Councillor Josh Matlow

Yonge Street: Game on! A new sports festival attempts to erase the divide between jocks and nerds

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


“Did you know that playing hockey in the street is illegal in Toronto?” asks Jeff Gruchy.


As a kid who grew up playing ball hockey “and pretty much every sport there is” on the streets of Toronto, the adult Gruchy is still galled by a rarely-enforced city bylaw, which wields a $55 fine for an activity he says is a huge part of our Canadian cultural history. Now a supervisor of the Healthier Living Centre at Downsview Services for Seniors, Gruchy routinely sees how sport and physical activity improve the lives of people of any age and he decided to become an advocate. Last month, his enthusiasm for games spilled out into the streets of Brampton with a first-ever public multi-sport event, aimed at building connections among people and between residents and their urban environments through pucks, balls, bats, rackets and hula hoops.


“It was great to expose people to the possibilities of disabled people participating in sport,” says Ken Hall, director of sledge hockey for Cruisers Sports for the Physically Disabled. His group set up rounds of wheelchair basketball on Main Street. “I can see how it could grow even bigger next year.”


The origins of StreetSport, which attracted about 250 people to its inaugural event on Brampton’s Main Street, goes back more than a year. Gruchy was among the 25 applicants chosen for an annual fellowship with DiverseCity, a leadership skills development program created by CivicAction and the Maytree Foundation. Intended to nurture leadership in and among underrepresented racial and ethnic communities, the fellowship groups participants together to create action projects for the city.


During a gathering of 2011 fellows, Gruchy met Michael Went, a financial adviser at the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and also an avid cyclist and traveller. Went told him about the Ciclovía he experienced in Bogotá, Colombia. Every Sunday and holiday, the city’s Calle 7—a major traffic corridor that might be compared to Bloor or Yonge street in Toronto—is closed to vehicular traffic as thousands of residents claim it for their own recreational enjoyment. The smell of exhaust fumes disappears as more than 100 kilometres of thoroughfare turn into bike trails, dance spaces, soccer fields, yoga classes and more. The idea has spread to other cities in Colombia and around the world. Bogota’s former Commissioner for Parks, Sports and Recreation, Gil Peñalosa, now leads the 8-80 Cities project here in Toronto, advocating for “people-oriented cities” though events like Ciclovía.


In his attraction to sports, Gruchy had originally been mostly interested in the competition of them. Through his work with seniors in North York, many of them disadvantaged, he became more politicized and saw sport as “a great medium to work with these kind of issues.” For his part, Went realized how Gruchy’s passion for sport was a kind of urban activism.


“I’m not sure where I placed on that sports/politics continuum,” says Karim Bardeesy, editorial writer for The Globe and Mail, “but I wanted to do something concrete and the idea of public participation in public spaces was exciting.” He joined Gruchy, Went and a fourth DiverseCity fellow, David DeForest, who is multilingual services coordinator at the City of Brampton, in the project. This disparate quartet of jocks and wonks developed StreetSport over months of meetings, retreats and the occasional barbeque.


“Just defining what it would be was a challenge,” says Gruchy, “We had four completely different backgrounds.”


Bardeesy says at one point in the discussions, the phrase “Nuit Blanche for sports” came up. “I could just see it all in my head.” Their event would not only entertain, but reshape the urban environment, drawing out people who may not see themselves as particularly sporty—or urban. DeForest took the lead in organizing the flagship StreetSport event on Sep. 17. Set up next to Brampton’s Saturday farmers’ market, hundreds of people came out to play everything from traditional street hockey to the Brazilian sport of peteka, which Gruchy describes as “badminton played with your hand, like volleyball.”


Athletics are only part of the picture. The StreetSport team suggests that city residents can learn a lot about each through play, which erases demographic boundaries. At the Brampton event, middle-aged men played street hockey, housewives learned to belly dance, people without mobility issues played wheelchair basketball, a multi-racial group ranging from six to 60 demonstrated karate and young kids discovered curling. Even the people who didn’t join in, says Gruchy, “still talked to people and watched some games and connected with others…. Just seeing it all come together was great.”


As the StreetSport team begins planning events to be held during next summer’s Ontario Summer Games and eventually the 2015 Pan Am Games, they want to bring inclusivity to what would otherwise be mass spectator events. Not every activity has to be large-scale and star-studded. That’s where StreetSport will likely diverge from the once-a-year Nuit Blanche model.


“We’re still talking about whether we’ll be a permanent organization or franchise it out to other people,” DeForest says. The real goal is not any one event but a movement. “If this half-day event can then inform and inspire something regular, I would feel we’ve actually done something worthwhile.”


DeForest recognizes that the goal of closing city streets to vehicles for public activity rubs some people at City Hall the wrong way. “We’ve had a deliberate strategy to start in the outer suburbs and work inward.” (It’s also worth noting that Brampton doesn’t have a street hockey bylaw.) Still, the project has its allies on Toronto council. Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27) has already proposed closing parts of Yonge Street for a Ciclovía-style pedestrian area. Josh Matlow (Ward 22) began working months ago to rescind the street-hockey ban that Gruchy hates so much.


The ban, which goes back to the 1970s, was passed to protect the city from liability for injury or damage. Under Matlow’s current proposal, “any block of any street can apply to have the ban lifted if something like 70 or 80 per cent are in agreement.” The StreetSport team wrote Matlow a letter of support.


“Anything that gets people out into their streets with their neighbours is great,” says DeForest.


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