2010, those between 25 and 34 years old living in the Toronto area pulled in a median income of $33,300. That’s 1,070 inflation-adjusted dollars less than they would have been making here at the same age in the 1990s, and $4,030 less than in the 1980s.
That’s not the end of the story, though. Those numbers come from Statistics Canada, which has tracked individual incomes across provinces and in the major “census metropolitan areas,” like Toronto’s, since 1976. (It’s CANSIM table 202-0407, and you can see it all here; it only goes up to 2010 at the moment and 2011’s information won’t appear till end of June, most likely.) The numbers jump around a bit year-to-year, but if you get their data for the Toronto area only, and calculate the average median income for each age group in the three complete decades for which that’s possible—the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s—and keep it adjusted for inflation in 2010 dollars, this is what you get:
It looks kind of like things are getting smaller across the board, right? That’s maybe not so clear, though. Here’s a chart of just the differences, for each age group, between the decades:
And here’s that same chart, for each age group, between the decades, showing the percentage difference:
It’s pretty clear: median incomes are lower now than they were before for nearly every age group in the Toronto area—a bit lower than the ’90s, and a lot lower than the ’80s. That’s actually not the case for Canada as a whole. While the median incomes country-wide are a little less, they’ve held up better. Here’s that difference, for each age group, between the three decades again, but for the whole country this time:
Now, income’s only one measure—one of many—of prosperity, or the lack thereof, and there are no doubt plenty of explanations, good and bad, that partially account for why the graph for the Toronto area looks so dire. (Do more people being in school much longer help explain the big drop in earnings for 20–24 year olds? Almost certainly. Could 65-plus-year-olds be the only group making more now than in the ’80s because many of them aren’t retiring, and are still working? I wouldn’t be surprised. Could all the new immigrants this city’s seen over the last few decades who are taking low-wage jobs push the averages for adults lower? Maybe.) If you look at the data, though, it’s hard to feel encouraged about the way the lines are pointing—down, down, down.
You can read my story on getting by in Toronto when you’re young and living somewhere above the poverty line but at or below the median-income level for your age group here. Get ready, 55 to 64-year-olds, because I’m coming for you next.
I think we might all owe John Steckley an apology.
In 1989, the Humber College professor was the one to suggest the name “Ataratiri” for the new neighbourhood that the provincial and municipal governments intended to build west of the Don River’s mouth. Ataratiri—prononced “a-tar-a-TEER-y”—had been a Huron village, located right around here, before the Iroquois destroyed it in 1649. It was a “natural choice for a name,” Steckley told the Star after a city committee okayed it, especially since the Huron once called the land the new development would be on home, too.
When it came to what the word “Ataratiri” translated to, though, the newspapers at the time couldn’t get their stories straight. The Star said it meant “soil, clan and strength” (March 22, 1989), “clay soil found near rivers in southern Ontario” (April 28, 1989), “clay soil by a river mouth” (July 14, 1989), and “supported by clay” (March 19, 1992). The Globe said no, actually, it meant “village by the river built on clay” (April 28, 1989 and May 19, 1989), “supported by clay” (March 7, 1990), “village by the water” (February 2, 1991), and “built on clay” (March 14, 1992 and December 22, 1995). Soon, after the millions-over-budget project was cancelled, the name became little more than a punchline: in an editorial titled “Boondoggle, in English,” the Globe mused that the translation should be “village by a major expressway in a derelict industrial area prone to flooding, built on contaminated soil” (March 13, 1992). Eye Weekly (April 30, 1992) wondered whether “it’s a PR person’s word for ‘confuse the hell out of the public.’” Later, the Financial Post (March 27, 2006) joked that it was “an old Indian word that roughly translates to ‘Swamp of the Taxpayer.’”
I had a hunch that what it really meant would matter, though.
