12 min

The 519 A nip, a tuck & a transfusion

Where will The 519's identity crisis take it?

The boardroom of the 519 Community Centre might be the last place you’d expect to see the ever-so-posh Salah Bachir.

It’s true that a century ago The 519, at 519 Church St, was an annex to the upscale Granite Club and the club’s initials still haunt the mouldings of the old auditorium. But the place has seen better days and the windowless boardroom in particular (actually the former café) is looking down-at-heel. Old grey desks are stacked against one wall, the floor is covered in green and white linoleum, and the ceiling with battered acoustic tile.

At this meeting, two of the other directors are wearing ball caps, at least three of them have the well-worn air of retirees. The perk of the night is pizza.

Bachir, of course, is used to more glamorous settings. As the president of Cineplex Media he moves in such establishment settings as the Canadian Film Centre, where he was on the board for 12 years, and the Art Gallery Of Ontario, where he’s part of the gallery’s capital campaign. A noted collector of contemporary art, he’s also got some buzz in the art world. Last summer part of his private Warhol stash found its way to an Oakville gallery where it almost upstaged a more heavily publicized Warhol survey at the AGO.

But for the past several months, Bachir’s been spending at least one night a month in the somewhat grotty surroundings of The 519’s boardroom where he meets with the 10 other members of The 519’s board. (Eleven, if you count ex-officio member, city councillor Kyle Rae.)

Soft-spoken, Bachir never raises his voice but neither does he hedge his opinions.

“I hate it,” he says more than once. In a room filled with people chatting about “community,” “listening” and other soft-edged ideologies, his business-like forthrightness stand out.

To some observers, Bachir’s election this past September — coupled with five other newly elected members (including two appointees to the previous board) — represents a sea change in the affairs of The 519. As chair of the capital campaign, Bachir has almost singlehandedly nudged the new building to completion. He donated $750,000 in 2003, later upped that sum to a cool $1 million and has helped solicit private and corporate donations worth another $2 million. That’s half the total current expansion budget of $6 million.

The city tossed in $3 million and is also covering the cost of rewiring the old building and underpinning its foundations (apparently it’s slowly sinking into one of the city’s many subterranean streams) but the centre would clearly not have been built without Bachir’s help.

In building the new edifice will Bachir and company remake The 519 in their own image? With backgrounds in government, Bay St business and the media, the new members don’t look much like the people they purportedly serve. Not the homeless who gather every Sunday for free meals and a trip to the mobile health centre, nor even the trans folk who seek shelter, support and protection within the half-dozen-odd iterations of The 519’s internationally renowned trans programs.

So how are these pleasant middle-class folk going to deal with their often marginalized constituents? At the moment, The 519 hasn’t even resolved the question of its own identity — is it a queer centre? Nobody seems to know — let alone the challenges posed by growth.

The new 519 will have almost twice the space of the old. Ideas for filling it abound. The cash to operate it may be harder to come by. With a total annual budget of less than $2 million, the 36-year-old community centre relies heavily on volunteers — more than 1,400 of them. But serious programs require a least some staff support and staff cost money.

The new board has the skills, experience and connections to raise funds but in pumping the budget will it also transform the ethos?

Like Pride before it, The 519 seems to be at a stage in its growth where it’s go corporate or go back. Having embarked on an ambitious expansion program there seems no choice but to go forward. Is this the end of The 519 as we know it?

Traditionally The 519 has been leading edge in its social-justice issues, particularly queer issues. Unlike Toronto’s many Parks And Recreation centres (like, for instance, the new St James Town centre) that specialize in recreational activities, The 519 isn’t about pools or baskball hoops. In fact, it doesn’t have either.

“We don’t do sweat,” says Alison Kemper, the centre’s executive director. An Anglican minister by trade, Kemper dismisses renovation hassles with wry good humour (“At one point I threatened to get a welding licence. I thought it would be quicker to fix the back stairs if I welded it myself.”) but she’s surprisingly hard-nosed about the things that really matter.

Yes, they’ve had complaints about the homeless at the centre, and, yes, people should feel free to contact her if they have problems, but no, they’re not going to stop their advocacy.

“The most effective way of dealing with homelessness,” says Kemper, “is not lunch programs, it’s not delivery of healthcare services on wheels; it’s people with real apartments. We’ve been part of a lot of advocacy to get people off the street and into houses.” Everything else, she says, is just a “silly Band-Aid.”

Nine other community centres in the city operate in the same way as The 519 and some of them do social outreach, but none in the very queer way of The 519. Run by a community board, the city-owned centre provides space for a host of relatively uncontentious community groups like the Latin gay group Hola, the Girl Guides and a queer square dancing group. But it also runs large, staff-supported programs for queer parents, trans people, the elderly and the homeless.

