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Let’s think about our community’s future (9)

Veiko ParmingVeiko Parming
For full disclosure, I am a member of the Estonian House Board of Directors. The views in this article represent my own, and solely my own. Since I will unfortunately be out of the country on business during next week's important vote, I wanted to share some of my thoughts ahead of time.
Find out more about the Madison proposal here.

Taking Stock

Compared to other North American Estonian communities, we in Toronto can pat ourselves on the back for having a large and successful third-generation presence. In fact, I truly believe we have the most active and involved third generation out there. At the same time, I also believe we could surely be doing much better to keep our younger generations engaged.

While it gives me no pleasure to admit it, Eesti Maja is increasingly unattractive to our youth. I personally still go to Eesti Maja several times a week, but I realize that I am very much in the minority among people aged 18-35. In fact, in writing this article I tried a little exercise: I wrote down the names of everyone I could remember from my Eesti kooli klass. I then tried to remember the last time I ran into any of them at Eesti Maja. The result was this: I honestly could not and cannot remember the last time I saw any of them there in at least the last five years, and probably closer to ten. I wish this was an exaggeration. Of the names I have written down, probably around half of them I have barely seen at any Eesti events, although I don't assume that they are necessarily "lost" to our community just for that reason. The other half is people I still run into elsewhere – at Tartu College, Roti Maja, Suvihari, Kotkajärve, EstDocs, and so on. But not at Eesti Maja. I suspect this is not all that different from other Eesti kooli lennud as well.

Partly this is because Eesti Maja is an old building and shows its age. However, another part of it is simply that the things that have attracted eestlased to Eesi Maja in the past are not quite the same things that would attract younger estos today.

Nostalgia is the biggest selling point for Eesti Maja, and it is not selling well. Being cloistered with your own people is not selling well. Patriotism, on its own, is not compelling enough. Young people might still go there for the right events, but these events have been few and far between. This is partly because Eesti Maja does not pay a program manager, partly because estos rarely rent Eesti Maja for their personal functions (i.e. when it's their own money rather than Sihtkapital's on the table), partly because places like Tartu College have done a commendable job of organizing their own events, and partly because our community simply has much more space across multiple buildings than we know what to do with. As I mentioned in my Estonian-language article, by my calculations Estonian renters and user groups use Eesti Maja something like 10% of its rentable time, meaning that 90% of the time the building's rentable space is not used by the community. Furthermore, if tenants are also included, the vast majority (well over 90%) of esto-related usage is paid for by a combination of tenants (especially the bank), Sihtkapital, and Eesti Maja (via effective subsidies for estos).

In my view, the biggest challenge for our community's sustainability is disengagement. Young Estonian-Canadians do not need eestlus. It's not exactly hard for third-generation Canadians to seamlessly assimilate as regular, plaid-shirt wearing hyphenless Canadians. True –some of us may have a double vowel in our name or some similar quirk that causes us to stand out a bit. But the political imperative is gone. Eesti is now free. Eestlus is doing just fine across the ocean.

If we stay active in eestlus, it is because we choose to do so, because it means something to us. Fortunately, Canadian culture encourages diversity, uniqueness and cultural richness. There's really no good reason why we can't be fully Estonian, and also fully Canadian, at the same time. The fact that we might speak some eesti keel, have an ETCU bank card, own rahvariided, make it a point to hit up Laulupidu in Eesti, and take part in community events doesn't mark us as any less Canadian – in fact, in Toronto it is par for the course. If anything, it's a special kind of personal uniqueness. One of my best friends, who is third-generation Jewish, happens to speak Hebrew and lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year. So I and my hyper-Estonian identity don't exactly stick out like a sore thumb in a city like Toronto.

Is our community preordained simply to die out? From my perspective, if we third-generation Canadians still care about eestlus, I don't see any inherent reason why a fourth generation can't be the same way. I still remember people's predictions in 2000 that that year's Kotkajärve suurlaager would be the last one of its magnitude. Yet 2008 was just as big. Then people said the same thing about the next one, and 2015 was nothing to sneeze at either. Looking at the number of kids in Lasteaed and hellakesed/hundud, I am hardly left with the impression of a community on the brink.

Keys for sustainability

What surely is true is that the character of our community is changing. We have fewer and fewer "full time estos," people who would circle every community event in their calendar and faithfully show up early to boot. For most younger people, Estonian events and organizations compete with non-Estonian ones on a level playing field. The "estoness" of an event is not, on its own, sufficient.

