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519 completes renovation project

New programs set to grow membership base

Salah Bachir (left) and 519 executive director Maura Lawless inaugurate The 519's completed renovations at the May 19 open house. Credit: Tony Fong

After years of messy construction, the 519 Church Street Community Centre finally unveiled its completed renovation project on May 19 with an open house that attracted a broad spectrum of representatives of Toronto’s queer communities.

“Now that we have the resources and infrastructure in place, we can be deliberate about fundraising,” says Matthew Cutler, The 519’s manager of resource development and communications. “We can now run some high-price-ticket events, like bringing in a celebrity chef for a dinner party, events that will not only fund our programs, but give people a meaningful connection to the space.”

“We were turning people away,” says The 519’s executive director Maura Lawless. “We just didn’t have enough space for groups to meet.” But a 45 percent increase in the space ensures “that we are accessible for people who have low incomes, who are marginalized, but also for a broader range of people.”

“There’s a strong assumption that if you’re coming here every week to learn things, you’re going to be more likely to want to support the centre,” says Cutler.

But in the past, not everyone has been comfortable about some of the people that linger in Cawthra Square Park, next to the building.

“There is a public concern, but the reality of it is that the park isn’t ours, it’s a City of Toronto park,” says Cutler. “We’re working with the police to stop illegal behaviour.”

Salah Bachir, the centre’s honorary patron, says he has fielded many complaints over the years.

“At one point, people were against some programs like the Health Bus and the needle exchange,” he says, also noting opposition to the free meals and clothing drives. “But my God, what should a community centre be if not that?”

“For me, The 519 has always been there,” Bachir says. “I went to some 12-step programs there and would meet friends, and pick up issues of The Body Politic.”

“I learned about their programming, and the more I saw a need for it, I felt I should put my own money in,” says Bachir. “There are so many causes, and The 519 is home to all of them, so it was a no-brainer. I may not agree with everything that goes on there, but that’s the beauty of it: it’s a space for people to do and create and become what they need to be.”