Brick Works graffiti sparks debate

One part of the city says it should be removed while another part pushes for its preservation

Distinctive graffiti at the Don Valley’s Brick Works complex may not be art to everyone, but it’ll stay for now.

That’s the message that came out of a meeting between half a dozen municipal and provincial departments and agencies following a bylaw infraction notice served to the heritage facility in January.

“It’s a political decision to be made,” said David Stonehouse, who manages the Brick Works site on Bayview Avenue. “We’ve requested that the site be excepted from the graffiti bylaw. There’s a reason why we have a bylaw, but clearly this site doesn’t fit and that’s what we’ll argue.”

In January the city surprised the organization by serving a violation notice identifying 13 separate graffiti spots around the site and demanding they be cleaned. That sparked media attention and reignited a debate about whether graffiti can be art.

Evergreen, the national not-for-profit organization that runs the site as an environmental and cultural centre, argued the graffiti forms part of the buildings’ unique character. It dates to a period from the mid-90s through 2008 when the site was abandoned and used by youths for parties and urban exploration.

They were also surprised to learn the city wasn’t on the same page. While the municipal licensing and standards department issued the notice, Evergreen has worked closely with the city’s cultural services department, who Stonehouse says has been in favour of keeping the graffiti.

“I was amused,” Stonehouse said. “We have worked with the city for almost nine years to redevelop this site. We’ve worked in partnership with them and I was surprised that one branch of the city wouldn’t contact another branch first before issuing a notice.”
Stonehouse said the notice was served after a member of the public sent a complaint about the graffiti to the mayor’s office. Due to privacy laws he was unable to see the content of the message.

However, Stonehouse noted the Brick Works project received a great deal of public input during planning and development.

“We had hundreds of people to public meetings and to the site and people told us overwhelmingly that they didn’t want this site to be gentrified or sanitized.”

Though some black and white murals around the Brick Works were commissioned, Stonehouse said most of the drawings on the walls were done while the site was abandoned, but frequented by urban explorers and photographers.

“Graffiti was part of that,” Stonehouse said. “To clean it all up and make (the site) pristine would really rob it of its gritty character.”

In a letter to the city, he noted none of the graffiti is offensive in content.

And what’s more, removing it might even damage the buildings themselves. Stonehouse said cleaning agents and scrubbing might harm walls that are already deteriorated.

Councillor Mary Fragedakis, who attended the meeting, said heritage preservation services will work with municipal licensing and standards and will send a report reviewing the situation to community council, likely in 2012 or 2013.

“They’re going to be looking into the cultural value of the tags and the murals,” she said. “Because of (the situation’s) unique nature it’s going to take a bit more time.”

But even if city staff one day recommends removing the graffiti — and council approves — the battle wouldn’t be over. The site is owned by the Toronto Region Conservation Authority and operates under a heritage easement agreement with Ontario Heritage Trust. That means the city requires provincial permission before making any changes to the site.

“Ontario Heritage Trust with Evergreen did a complete assessment of the site for heritage purposes,” said Jim Dillane, director of finance and business services for the Toronto Region Conservation Authority. “It’s quite comprehensive. I have three binders, each about three or four inches thick that contain all of the heritage characteristics of the site.”

He added when Evergreen moved in, it was charged with preserving the heritage features of the site as inventoried — including the graffiti. He also said the conservation authority would support Evergreen’s bid to keep the graffiti as is.

About this article:

By: Joshua Freeman
Posted: Feb 28 2011 1:01 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto