As a summer marred by violence once again puts Jane-Finch in the headlines, resident filmmaker Paul Nguyen shows us the ’hood behind the hype.
Walking along Jane Street in 30-degree heat last Thursday, local resident Paul Nguyen pointed out Yorkwoods Plaza, where 15-year-old Tahj Loor-Walters was fatally shot in July. When he was growing up in the 1980s, Nguyen would swipe quarters from his parents’ coin-operated washing machines and play Street Fighter at the plaza. As he fed the change into the game, Nguyen said, he was usually surrounded by “shady types,” but he never felt threatened. And no one seemed bothered when he and his friends would buy BB guns at the Sunday flea market and walk through the neighbourhood making amateur movies—even though, as he recalled, the guns looked like the real thing.
But when Nguyen used his filmmaking skills to launch the community website Jane-Finch.com in 2004, he’d come to see his neighbourhood differently. He couldn’t ignore the people who told him the area was dangerous. And the news, with its intense focus on the area’s guns and gangs, didn’t help, either. “I never had a concept of being scared until I grew up and kinda understood the news,” Nguyen said. Today, the site offers coverage of small events that larger media outlets ignore, like community environment days and town hall meetings. But in the midst of a brutal summer that recently saw teens Kwame Duodu and O’She Doyles-Whyte murdered just south of Jane and Finch, the site has provided insider coverage of the neighbourhood’s crime problem.
One video features Duodu’s family being guided through an interview by a Jane-Finch.com reporter while journalists from major media outlets look on. The 12-minute clip, in which Duodu’s uncle pleads for people to come forward with any information that could lead to an arrest, reveals Nguyen’s preference for coverage that goes beyond short segments and brief sound bites. And the website’s staff have a kind of access only available to locals. “They come to us,” Nguyen says of the people in the videos. “They give us the story—there’s that innate trust, because we’re from here.”
As he walked across the Jane-Finch Mall’s sweltering parking lot, Nguyen mocked a recent suggestion to rename the area University Heights, calling the proposal “lipstick on a pig.” The neighbourhood faces serious problems, he said, but so much of what people think they know about Jane and Finch is “hype,” the word he uses to criticize sensational news stories or unfounded fears. When local stores close early because they’re afraid to stay open late, or when a broadcaster comes to do a story on the neighbourhood’s brighter side accompanied by “Soprano-looking” security guards, they’re buying into the hype.
Nguyen sees his website as a counterpoint to the bad press, not only because of the its content, but because of the success he and his colleagues have had in spite of the obstacles that hobble Jane-Finch’s kids before they even leave the neighbourhood. Nguyen and his colleagues cover the area with the kind of care that comes with a lifetime spent at ground level, which serves as an example for people who may otherwise think their story will never be told.
Local kids, like the ones rolling down a grassy hill near the mall, will eventually understand how the rest of the city sees their home turf, like Nguyen did. And when they do, they’ll need someone to show them that their postal code isn’t their fate, to give them perspective on the area’s history. What most people know as a hotbed for crime is also a place where Nguyen remembers residents tossing popsicles off their balconies to children playing below.
At one point in our tour, Nguyen headed into a low-slung housing development off of Grandravine Drive, where he and his friends used to shoot karate movies. Down one of the walkways that snaked through the complex, past two battered basketball nets, some red balloons were visible—a makeshift memorial for Duodu and Doyles-Whyte. Pools of wax had hardened on the ground from the candles people had left, and a white sheet had been tacked up against the building and was covered in messages of mourning. Aside from the wind in the trees and some buzzing cicadas, it was quiet. Nguyen didn’t want to stay long. Something terrible had happened, and there was no sense standing around and gawking.