Does the board know enough about these groups to support them? While women are well represented in the management ranks of The 519 and gay men seem to flock to the board, there are no lesbians or trans people on the board. The new board includes a straight woman, a black guy, a Filipino and a former reality-TV star.

Currently the host of OUTtv’s Coverguy, former Lofter Mathieu Chantelois is also the editor of Famous Quebec, a freeby movie magazine produced by the Bachir fiefdom of Cineplex Media. A former cochair of the Canadian Foundation For AIDS Research (CANFAR) Spring For Life awareness program, Chantelois, 33, also serves on the board of Montreal’s Divers/Cité. As of last September, he’s also the chair of The 519 board.

Chantelois says the lack of trans folk and women on the board is a serious problem. But he points out that it’s diverse in having members who are young and old, gay and straight, immigrant and Canadian-born, and people from a variety of linguistic backgrounds including French and Arabic.

Other people aren’t so diplomatic.

“I think The 519’s board at this time is seriously unrepresentative,” says Dick Moore, coordinator of the older GLBT Program at The 519. The lack of women and trans people “is a serious concern to me. That’s a gap in terms of representation.” Moore is so concerned that he has started coming to board meetings to observe the goings-on.

Bachir is more measured in his comments. As an out gay Arab, he is very much aware of his own position as a role model, but he worries that too much stress on representation can lead to witch hunts. He thinks board members should be judged more on performance.

“It’s not a perfect world and sometimes people get elected on their ideas or what they want to do, not on their skin colour or orientation.”

The board as a whole, though, seems determined to tackle the issue. It has the power to appoint directors should any vacancy occur between elections and “those two areas of representation [women, trans people] will definitely be priorities if any vacancies occur during this year,” says board vice-chair Joan Anderson.

The board also hopes to recruit women and trans people for various board committees (several of which are open to non-board members) and will also “be trying to reach out to trans people and to women in the community to run for the [next] board.”

Fears about the board’s composition are not entirely misplaced. The board has more power than you might think. While staff run day-to-day operations, the board sets policy and that extends to the minutiae of approving various funding applications. (A lot of funders want to know that an organization’s board will support a project before they’ll approve a grant.) Until the board adopted a space-use policy in April 2006, it used to approve every application for the regular use of space.

Some of the fears surrounding representation may evaporate as the board itself becomes better known. Due to resignations, mid-term appointments and a system of staggered terms, there are more new faces than usual on this year’s board which may have led to the sense, says Chantelois, that these new board members don’t know the centre. He’s been trying to rectify that perception by calling staff for feedback and going to different 519 programs three or four nights a week.

“I think the more we talk to the users and the staff and the managers,” he says, “the more they’ll see that everybody on the board is absolutely committed to the core values of the centre.”

At the moment, those core values don’t seem in any imminent danger. Indeed the praise surrounding The 519’s core programs is almost deafening.

“I think it’s one of the best community centres in the world that I know of,” says Bachir. He says he’s had a couple of complaints from the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area about the mobile health centre that ministers to the homeless on Sunday afternoons, but notes that the BIA has been otherwise supportive. Kemper says they get some complaints about the homeless people they serve but most of these are indirect. (She encourages people with problems to contact her directly at

The chorus of complaints that often surrounds Cawthra Square Park — particular of the behaviour of addicts and people perceived to be drug pushers — has started to dissipate as people start to realize that the park is not within The 519’s jurisdiction (it’s strictly the purview of the city’s Parks And Rec department, which is supposed to rebuild it soon) and that if they want to stop illegal activity in the park, it’s quickest just to phone the police.

questions of rep-resentation and identity are bound to plague The 519 so long as it remains iffy about its own identity. The 519, you see, is not officially a queer centre. Everyone thinks it is, and you’d have to be blind not to notice the queer thrust of its programs. But there’s no mention of gay, bi, queer, trans or lesbian in the mission statement. The board incorporated a rather cautious statement of its queer identity into a strategic plan completed in 2003, but the board is still weighing the merits of a more direct approach.

Rebranding The 519 as an openly queer centre would seem to be a no-brainer, a simple recognition of a preexisting reality. A recent survey suggests the general public is behind the idea.

“There was a pretty strong sense that our queer identity be affirmed,” says Kemper. “People are very, very, very attached to that.”

Kemper herself is behind the idea. “I think it’s important to say who we are. One of the distinctive elements of the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood is that we have queer bricks and mortar.”

Places like The 519 and Buddies In Bad Times Theatre mean that “we’re not just renters, we’re here to stay and we’re queer to stay. That’s really important not just for our neighourhood but for all of Canada.”

Still, don’t stay up waiting for The 519 to come out. For one thing there’s the problem of who to include. Given its heavy concentration of trans programs, The 519 would presumably label itself something like GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer). But of course any time you include one group, you leave another out. Kemper alludes to the problem when she says that several gay centres, especially in the US, have had trouble making the transition to trans-inclusivity.

