This article was first published in August in the Park People 10 Years Together in City Parks series, and is republished here with permission.
Tasmeen Syed was five years old, walking down Mabelle Avenue with her cousins, when she came across people painting in the park that sits between seven large residential towers in central Etobicoke.
Previously just a neglected space with broken fences, an out-of-order water fountain and eroded slopes that people cut across to get to the Islington subway station, Mabelle Park is now a vibrant park whose lush art gardens, log seating, ice hut, wooden shed and colourful camper trailer bring together the residents within the surrounding Toronto Community Housing buildings, many of them newcomers to Canada, low-income families, and seniors.
“I wanted to paint on rocks and spray paint canvases and wear a funny giant shirt that makes me look like a tiny mad scientist covered in paint, and I’m doing all these fun things and they said, ‘come back tomorrow, we’re gonna do something even crazier’,” recalls Syed of that first encounter with MABELLEArts, an initiative that aims to bring together the Mabelle Avenue community through the creative arts.
She spent that entire summer with the MABELLEarts team and has spent every year since with them. She’s currently wrapping up a role with them as a community mobilizer before she heads off to university.
Her experience seems indicative of the way many of the residents of Mabelle Avenue, the 4,000 people who live in the towers belonging to Toronto Community Housing, have come to encounter MABELLEArts: an initial sense of curiosity that leads to committing many days and nights enjoying activities with the dedicated MABELLEarts team.
Creating a sense of place
Nicolette Felix, the director of community mobilization at MABELLEarts, says that the area is an underserved pocket that nobody really knew existed. It’s a drop of density in the largely low-rise suburban west end of Toronto, and although tucked between fairly busy streets it only has walkable access to a small number of amenities, including a dollar store, a middle school, and a smattering of restaurants.
“It’s surprisingly small considering how much happens,” says MABELLEarts Artistic Director Leah Houston.
“It’s quite hard to find, if you’re driving by you may not even see it,” adds Felix. But, she adds, MABELLEarts “really put Mabelle on the map.”
That attention, in turn, generated funding opportunities, which help to sustain the programming. The additional funding “allows us to serve more people in our community, and we’ve been able to create employment, because, as our programs expand, we need more hands-on-deck,” says Felix. “There are no better people to hire than folks who live on the block, who understand the needs.”
The park itself is owned by Toronto Community Housing, and its support enabled the opportunity to work directly with the residents of Mabelle Avenue. “We’ve been able to co-imagine and make real the kind of park we want to have in a way that could be more challenging if it was a City of Toronto park,” says Houston.
Houston founded the organization in 2007, born out of working with Jumblies Theatre, which brings theatre into urban neighbourhoods. Houston brought the spirit of Jumblies to Mabelle Avenue, with a focus on bringing art into places where it normally doesn’t exist and bringing people together in public spaces.
Children and their families who are involved with the Arab Community Center of Toronto (ACCT), a non-profit that helps in the settlement of newcomers to Canada, are among those who have benefited greatly from participating in MABELLEarts events.
“When it comes to newcomer families that we serve – and ours is not an area that is paid attention to for many reasons – where they come from, art is a luxury type of thing,” says Dima Amad, the executive director of ACCT. “Children, youth and families don’t get to really participate in art-based activities that will contribute to their mental health and well-being, that will bring them together in a space where they are learning new things, but also to know other people.”
Despite the pandemic pause on many of the activities in the MABELLEarts calendar, you’ll still find their stamp everywhere on the grounds, with colourful flags, engraved art, and gardens and planters filled with brightly coloured flowers and native species. Comfortable spots with benches and hand-carved wooden stools invite passers-by to sit. A signature fire pit with a MABELLEarts cover on it is dormant, waiting for the time when it can be fired up for cooking once again.
Setting up a presence in that space was integral to building trust among MABELLEarts’ community.
“[Trust] comes from being in the same place for so long and publicly visible because we’re out in a park,” says Houston. “Even people who don’t participate know us, and they see a kind of tangible outcome of our presence.”
A number of temporary outbuildings include a trailer that serves as a mobile café, a woodshed, and a former ice fishing hut, all of which have been “Mabelle-ized,” meaning artfully decorated with brightly coloured paints. The organization plans to open a permanent space in Mabelle Park through the Mabelle Arts Project (MAP), a community centre that will be a clubhouse for MABELLEarts programming and serve food via its community kitchen.
“My interest as an artist was really in land-based work, public space, working outdoors, fusing food and gardening and outdoor activity with art,” says Houston. “More of ceremony, ritual, and events rather than a classic theatre piece with a script and actors.”
That philosophy has resulted in years of activating a space that would have otherwise been unused and encouraging the community of Mabelle Avenue residents to come together through performances, workshops, events, and activities like smashing watermelons to mark the end of the school year. For that event, the youngest or newest child in the community smashes the first watermelon on the ground, while a marauding chorus of trolls yells and shakes their fists in the direction of the local school.
The focus on every age being engaged is a core part of what MABELLEarts does, including a range of youth and elder events. “Working intergenerationally was really important because it was an opportunity for whole families to do something together, which is often missing in our society,” says Houston. “You sign up for a program for your son or your grandma,” she adds, pointing out that not many full-family activities exist in the city.
