A hip-hop community takes Chinatown

A notch north of constantly-humming Queen, brushing up against Spadina, is the eerily quiet Bulwer Street. At one end, pleasant newish row houses face a parking lot, part of a residential mass that stretches up Soho Street. But walk west past a fenced-off concrete schoolyard and bar and restaurant backdoors and you’ll come up on a series of silent, abandoned-looking buildings. Rumour goes that the Weeknd recorded part of House of Balloons in a studio ensconced behind one of the tagged up doors. And not too long ago, splintered steps and shuttered windows were part of the façade at 37 Bulwer. Now restored, it’s the cheery HQ for Manifesto Community Projects, and a beacon signifying the nondescript street’s transformation into our city’s own Diagon Alley.

Since late August, the building’s been in quiet use (with the exception of one raucous Halloween party) by Manifesto and POUND Magazine staff who’ve relocated from the cluster of industrialized workspaces that dot Queen and Dufferin. The move is a coup for the five-year-old nonprofit, which hosts the Manifesto Festival of Community and Culture – and a massive free outdoor hip-hop show – every year and is sustained, resolutely, by a seemingly bottomless pool of volunteers. So to toast next steps, the team invited a small group of philanthropists, community leaders and Manifesto supporters to an unveiling followed by a public art auction last night.

Che Kothari, executive director of Manifesto Community Projects, has been there since this entity, which continues to unfurl new roots throughout the city, was just an optimistic seedling. It’s time, he says, to move the organization forward. “We really believe that we can be the next TIFF or Caribana if the right support came around,” he explains, standing next to a giant seven-panel Rubix Cubed portrait of Canadian hip-hop icons, created by Toronto’s Cube Works. “And that’s why tonight we’re really seeding the idea of our philanthropy wing, the Leadership Gifts Council.”

Since 2006, Manifesto’s subsisted on volunteer support and corporate partnerships, but mostly grants, explains fundraising director Jason Eano. “But there’s a natural system of support that exists through the Toronto arts scene and everyone that Manifesto, which operates year-round, touches,” he says. “So we’re trying to get into that psyche and really engage the financial cycle.”

There’s no dearth of limbs for donors to support when it comes to Manifesto, which Kothari insists, should be owned by the community. There’s the festival itself, the mentorship and education focused Manifesto School, the media wing, 37 Bulwer as a public, youth-focused arts hub, and satellite projects in places like Jamaica and Barbados.

The various wells for support reflect a shift toward social enterprise, says Eano, where people want to spend their money in a way that supports a passion. “Key here is creating opportunities so that youth are engaged in the community,” he notes, “or that those who aren’t young anymore but want to support youth in the arts can financially engage because this is something they believe in.”

Midway through the evening, as I’m deep in a tête-à-tête about Camus and Didion with Big It Up founder Dameion Royes, Kothari addresses the intimate assemblage. He talks lovingly of Manifesto’s growth, acknowledging the gorgeously preserved new digs and the art up for auction (photography and prints, some directly produced as a result of festival, by local ingénues like Giles Monette and Rajni Perera, Jalani Morgan and Javier Lovera). But everything about the organization and its city-potential clicks when he notes the west-facing mural on the building’s exterior, painted by Elicser and Indigo.

“It’s beautiful, but in six months we plan to refresh it with another mural,” he says, announcing the organization is working with Councilor Adam Vaughan to extend art along the street. “We want Bulwer to be known around the world for its art and we want this building, like the organization, to be a living, breathing thing.”

Five things we kind of remember through the weed-fog of the Ghostface Killah show

Five things we kind of remember through the weed-fog of the Ghostface Killah show

Watching the Throne