The Politics of Poverty: St. James Town Community Revival is a photographically-based engagement with the residents of the St. James Town neighborhood, located in downtown Toronto. St. James Town is one of many Modernist, post-war tower communities scattered throughout North America, and is not without many of the social problems that accompany this type of space. Since the early 1990s, this neighborhood has served as a hub for newcomers to Canada as well as working class and economically-disadvantaged Canadians.
As someone who has lived in this neighborhood for the past four years as an international student in Canada, it felt appropriate to delve into what my neighbors felt on issues pertaining to our living spaces. Far beyond a photographic study, this project was my opportunity to connect with my community. I set out to photograph the faces of every resident that would participate. As well I carried out brief interviews that included my subjects’ names, where they were from, and asked what change if any, they wanted to see in the neighborhood. The photographs were taken in a multi-purpose room in the Wellesley Community Centre. The response I received was overwhelming; forty-one residents came forward to participate over the course of four Saturdays. A true reflection of resident diversity, participants had immigrated to St. James Town from every corner of the world; from as far as Nepal and China, to the Philippines, to those who had been living in St. James Town since its construction in the 60s.
Perhaps more important than capturing the faces of each individual, a point in this project that resonated very strongly for me, as both artist and social activist, is that throughout the portrait sessions and interviews, common threads began to appear between every idea given by each neighbor from the interviews about what kinds of change each resident desired to see occur in St. James Town. As well, the portrait sessions themselves began to provide a common physical space for neighbors to discuss with one another their concerns about the place in which they live. Friendships were forged not only between the subject and photographer, but between the subjects themselves. People who would normally not speak to one another began to do so. Watching this begin to develop was perhaps the most rewarding component of this study.
Regardless of background, income, age and other characteristics, everyone had a strong belief in their vision of what St. James Town should and could potentially become. Everyone felt a dynamic sense of optimism. High rise living can be exhausting and drive one to become very pessimistic and even hopeless and, yet, even those sitters who are currently homeless expressed optimism about their ability to affect the future. As viewers, we are directly confronted with their hope. The question, however, remains: what will change?