Adjusting to the pandemic
Just as many other organizations had to rethink how they could operate during the COVID-19 pandemic, MABELLEarts had to pivot as well, temporarily putting aside much of its in-person arts programming, which required gathering in large groups.
“Being there every day was something powerful about us as an organization,” says Houston. “We’re not there every day anymore, but in some ways, we’re even more connected to people with wellness calls, and that initiative continues to this day.”
The pandemic also brought out the launch of the MABELLEpantry, after the discovery that Mabelle Avenue was in a food desert. The program is dedicated to getting food to those who need it. It takes place every Wednesday in the park, which is set up to look and feel like a farmer’s market, with bales of hay stacked near tables full of fresh produce.
Houston began driving to the grocery store and buying food for 10 households, “hoping that people didn’t think I was a hoarder.” Now the pantry assists 550 households, with volunteers bringing food to building lobbies for those who can’t travel to the park.
There are no plans to close up the pantry once the pandemic is over. “No matter what phase we were in, or what reopening, we realized that this was something that needed to continue,” says Felix.
A core mission of MABELLEarts is infusing all activities with art, theatre and design, and Houston admits that finding a way to incorporate that into food security was hard. They decided to have two therapeutic clowns play with people in line at the pantry, while at the same time ensuring everyone stayed safe and six feet apart.
“On the one hand, it encourages and actually enforces people to social distance, but it’s also like bringing a kind of black humour into what is a very serious situation,” says Houston. “I’ve loved watching them play with people in the pantry, and defuse anger and conflict with their silliness.”
Houston participates as well, as the emcee, in an eye-catching outfit. “I try to be really funny, silly, and warm with people,” she says. “The premise is that we’re playing with the pantry as if it’s a party or rock and roll. But what it is, is a food bank.”
“Most people in the food bank business care a lot about human dignity and privacy, and they want people to leave feeling good, but not a lot of food banks are concerned with humour and beauty. And we really are,” she adds.
Focusing on food security during the pandemic has also brought in more participants than usual, in particularly isolated seniors.
“People who might not have necessarily been comfortable coming out to sit and listen to some music if they didn’t know people, or just that it was too much work with their walker, those people are all coming down now,” says Claudine Crangle, MABELLEarts fundraising lead. “There’s a broader group of people who, I’m positive, will be even more involved in the arts and culture pieces as they’re starting to really ramp back up.”
“What people tell us over and over again is, you are my family. I’m here from another place, I don’t know a lot of people and I see you as my family,” says Houston, recalling a common refrain she hears at the pantry. “Between us as a staff, I would say we know everyone unless someone is new …. We can greet them almost all by name between us.”
For senior Bernadette Shulman, participating in MABELLEarts has eased her loneliness and introduced her to new things, like drawing, sewing, beadwork, and even some dances.
“It makes life more enjoyable,” she says. “When I walk down Mabelle Avenue, people are calling my name and sometimes I don’t even know them. But I smile because they have to know me from MABELLEarts because it’s only MABELLEarts in this community where everyone actually knows each other.”
Looking to the future
The future of Mabelle Park is all about doubling down and creating permanent infrastructure that will enable the organization to invest even more time with the residents.
“We’ve been in the neighbourhood for so long, and because our work was so deeply collaborative, we built a profound amount of trust and eagerness to do things,” says Houston. “Imagine 100 households who are just really keen to do stuff with us, and we realized that that was a really unusual opportunity, so we started to think about what we might be able to do with that level of trust and willingness to collaborate.”
That brought them to create MAP, the multi-year strategy to really solidify MABELLEarts’ position in the community with a permanent clubhouse, a more official role as an intermediary between TCH and the tenants, and a plan to work together for more community improvements.
MAP is moving forward, and Houston says they’re busy working on the final design for the permanent community centre and securing funding.
Felix says that having a permanent space dedicated to MABELLEarts will allow for the expansion of arts programming, provide a community kitchen, and enable the seeding of micro-businesses that would be run by community members.
The social enterprise projects are in the planning phase, and Felix says there are many untapped potential business ideas waiting for an opportunity.
“There are a lot of folks who live on Mabelle that have prior experience in the food industry and we’re seeing people coming into the pantry and telling us about things that they’ve done in the past, and all their hidden talents, and we’re hoping that we can harness that and develop some programming that trains people how to run their own business and then cycle it through the MABELLEpantry and sell back to the community while keeping many of our other initiatives going,” she says.
For the moment, the team of youth summer staff is working on beautifying the park, with a lot of gardening and planting, for the community that’s slowly emerging from their towers. The MABELLEarts team is putting down seeds for what they hope will be more beautiful community engagement for years to come.
The people behind this community arts organization are passionate about the work they do, and it’s that commitment that truly unifies the Mabelle Avenue residents in unexpected ways, from smashing watermelons together to intercultural Iftar nights, with food, ceremony and arts that activate the park during the month-long Ramadan observance. It’s a bright, joyful spot in a pocket of Etobicoke that could have remained dark and unused.
“I’ve never even heard of anything else like this,” says Syed. “It surprises me that other people don’t have a weird organization in their park.”
Top illustration by Jake Tobin Garrett.