Hiya! My copy of Down to This was acquired at the U of T Victoria College book sale held every fall.
From some indeterminate moment of genesis in the late 1990s, until September 2002, a homeless community thrived on the south-east corner of Toronto’s downtown. At the mouth of the Don river there’s a post-industrial wasteland that joins the waterfront with the decaying portlands that a group of self-reliant vagabonds built shelters on. These grounds were apparently contaminated with beryllium and other toxins, and many of the people who lived there were struggling with mental health, substance abuse issues, and other personal issues. Still, they built a community that, to some extent, worked. The people who lived at this site were evicted in fall 2002, and now, almost a full 10 years later, the site remains a fenced off waste.
|Tent City Toronto: 2001|
|2005 view of Tent City grounds, taken from Citynoise.org|
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall is a writer who, in the spirit of gonzo journalism, lived at Toronto’s tent city from November 2001 until the date of eviction. Bishop-Stall, however, went beyond any of Hunter S. Thompson’s endeavors, by becoming fully integrated into the community. He drank with the Tent City dwellers, occasionally smoked crack with them, fought with them, and talked and joked with them over that ten month period. When Bishop-Stall was beaten up by some of the rougher inhabitants of the place, he didn’t pack up and leave immediately, in fact he stayed for many more months. Down to This is a day-to-day account of Bishop-Stall’s experiences as a part of this community, with text under date headings to show the movement through time. The precession of events at Tent City during this period went from a cold winter of communal bonding, to a hot summer of crack that brought the city to an end.
Bishop-Stall’s work is not just an account of life in the temporary makeshift village, it’s also a story of his own problems, as he weaves in memories and accounts of dreams of a failed relationship into his on-going narrative. Furthermore, the activity of writing, of protecting his notes, and the signing of his publishing deal for Down to This are all incorporated into his story of living at the Tent City. After the author secured publication for this book he began interviewing many of his neighbors about their lives, what brought them to this point, what kept then on the street, etc. Bishop-Stall appeared to become good friends with many of the tent city inhabitants, and he manages to humanize them in his writing without idealizing them or treating them as either charity cases or lost causes (even if they did have long-term issues with addiction, committing crimes, mental health, etc).
The most interesting aspect of Down to This are the detailed descriptions of the lifestyles of tent city’s inhabitants. The dwellings made from plywood and found (or often donated) materials, the often unseemly methods of bringing in an income (Bishop-Stall hustles pool at a dive bar and he discusses one scenario where he sees an acquaintance crash his bike into cars and then demand money from the drivers), the constant drinking (tall cans of Crest Strong) and shouting and screaming and fighting. One persistent feature of life in tent city was illness, the author was perpetually suffering from a variety of ailments throughout the book, recalling similar accounts of rough living as told by authors such as Ted Conover in his personal hobo adventure tale Rolling Nowhere, and others who have thrown themselves into this kind of lifestyle for the sake of writing.
Tent City was a major embarrassment to the Toronto municipal government, and garnered international media attention for a brief period of time in the early 2000s. The city had to shut it down to hide its shame... not only that but during the city’s final summer crack dealers were setting up shop, and the tent city was becoming an example of a Sadistic counterpart to Hakim Bey’s concept of the ecstatic and carnivalesque temporary autonomous zone. It was not only residents of tent city who were consuming the crack, but Bishop-Stall described scenes of middle-class teenagers coming down to buy the stuff. At that point tent city was becoming a high-profile law-free zone open-air drug market that no government could knowingly tolerate. For Bishop-Stall, the eviction of the tent city population was bitter sweet, as the community was broken up but everyone was given housing.