I’d been researching the project, and the name Steckley gave it, for a short feature I was writing about the West Don Lands, the new name for the new master-planned neighbourhood that’s being built right now where Ataratiri was once supposed to go. (You can read more about what happened to Ataratiri there.) Across the southern and easternmost points of the neighbourhood, underneath Don River Park, there’s something called the Flood Protection Landform, or FPL. When a once-in-a-lifetime storm hits, the FPL is designed to deflect the water surging down the Don out towards the Port Lands and into Lake Ontario; otherwise, it could flow over and flood downtown as far east as York Street and as far north as Front Street. And it turns out that what’s doing the most to keep the Air Canada Centre from being underwater one day is layer after layer of strong, dense clay. It’s built in “lifts,” Waterfront Toronto’s Director of Parks, Design and Construction, James Roche, told me, meaning that “you place it, compact it, place it, compact it, place it, compact it,” until it settles, he said.
The more research I was doing, the further away I was getting from a single, definitive definition of “Ataratiri.” If it meant “village by the water,” or “clay soil found near rivers in southern Ontario,” then, yeah, sure, that’d be worth me knowing, but saying so in whatever I was writing wouldn’t have added much. But if it meant something closer to “built on clay”—if it meant that “Ataratiri” had, a quarter of a century later, become a truer name for the plan that was actually getting built than the one that never did, I wanted to find out, and say so.
John Steckley, fortunately, is pretty easy to track down. He’s still a professor at Humber, and seems to have spent the last twenty-four years growing a prodigious beard, racking up positive reviews on Rate My Professors, and writing books, including a Huron to English and English to Huron dictionary. When I called him at his office, we joked a bit about how out-of-the-blue this all must seem, and then he told me what I’d been hoping to hear: that atara “usually means ‘clay’” and tiri means “support.” A good English translation of “Ataratiri,” he said, is “supported by clay.” Perfect.
To the description of Don River Park and the Flood Protection Landform I’d written, I added one sentence about what Waterfront Toronto’s James Roche told me, and another about how, though you won’t catch anyone using it, Ataratiri might have been a fitting name for the neighbourhood after all. (Here, after all, was a neighbourhood—a city, even—supported in every sense of the word by clay.)
There are only so many things you can fit on two tabloid-sized sheets of paper, though, and little historical asides, neat as they may be, don’t always make it. In the course of editing, out both sentences came. It happens, but I can’t help but feel a little bad for a name that was understood little and respected less, a better name than anyone at the time even realized. I know that when Barbara Hall, soon to be elected mayor but then a councillor, was interviewed after Ataratiri was cancelled and told the Star, crestfallen, that “those people who came up with the idea had a dream, and it was a good one then and a good one today,” she meant Ataratiri, the plan. But I feel the same way now about Ataratiri, the name.
There are, it seems to me, two ways of thinking about the merits of the internet when it comes to the writing—or, really, anything—on it: either it’s wonderful, because people who didn’t previously have access to a medium that gave them a chance to be creative suddenly do, or it’s awful, because, by letting pretty much anyone create pretty much anything they want, the vast majority of what ends up being created is crap.
That difference of opinion is not, in and of itself, the interesting thing. What’s interesting is that it’s not new at all.
Take Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” published in 1936. Benjamin writes:
For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press…an increasing number of readers became writers—at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for ‘letters to the editor.’ And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character….at any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.
Benjamin wrote those words with part of Aldous Huxley’s Beyond the Mexique Bay: A Traveller’s Journey, published two years before, in mind; he footnoted it in “Work of Art.” Huxley:
Process reproduction and the rotary press [those big cylindrical printing presses—think of how old movies show newspapers being made] have made possible the indefinite multiplication of writing and pictures. Universal education and relatively high wages have created an enormous public who know how to read and can afford to buy reading and pictorial matter. A great industry has been called into existence in order to supply these commodities. Now, artistic talent is a very rare phenomenon….the proportion of trash in the total artistic output is greater now that at any other period.
