Toronto
3 min

A community hub

I’m leaning over the marble reception desk, peering at a computer monitor. I take off my overstuffed backpack to get a better look.

The room looks like a very big doctor’s office. To the left of the reception desk is a U of leather sofas facing a flat-screen TV. To the right is a café. Sunshine pours in from a generous bank of windows.

But this isn’t a doctor’s office. It’s the lobby of the 519 Church Street Community Centre.

“No, I didn’t book the room personally, but we’re supposed to have something at 11am.”

The receptionist looks through the bookings, and we’re not listed. Later, I will find out that another member of my group, who had agreed to book the room, had failed to do so.

The receptionist calls one of the other staff members, and together they find an unused corner of the building in a tiny room on the second floor. Her coworker wanders off and returns with a stack of chairs for us. He watches us settle in — just long enough to make sure we have what we need — then slips away.

Since the renovation, I’ve booked small meeting rooms like the one we used that day, medium-sized rooms that accommodate 60, and large rooms that can pack in 200-plus.

To book rooms, I’ve never filled out a form, handed over identification or given my credit card. I wouldn’t have minded, but those kinds of requirements would potentially present a barrier to younger people, those with language barriers and others who form the core of The 519’s client base.

I’ve also never paid The 519 to use the space. In fact, the only time I’ve put down cash at all was when an event moderator asked me to secure a wireless mic for her. It cost about $20 to rent from a Toronto music shop. At that time — last fall — The 519 had already identified an updated sound system as one of its future needs.

There’s no doubt that The 519 played an integral role in the Pride Toronto censorship battle last summer. Not just because Maura Lawless, the organization’s executive director, was part of a group that helped PT come to its senses and launch the Community Advisory Panel exercise.

In the weeks before the parade, hundreds of queers met at The 519 to organize their opposition to the ban on the words “Israeli apartheid.” Some might remember that there was a giant group meeting — which attracted some 400 people — in The 519’s ballroom. But that meeting was just the tip of the iceberg. It was followed by smaller, almost-weekly meetings. The staff at The 519 were agile in responding to room-booking requests — many of them made at the last minute.

It would have been a different scenario if the PT crisis had happened two years earlier, during The 519’s massive renovations. Would the outcome have changed? Well, probably not. But by making space available for activists to meet — whether it be the Pride Coalition for Free Speech, Queer Ontario or Hola — they grease the wheels. The 519 makes it easier for activists to focus on activism, rather than on logistics.

Not that all the kinks are worked out. Over the past year, one flashpoint has been the booking of space by police, which has happened twice. Both times, the centre was mobbed by gays — and yes, I was at both protests — who claimed that the presence of police at The 519 makes people from marginal communities feel less safe.

For its part, The 519 has handled it well, organizing a meeting to listen to critics. While it hasn’t been resolved the way I’d like to see, it’s certainly nice that they’re listening.

At the end of the day, The 519 is working hard to be the kind of accessible, professional space that we all hoped for when the renovations began. If you doubt me, just try lunch at Fabernak, The 519’s ground-level, glassed-in canteen, where you will see the kind of community hub the space has become.

I’m glad that The 519 is there. I’m sure I’m not the only one.