What would Bishop Strachan have thought? John Strachan, the upright Scot who was the first Anglican bishop of Toronto, founded Trinity College in 1851. The site on Queen Street West is now Trinity Bellwoods park, a busy urban oasis where hipsters lounge in the grass, people of all races and classes stroll together, and – horror of horrors – citizens can be seen drinking alcoholic beverages without a trace of shame.
Yes, Your Grace, Toronto has changed. People in modern-day Toronto can drink on patios under the open sky, drink in bars till the small hours, even purchase spirits from government-run alcohol emporiums. What they cannot do, at least under the law, is drink in a public park.
Police have issued more than 100 fines of $125 for drinking at Trinity Bellwoods in the past two months, a crackdown that has annoyed many users of the park. Why should the cops ticket people who are merely sipping from a plastic cup of wine as they enjoy an outdoor meal or tipping back a beer while playing Frisbee? It’s a good question.
Most of the drinkers in the park are responsible and moderate. When I visited at around 10 p.m. one day last week, it seemed pleasant and safe. Knots of young people sat in circles, bikes splayed on the grass around them. Couples played catch or sat on park benches. Joggers and dog-walkers enjoyed the fragrant night air. A Chinese father in pyjamas walked with his toddler. The lights from a softball game illuminated a corner of the grounds.
The park has evolved with the city. The young people drawn to the downtown for its growing urban hum use it as a kind of public front porch. “It’s one of the perfect examples of how an urban park needs to function,” says children’s-rights activist Amanda Penrice, who planned to hold her 27th birthday there. “In this neighbourhood, where things are so expensive – it’s a fortune to go to a bar or restaurant – this is a really accessible space.”
At a public meeting on the issue last Thursday, dozens of residents turned out to speak. Instead of complaining about rowdiness at the park – the usual NIMBY response – they implored authorities not to destroy the ambience of the place by cracking down indiscriminately on anyone who opens a bottle or pops a tin. Far better, they said, to post notices setting out a code of conduct, keep washrooms open later to prevent people from resorting to the bushes, or simply crack down on those who are truly drunk and disorderly rather than fining everyone having an innocent tipple.
Impossible, say police. “The law is the law and we are not at liberty to discriminate between who gets ticketed and who doesn’t get ticketed,” Mario Di Tommaso, the local police commander, told reporters on Thursday. Really? Police make judgment calls all the time about who to stop for jaywalking or speeding or any number of small offences. Surely police could exercise a little discretion at Trinity Bellwoods without the crowd running riot. Better yet, authorities could change the rules to allow, say, drinking along with a picnic.
Despite the changes that have swept over Toronto in recent decades, there is still a tinge of prudery in this town, an echo of Toronto the Good. Torontonians like peace, order and good government as much as anyone and no one wants the parks to turn into a 24-hour open bar, but, if the reaction to the issue in Trinity Bellwoods is any indication, they prefer not to be treated as children. Officials should be able to control occasional misbehaviour in the park without squashing the unique and quite wonderful scene in Bishop Strachan’s old haunt.