Now, the important thing here about “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (and skip ahead if you’re an English, Philosophy, or Art History major) is that it’s, in part, an argument about access. Benjamin argued that an original work of art—like the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre—had an “aura,” but that reproducing a piece by mechanical means (creating a more or less exact duplicate by making a print of a work of visual art, or having a phonograph of a recording of a symphony orchestra) diminished its aura. In doing so, the artwork was made more accessible and public, but also less holy and less special.
But this is worth it, for Benjamin: Rather than the Mona Lisa being off-limits to everyone save for those people who could afford not only a ticket to the Louvre, and were willing to see it under conditions such as the hours the museum was open, but also those who could pay for a plane (or what were they riding back then, zeppelins?) to get there if they were on another continent…instead of barrier after barrier putting greater and greater distance between you and the Mona Lisa, suddenly, you’ve got the Mona Lisa, too, and you can do whatever you want with it. Rather than needing to be wealthy to listen to the London Philharmonic play Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, there it was, playing in your bathroom while you showered.
All of which is to say that, boy, would Walter Benjamin like the internet, and boy, would Aldous Huxley hate it.
Huxley’s argument is about taste as much as it’s about access—he’s talking more about how created things are received than how they’re produced, but, as he sees it, increased access to the world’s printing presses leads to an ever-increasing quantity and proportion of crap. In other words, it’s not just that there’s more crap; it’s that the percentage of good stuff keeps dwindling compared to it. This is more or less correct: I think it’s fair to say that filters, in the form of things like editors or curators or even the market, typically do an okay job at filtering out what’s shitty to leave only what’s less shitty to be distributed.
Where Huxley makes his big mistake is confusing a decreasing proportion of “artistic talent” with a decreasing quantity of it. It’s not as if, for every dumb-as-nails letter to the editor, a T.S. Eliot poem was scrubbed from the earth. What really happens—and I think the internet makes this obvious in a way that print, in the 1930s, couldn’t—is that, whether we are talking about journalism, podcasting, blogging, music, film, art, whatever, there is more “artistic talent” on display now than ever before, thanks to the internet; that there is far more trash than anyone could have ever anticipated, thanks to the internet; that it’s the inherent accessibility of the internet that’s directly responsible for both of those things; and that we really can’t have it any other way. Huxley looked at a growing pile of trash and mistakenly concluded that there wasn’t something wonderful—much smaller, but wonderful—growing underneath it. Artistic talent remains a very rare phenomenon, yes, but there is much more of it on display now that “the distinction between author and public” is long gone, and it’s hard to see how we’re not better off for it.
Put another way: the internet is always getting worse, but it is also always getting better.
Last updated May 27, 2013 (-$4,717.00).
The number above is the total, up-to-date amount of money that OpenFile’s contributors (the ones I’ve spoken to so far) say they’re owed for work they did before the online publication went “on pause” in September, 2012; why I’m tracking that number is what’s below.
Good journalism costs money. Or, at least, good journalists deserve good money. That was one thing that OpenFile always got right, right from the beginning: here was an online publication, in cities across Canada, paying better-than-competitive rates—decent were they print rates, incredible given that they were online—to freelancers, all to write the kind of local news stories that other publications weren’t, or couldn’t. Being able to pay people decently for online journalism was one of the big reasons I took a job with OpenFile as their Toronto Editor at the beginning of 2011, and one of the big reasons why, after I left a few months later (it wasn’t right for me, and there were things in my life I needed to focus on that weren’t work), I remained a fan. I only have nice things to say about how I was treated, financially and otherwise.
Others, though, might not share my feelings.
OpenFile’s been “on pause” since September 28, 2012, when its founder, and my old boss, Wilf Dinnick announced that it was undergoing “a pretty big change over the next few weeks,” and was no longer publishing until “the next phase.”