If we are going to have a sustainable community, it will be because we are clever about how we use our community spaces, events, and organizations. Eesti kool, lasteaed, and skaudid/gaidid will always be critical for raising our youngest members to be uhked eestlased. However, past leeri age, we can't assume anyone will remain active and involved just because. There are three principles I would suggest are particularly important. The first is to think about events and spaces on the basis of whether they excite people on their own merits – where the "estoness" is what puts it over the top rather than being the main or only selling point. The second is focusing on proper scale. The third is crossover appeal – thinking beyond just our small community.

A few examples will hopefully keep these from being pure abstractions. Not too long ago, Korp! Filiae Patriae organized an improv workshop at Tartu College, which was led by an improv group from Eesti (seemingly the only Estonians who make a career in this field, as it turns out). The attendance was around 20, predominantly in the age range 18-30, and included a number of people I don't see every day at other community events. Although not the kind of thing that would attract everyone in the community, the event was properly scaled, freshly conceived, well executed, and fun. Although I am not a member, I think the skaut-gaid orkester "Kõla" is a successful example of taking something that people would be interested in anyway and channeling it through an Eesti lens. As an example of crossover appeal, a few years ago there were Jane's Walks held in the Annex area to introduce Estonian architecture, of which there are quite a few notable examples in that neighbourhood. This kind of event drew a mix of eestlased and architecture aficionados who have nothing to do with eestlus. A similar principle is true of EstDocs. In a somewhat different vein, Metsaülikool has achieved a crossover appeal with kodueestlased, many of whom rave about Kotkajärve back in Estonia and are increasingly excited to return, even paying their own way. If we look at these and other successful organizations and events in the community, I would wager that most of them tick at least one, and likely several, of the three boxes I named above.

One of the challenges that we continue to face is that it often takes energetic visionaries to organize and plan great events. Consider Allan Liik, who built a wonderful jazz festival, JK Jazz, out of his own vision and determination. I also thought Maimu did a great job with Sihtkapital, and does a fantastic job with Metsaülikool. I really appreciate the great work of Piret and her team at Tartu College. There are other examples too. The challenge is that these types of community builders are hardly a dime a dozen.

By now, many people have familiarized themselves with the proposal to build a consolidated community hub on Madison Avenue in downtown Toronto. For those who haven't I encourage you to check out this link. The proposal comes from four organizations that play important roles in our community: the credit union, Sihtkapital (National Foundation), Tartu College, and Eesti Maja. There are a lot unknowns and a lot of things to be worked out. There are risks. There are tradeoffs. For one thing, it would require selling the existing Eesti Maja property on Broadview Avenue. Soon Eesti Maja shareholders will be voting on whether the potential project is deserving of more detailed analysis (indicating a willingness to move Eesti Maja to a new home), or whether the proposal is unacceptable and should be rejected outright. There has been a great deal of lively debate in the community, with people I respect taking both sides.

There has been plenty of comment recently relating to the due diligence period, and the things that will need to be carefully considered in that phase, assuming the project gets there. This is welcome. I would like to touch on one thing that I think has gone under the radar – namely, the potential for a great community space to rejuvenate our community, in particular for our younger generations. Having a great space could inspire our community to stay more active. But it could also help to offset some of the difficulties of finding visionaries to organize great events. You don't always need to organize formal events if you've got a place people really want to be.

Let's return to the three points I mentioned above. Can we build a community space that is a destination in its own right? The kind of place that people would not just attend for organized events, but also drop by just to see what's going on (especially if there is a cafe, bar or restaurant)? The kind of place where the inherent attractiveness of the place is plenty to get people in the door the first time, and the Estonian part is what keeps them coming back? What about scale? Can we be clever and resourceful with our space usage? Can we make the space flexible and versatile to meet our needs? Can we take advantage of synergies with Tartu College? And finally: could a new community centre have much-needed crossover appeal? Would it appeal also to non-Estonians? More specifically:
Is this the kind of place I would meet up with other estos, even if there was no organized event?
Is this the kind of place I would take non-esto friends?
Is this the kind of place I would show to colleagues?
Is this the kind of place I would proudly tell people about?
Is this the kind of place I would hold my own special events?
Is this the kind of place I would drop by, if I happened to be in the neighbourhood?

Our Estonian community spaces are there first and foremost to serve us, eestlased. But we cannot be so shortsighted and haughty to think that is enough. For one thing, given our community's size, we need the revenues that come from non-Estonian users and renters. For another, I think there is an underappreciated virtuous cycle in play, if we extend our horizons beyond our own community.

