I grew up in India where playing an active role in your community was extremely important. The neighbours knew each other and celebrated festivals together. Whenever my mother ran out of an important ingredient while cooking, she would give me the sacred responsibility of asking my neighbour to lend us some. For me, community was something you could rely on.
After moving to Toronto for further education in 2021, I experienced a serious culture shock. For the first time, I was without a community. I felt as if my own skin was missing from my body and the task of building a community from scratch seemed vital. I attended different events at school to meet new people with similar interests to mine, but failed to find commonalities that might connect us (except for country of origin). In the second semester, an instructor introduced my cohort to East End Arts (EEA) for an assignment. We were briefed that it is a non-profit organization that runs art-related community projects in the East End of Toronto (Wards 14 and 19). East End Arts provides opportunities and platforms for artists of all ages and levels.
For instance, in August 2022, EEA hosted a five-day-long summer arts program called Girls & Enby Mural Camp. It caters to 14 to 18-year-old youths who identify as nonbinary or girls. It was the perfect community-building platform in the Danforth neighbourhood: the young participants were able to explore the history of street art, graffiti, and murals while developing their distinct artistic style. Meanwhile, artists Monica Wickeler and Bareket Kezwer guided the camp through in-class learning and at-home practice.
Despite being only nine years old, East End Arts has provided a safe and lucrative space for East End residents— including the Danforth area—to express their creativity. In 2020, EEA launched #DestinationDanforth in collaboration with the City of Toronto and StreetARToronto. #DestinationDanforth was a huge project, situated on Danforth Avenue between Broadview Avenue and Dawes Road, providing an expanded walking and cycling area while beautifying the Danforth with five art murals. These massive pieces of art represent different themes. For example, “Neighbourhood Love” displays the essence of the community through a colourful aerial map of the Danforth; “Resilience” features a red-tailed hawk breaking apart many wheels of oppression; and “Giants of the Danforth” shows uplifting characters who bring warmth to the community.
EEA also launched a project inspired by Brandon Stanton’s photography and blog project, Humans of New York, called Humans of the Danforth. This project involved transforming storefront windows into gallery spaces featuring large-scale portraits of local business owners, with QR codes that were linked to audio recordings of their interviews. Today, EEA has successfully shifted many of their programs online to introduce accessible engagement. Chelsea Virginia, Communications Manager at EEA, approves of this addition. “There’s a lot of accessibility pluses with being able to offer [events] online. We [are] able to connect with people all over the world that we otherwise would not have been able to,” Virginia explains.
The current bi-monthly Anti-Oppression Book Club is the perfect example of EEA’s successful online programs that open doors for people who cannot participate in person. Its second season (September 2022–May 2023) is led by Lalaa Comrie, an award-winning writer, literacy advocate, book blogger, and host of the podcast Getting Lit. Anti-Oppression Book Club is free of charge and welcomes 40 participants in each session to engage in inclusive conversations and develop a deeper understanding of one another. Their mission is to spread empathy for the world around us by inviting the community to discuss great works of literature.
EEA strives to make their program planning straightforward for participants. Every spring, they send out their annual survey to determine what kinds of programs the East End community wants. Virginia adds, “It’s just about being vocal, being connected, telling us what you want to see more of. We’re so receptive to [hearing] people’s feedback and ideas.” Through these annual surveys, people can bring new ideas to the table and allow artists and community members to experience new skills and art forms. One such program, which is always a community favourite, is the online tapestry program for seniors. It is a part of the textile arts initiative and it is free of charge. It empowers seniors to learn new textile skills and gives them an opportunity to showcase their creations at an exhibition at St. Matthew’s Clubhouse.
I was pleasantly surprised to find similarities between the community I grew up in and the one I began exploring in Toronto. The festivals and local events in India were inclusive—anyone, despite their age, profession, or gender could participate. The community outreach events organized by EEA involve every part of the East End community of Toronto, including the Danforth. The best example of this is the yearly Nuit Blanche art celebration. This sunset-to-sunrise, city-wide event is a celebration of art and stories. It cultivates collaboration between local business owners and artists, resulting in storefronts being turned into galleries. People from the neighbourhood can walk down their street and view contemporary art. In 2022, the East End exhibits of Nuit Blanche were organized between Greenwood and Woodbine subway stations. The artist Diana Reyes, also known as Fly Lady Di, turned a gymnasium into a silent disco of mycelial meditations. In this artistic cocktail of music and peace, the attendees could celebrate relaxation, healing, and togetherness through a dance party. Meanwhile, the young artists from the Girls & Enby Mural Camp showcased their City’s Sewers—The Space Beneath Us mural, representing a complicated tangle of life.
In my search for a community in Toronto, it was a pleasure to find one that is held together through art. I realized that despite different upbringings, we can connect through something as personal as creativity. East End Arts offers something for everyone as long as they feel inspired to indulge in or even glance at anything they believe to be art. I am ready as ever to participate in different events and make my own community in the process.