It took a while before everyone realized that the money OpenFile owed but had yet to pay out to contributors was on pause, too. In an interview in early November with J-Source, Dinnick admitted that “things were a bit of a mess in the bookkeeping”; OpenFile’s bank accounts had been frozen, he said, and the company’s books were in the hands of Canada Revenue Agency auditors. But Dinnick sounded confident. “We hope to have that money released very soon, probably in the next few weeks, but again it is up to an auditor when that is done and when the accounts are loosened and I can write those checks.” Until then, nothing.
I got curious. I started emailing around, and put a call out for contributors to tell me if they were owed money, and, if so, how much. I promised them that if I published anything using their totals, which I wasn’t sure I was going to do, I’d keep their names out of it unless they asked otherwise, and I wouldn’t mention how much any one person was owed, two things I knew that, in their position, I’d probably want.
A few days after the J-Source article was published, on November 12, a small group of freelancers outed themselves and put their names to an open letter, demanding they be paid back. “When the organization closed,” it reads, “many of OpenFile’s freelancers were still waiting to be paid. Some of us had been waiting for months. In late October, several of us emailed company founder Wilf Dinnick, asking when we would be paid. We received no response.”
Later that November day, Dinnick sent an email to some freelancers, promising that “answers / resolution” would come when he’d always said they would, within thirty to sixty days of the announcement in September of OpenFile’s hiatus. (This seemed to be news to the freelancers I’d started talking to.) “So as we are approaching the end of November,” he explained, “we should have clarity on timing. At that point, I will be in touch to confirm the exact release date of your money and your personal invoice information to ensure no confusion.”
“To be clear,” he continued, “you will get paid for your work.”
I still wasn’t sure whether I wanted to write anything about this—and then, whether to write about it here, or for The Grid—and I spoke to Dinnick the next day on the phone and told him as much. He asked that much of the conversation be off the record, but I was left with the same impression that those owed money were: it was on its way, and sooner rather than later. I wanted OpenFile to come back, I wanted everyone to get paid, and, most of all, I wanted Dinnick to be right. He’d told J-Source that “running a start-up is like being punched in the face every day,” and from working with him and seeing how much hard work he put into OpenFile, I believed it. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and decided to wait.
That was three months ago. And here’s where it gets messy.
As December and January came and went, more and more contributors emailed me to get me to add what they were owed to my tally. For several, it was more than $1000. And they also shared messages they’d received from Dinnick that often seemed to contradict each other.
In early December, for instance, some freelancers got an email from Dinnick saying, without promising any exact date, that the audit would likely be finished within two weeks. Towards the end of December, Dinnick told another freelancer that they would receive a cheque within weeks. In early January, others were being told that the audit was now done, but that cheques would be sent out by the end of that month. On January 10, Wilf tweeted to two journalists that payments were “all being wrapped up now.” On January 17, he told Bethany Horne, a former OpenFile Toronto intern and freelancer (before my time) and an OpenFile Halifax curator (after that) in an email that “checks and letters are now being processed and being sent out over the next several weeks.” (Horne was the only person willing to let me quote directly from Dinnick’s emails to her and use her name.) In another email that day, he wrote back with a new deadline: “anywhere from 7 days to 4 weeks. I am obviously hoping for sooner, and since we have been in touch ongoing with the govt, I am sure it will be sooner. So I would guess end of the month or LATEST start of next.”
In another email sent to Horne later that day, Dinnick told her something he told others as well: “I am sending checks NOW so when the cash is released, I will ping you and you can cash, so there is no waiting time.”
By the end of the month, Horne says she still didn’t have a cheque, or her money. She emailed Dinnick again on January 30. “Your check will be delivered when the auditors clears everything and we can send them out, which I am sure has already happened or will happen shortly,” he wrote back.
In early February, Dinnick told another freelancer that cheques were being processed, and that he wasn’t sure how long it would take. Maybe days more, maybe weeks.
All the while, one freelancer tells me that Dinnick “never responded to my e-mails asking about payment,” and several others who say they’re owed money say they’ve been without any sort of update for months, or that they’ve emailed Dinnick but haven’t heard back. Some have given up. Others are weighing their legal options.