Then there’s the not so discreet pressure from the city.

“Kyle [Rae] has expressed that it’s very important that the city knows we understand our mission to the local neighbourhood,” says Kemper, “because that’s what they fund. As long as they saw that we were well established in cognizance of the local community and not only the broader gay community, they’d be happy.”

Translation: Neglect the neighbourhood and you can forget the cash.

There you have the crux of the matter: money. When the dust settles, this board, like many another, will still have to wrestle with the nitty-gritty details of keeping the doors open and the lights on. For that purpose, this newly refreshed board may be exactly what The 519 needs.

Space will be tight for the next year or more as The 519 closes first the new wing, so the interior can be finished, and then the original building, so that it can be renovated. But once the finished structure opens, probably sometime in 2008 (Kemper is coy about the exact timeline, having been wrong so often in the past) there will be a lot of new space and the very interesting question of how to fill it.

Ideas abound. Chantelois, for instance, would like to see morning yoga classes, an art gallery (already in the plans), films with discussions, more programs for crystal meth users and more resources for queer parents and seniors.

“The seniors are doing an amazing job with almost no money. Let’s give them all the rooms they need and all the supports so they can do even more things.” Some of the older men are still not out, he says. “For them The 519 is one of the few places they can go and not be scared of being themselves.”

But who’s going to fund all this?

The city owns The 519 and covers most of its administrative costs (heat, light, management salaries, etc) but program funds are drawn from a patchwork of mostly short-term grants. About a quarter of the program budget, for instance, comes from the United Way, a grant that must be renewed every two years.

Already, 519 staff spend an inordinate amount of time on funding applications. “Would you like to write an entire article on that?” complains Kemper with wry exasperation. The 519 tries to leverage its meagre resources by partnering with other organizations but that still leaves the centre vulnerable to the whims of funding agencies.

Moore, who helms the queer seniors program, says trans programs are popular with funders right now, whereas seniors programs are not. But of course that could change.

The obvious solution to funding instability is private-sector fundraising. But that’s never been The 519’s style; at present it raises only about $150,000 of its $800,000 annual program budget from donations and fundraising. Not just because it’s often inefficient and expensive. There’s also a slight institutional bias against it. While establishment boards like, say, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s, are top-heavy with members who are expected to pull their weight in gold, The 519 has tried to keep a certain distance between itself and fundraising.

“Some boards have a large number of people who are going to help bring money into the organization,” says Anderson. “Other boards try to divide that work in some way. That was the approach at The 519.”

Instead of turning the board into a fundraising machine, they delegated the task to the capital campaign, where Bachir reported not to the board itself but to the executive director.

As the new building grows closer to completion, however, the board has started to rethink its position on private-sector fundraising. Last fall, the new board set up a separate committee to raise funds for programs. Bachir is cochairing the committee together with former party promoter Jason Ford, now a supervising producer at MuchMusic (who used to work with Chantelois at The Lofters — it’s a small gay world).

The goal, says Bachir, is to give the centre a little more financial independence. “I don’t want us to be limited by money so much,” he says.

Most queer agencies in the city draw on corporate funding, says Bachir. “We [The 519] have never really approached corporate or individual funding for programs and I think instead of simply allowing programs to expire or be at the whim of the feds or anybody else I think we all need to plug in those holes. I just want to make sure that we’ve got this great building built and then that the programs all continue.”

Bachir maintains that the funds he solicits come with no strings attached and the same might be said of his own fundraising efforts. The new wing will bear his name and some people have already suggested renaming the entire building in his honour. (The idea hasn’t yet reached the level of a formal motion but it was raised at a board retreat last year.)

Bachir, while grateful, seems almost comically underawed by the idea. He has a room named after him at the AGO, but as he says, “Once the sign is on, who cares?”

For an influential guy, in fact, he seems remarkably uninterested in setting the tone or agenda of the centre. As he sees it, new programs will arise, as they are needed, from community users themselves. Whether people want seniors bowling, programs for abused partners or gay parents, The 519 needs to be open to the idea.

“All I’m trying to make sure is that what we’ve started we complete. I don’t want to change the way the board goes. I don’t want it to be something that it’s not. I think anyone who knows me or what I get involved in knows edgy is not something that scares me off.”

Come the grand reopening of the new 519 in 2008, you’ll almost certainly see more rooms named for corporate sponsors and probably a few more middle-class couples getting married in the groovy new, big-windowed addition. But it’s unlikely The 519 will abandon its ministry to the queer or the marginalized. The 519 has traditionally led from the bottom-up (it’s more of an “incubator” than a generator of community programs, says Kemper) and unless it abandons that tradition of listening to the grassroots, it’s unlikely to abandon its core constituency.

“There are all kinds of new ways of being queer,” says Kemper; and The 519 has responded in kind.