Toronto , Canada

A Rising Phoenix in St. James Town

StreetART Program, City of Toronto

May 31, 2018

Public arts build social bonds

Soaring above a busy intersection, this community-led art initiative transformed a 32 story modernist social housing high-rise into a vertical canvas for the world’s tallest mural. An enormous bird flies up the side of the building towards the sky. Emblematic of a phoenix rising from the ashes, the design includes a subtle reference to the six-alarm fire in 2010 that forced out over a thousand residents. The award-winning mural by artist Sean Martindale represents the new, more vibrant outlook the project hopes to bring to the building and surrounding area in one of Toronto’s most densely populated neighbourhoods:  “We wanted to bring something more positive to the neighbourhood. The youth were saying that the neighbourhood needed more colour, and they wanted to show that there are positive things happening here.”

The mural and phoenix design weaves themes of diversity, accessibility, safety, happiness and other aspects of local culture into its story of community transformation.  It is the result of over a year of engagement with St. James Town youth and hundreds of local community members working with the City of Toronto’s StreetART Program in partnership with the St. James Town Community Corner and Toronto Community Housing Corporation.

Over forty St. James Town youth worked with with eight artists to explore their community and decide how and where public art could make a difference.  After numerous consultations with St. James Town residents, the group finally settled on the mural and phoenix design – the scale and success of what would become the highest mural in the city, and possibly in the world, has surprised everyone.

“Beautification of our public spaces is an essential component of building and maintaining healthy communities,” said Councillor Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre – Rosedale). “This spectacular mural is a shining example of the resiliency and creativity of the young people of St. James Town, and stands as a beacon of pride in their community on display for all of Toronto to enjoy.”

Community well-being

Another mural project in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Neighbourhood illustrates how a public art project can helps a community heal. The area features a large population of newcomers and racialized people who reside in social housing buildings. It has experienced tension between police and Black youths: for example, in 2014 a cherished basketball court was accidentally destroyed by a police cruiser during a chase. It was later repaired through a private donation, but importantly, a mural wall was also created in a partnership between police and youth. The mural celebrates local history and the values of love, peace, diversity, nature and teamwork.

Building community resilience requires mutual support from various stakeholders, and public arts planning can be an effective way to form partnership, create common ground and build social bonds among stakeholders.


For more on Planning for Diversity, Inclusion and Urban Resilience in Toronto, read the Building Inclusive Cities case study.


Making it Work for You:

  • Public arts planning can be an effective way to form partnership, create common ground and build social bonds among community stakeholders
  • Participatory decision-making creates buy-in for a new project across the entire community
  • Be prepared to be surprised! Youth-led initiatives foster creativity and innovation
  • Strong communities make space for intergenerational interaction and consultation.

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