But, four and a half months later, none of those I’ve spoken to have been paid yet. None have received cheques. None have received information on the “exact release date of your money,” as Dinnick promised they would have by the end of November.
Enough’s enough. I’ve decided to stop waiting and publish the total amount of money they all say they’re owed, which as I write this in mid-February is $12,530. I’ll keep that number updated above if it shrinks (which I hope it does, soon) or grows (which it will if there are more people out there owed money by OpenFile who haven’t emailed me yet). Maybe everyone who’s owed money is actually just a few days away from getting it after all, but the number may well get bigger before it gets smaller: Kathy Vey, OpenFile’s editor-in-chief while I was there, told me recently that when she left the publication in February 2012, each of the six cities was paying between $4,500 and $6,500 a month just to freelancers.
Last Tuesday, February 5, I emailed Dinnick again. I told him I was writing this, and he agreed to answer, on the record, a list of questions that I sent him. But a week later he still hasn’t, even after three more emails on three different days over the last week from me asking for his replies, including one this morning in which I said I’d be publishing the total today. I’ve finally run out of good excuses to not write this, try as I might to find them. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; after J-Source’s article was published in November, in the email he sent to freelancers, Dinnick wrote that he was “not going to be speaking with the media anymore on this issue, only because it has created confusion.” They’re not the only ones who’re confused.
APRIL 17, 2013
The good news: for the first time, the tally above is going down, rather than up—as of April 9, it was $21,343.50, but as I write this, it’s now at $13,687.00, and it’s likely to keep going down over the next few days. That’s because, nearly seven months after OpenFile went “on pause,” and two months after I published this post, some contributors say they’re finally being paid. (Several got cheques earlier this month, postdated for mid-April, that they’re cashing now.)
The bad news: several of those owed money say they haven’t received a thing yet, several of those who have received cheques say they’re not for the full amount, and I keep hearing from more new people, asking me to add their numbers to the total. Dinnick still hasn’t answered the questions I sent back in February, though he told J-Source right after I published the initial total that everyone owed money would be repaid in “a matter of weeks, and that they were in the “final stretch.” But it’s not quite over yet.
In print in this week’s Grid, I’ve got a sad, sad chart of all of Toronto’s homeless deaths since 1985 that we know about—which is not all of them, as Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary Ministries and record-keeper for the Toronto Homeless Memorial Network, told me. The Toronto Homeless Memorial Network is now the only organization that rigorously documents the city’s homeless deaths, picking up on the work of groups like the now-folded Toronto Disaster Relief Committee.
Still, as Hatlem admitted to me, try as they might, “there’s a lot we don’t get on the list,” especially before 2000 (for a simple reason I’ll get to in a second). And if you look through their list of the dead, there are some obvious problems. There are plenty of John and Jane Does. There are some deaths for which there’s no precise date, and others for which there’s no precise month.
Because it’s tough to draw any clear conclusions when you’ve got data like that, what we ran in print wasn’t an argument (look at how bad this year or month of the year is, or look at how many more people of this age die, or look at how many people die from this cause) so much as a thing that was just supposed to give you pause.
But from what we do know, there are some surprises.
Here’s a graph of all of the recorded deaths, by month, excluding the three in January and one so far in February this year that Hatlem confirmed to me:
Even though the cold winter months are thought of as especially deadly for homeless people, the rest of the year isn’t really that much less so. The three worst months for recorded homeless deaths are February, December, and then…April. And the difference between the worst month of the year and the months in which there have been the fewest number of recorded deaths (May and July) is 55%.
But again, it’s difficult to be certain of any of this, because the other data this chart omits are the sixty-one deaths that the precise month isn’t even known for.
And then here’s a graph of all of the recorded deaths, by year, excluding the four so far this year:
As a friend asked, “What on earth happened in the mid-2000s??” Two things—one that likely affected the number of people dying, and the other that likely affected the number of deaths being recorded. The first was that support for people on welfare plummeted, as Scott Sørli’s “Common Sense Revolution” chart makes clear [PDF]. The second was that, in 2000, the people who were tracking the number of deaths at the time started meeting once a month to share and check information, rather than once a year.
If you’re comparing that yearly chart to the Toronto Homeless Memorial Network’s list, you’ll see that there are two years, 2000 and 2005, where my count of the names on the list gave me a figure one person lower than the group’s count in those years. That’s most likely because of an adding error unnoticed until know, according to Hatlem, though he’s investigating to see if a name that’s supposed to be on the list has been accidentally left off.
What’s more telling of just how difficult their task is are the three deaths that they know about but that aren’t in either the yearly chart above, or the chart in The Grid this week. That’s because there’s no place for them. We don’t know which year they died in—just that they did.
Being a ballet dancer messes up your body in a big way. For a short feature I wrote back in December for The Grid about the damage it can do, I spoke to some of the National Ballet of Canada’s dancers—one, Rebekah Rimsay, already had arthritis in her left ankle by her mid-30s; another, Jillian Vanstone, dislocated her kneecap in July last year. Rimsay ended up being the one of the two that my article focused more on, but Vanstone’s story wasn’t much less harrowing when she told me it from the top of a treatment table as we waited for her physiotherapy appointment that day to start.
Here it is, in full.
Me: What happened?
Jillian Vanstone: So, I was in rehearsal. I mean, it was really flukey. I was warm, first rehearsal of the day, had about five minutes left, and we were learning new material. The coach said, ‘Do you want to do that one more time before we end?’ And I said, ‘Sure, that would be great!”
DT: Famous mistakes.
JV: Right? Good idea. And I just took this one step with my partner that was meant to be kind of off-balance, but nothing really unusual, nothing I’d never done before, and then all of a sudden, the torque of it pulled my knee.
DT: Is it about how you land on it?
JV: Well, it was sort of twisted I suppose. Like, he had—my left hand was holding his right hand, and we were both kind of leaning one way. This knee that was supporting us kind of twisted as I was going forward into another step. It’s kind of hard to describe.
DT: And did you know right away? Were you like, “Oh, shit, that really hurts”?
JV: Well, I fell, and had a second where I just thought I fell. And then, just—the amount of pain was astronomical. I mean, I’d never felt something like that. It was—it was crazy. And then I saw my leg. It looked disgusting.
DT: Did the kneecap—it didn’t come out?
JV, pointing about two inches over from where her kneecap is now: It was here. I couldn’t tell what had happened, ‘cause it just looked so weird, and just the amount of pain—I found out later it’s one of the most painful things someone can experience. [Laughs.] I believe that, I think.
(By November, Vanstone was back on stage.)
One other thing you can find when you spend weeks researching how money’s been spent on trying to fix a problem, in addition to the moment that the problem came to a head, is some sense of context. For one thing, it turns out that the money spent annually in past years on keeping the Gardiner Expressway in good shape isn’t all that different from what’s been spent on it more recently, when you adjust for inflation. In 1984 [CORRECTION: No, wait—1987. Yeah, 1987. Can’t read my own damn chart.], $6.8 million was spent on repairs, which works out to about $12 million in today’s dollars; in 2012, $14 million was.
Here’s what’s actually been spent on repairing the Gardiner Expressway to date:
But all that, it turns out, wasn’t nearly enough—and, as the National Post has reported, was even, in some years, significantly less than was budgeted. (The Post’s 1999 spending figure happens to be $3 million less than mine, because I included the cost of tending to a section of the Gardiner that ended up being demolished over the following four years.) The money needed for continuing repairs to the Gardiner between 2013 and 2022, which was supposed to be $170 million, turned out to be $335 million more than that, a total of $505 million.
Here’s what happens to that graph when you include it:
(I made a larger version of the second chart that you can see here, if you’re curious.)
You can read more about where the money went over the last thirty years, and what it could have been spent on instead in my feature on the Gardiner for The Grid this week.