Consider IKEA versus old-school furniture stores. The latter are invariably large, empty buildings that people would never visit unless they are actually shopping for furniture, which at any given time is a small percentage of the population. Yet, ironically, because these places are so back-of-mind all of the time, most people don't think or want to go there even when they do happen to be in the market for furniture. IKEA, in contrast, is a beehive of energy, filled to the rafters with families and people of all ages, many of them there just for the Swedish meatballs. What IKEA realizes is that a lively and dynamic atmosphere is not just good for the meatball crowd – it actually attracts their core target customers too. Heck, the quality of the product does not even need to be great, the liveliness of the building gets customers through the doors.
My point here is nothing more than to say that if we want to build a community hub that attracts our youngest generation of eestlased, we need to think beyond our target group. Let's suppose there are three groups of people – active Estonians, Estonians on the periphery, and non-Estonians.

In order to keep active Estonians involved, the best thing we can do is to keep people on the periphery at least somewhat engaged. These people may not come out to every event, but even coming out to a few – the particular ones that interest them the most – has the effect of broadening our community's base, which is good for everyone. If dropping by even a couple times a year keeps people feeling as though they are part of the community, I think that's great.

Similarly, if we want to keep those on the periphery engaged, the best thing we can do is to engage non-Estonians as well. The people on the periphery may not spend most of their time hanging out with other estos, but that doesn't mean they are not proud of their Estonian heritage. The more pride we have showing off our community to others, the better our prospects for retaining our own people.
I believe these principles remain true whether we consolidate at Madison, try to make a go of keeping Eesti Maja, move Eesti Maja out to the suburbs, or any other hypothetical outcome. I would encourage proponents of alternate visions to consider how their preferred solutions, too, could fulfill these goals. However, I don't believe all these theoretical options come equal in whether or how well they could rejuvenate our community. Say what you will about highway versus subway access, but the Annex is one of the most lively and dynamic neighbourhoods in the GTHA. Meanwhile, Eesti Maja faces serious headwinds, as I described in my Estonian-language article (and as others have detailed as well), and any kind of effort to build a similar or superior space there as is proposed for Madison would likely cost a similar order of magnitude – except without an obvious funding base.

Eesti Maja through time

Is an Eesti Maja at 958 Broadview Avenue so sacrosanct that all other options are simply unacceptable? Should we push off all talk of consolidated community hubs until we are left with no other choice? Is there a reason why Estonian House in Toronto Limited's founding documents, dating to 1951, have no mention of Broadview Avenue?

Consider this thesis: that the outcome we are all familiar with – an Estonian House on Broadview Avenue – was the unlikely result of a series of chance events. Readers may be interested to contemplate some potential alternative histories for the Estonian community in Toronto, drawn from Karl Eerme's accounts in the special-edition journal "Eesti Maja Torontos," published in 1963.

I mentioned the founding of Estonian House Limited in 1951. For eight years, it owned no real estate, though not for lack of trying. In 1953, a bid was submitted to buy a City surplus property on Davenport Road near Dufferin; that bid was rejected and the property was instead sold to the Slovak community, becoming a church. A second near-purchase, later that same year, was a house on St. George north of Bloor, which was instead redeveloped to become an apartment building (incidentally one of, if not the first, 10-ish storey apartment buildings along this stretch of St. George). In 1955, shareholders voted in favour of purchasing a 1920s synagogue on Shaw Street, but negotiations proved unsuccessful. As the Jewish community moved north, the synagogue was sold in 1959 and became a cathedral, which it remains today. The board then made an unsuccessful offer on a College Street property and continued for several years to debate the merits of the parcel as it sat unsold. The property ended up being redeveloped in the late 1960s as commercial storefronts.

Then, in 1959, Estonian House Limited became the proud owner ... of a property on Merton Street in Midtown. This "first" Estonian House did not last very long, once it was discovered that the neighbourhood was officially "dry." Finally, with the Merton property not yet sold, a bid of $101,000 was submitted for the Old Chester School on Broadview, which had come on the market. The offer was accepted, narrowly beating out the next highest bid of $100,200. The Merton property ended up being sold at a loss to the Girl Guides of Canada, who redeveloped the site for their headquarters.

The Estonian House on 958 Broadview has served our community very well – of that there can be no doubt. Its good location and plentiful space have been valuable. More importantly, there is a lot of sweat equity in the building. Additions to the back and front of the old schoolhouse have allowed our community to leave our own imprint, and many volunteer hours have been put into keeping the place going. To leave this important fact unacknowledged would be wrong.

A new community centre, a new Eesti Maja, can and should pay homage to our great history on Broadview.

But let's remember this. The founding story of our Eesti Maja is one of fits and starts. It is a story of cleverly capitalizing on a good opportunity when it came up. It is also a story of perseverance – against voices who said even then that the status quo is just fine, that a house can't rejuvenate a community. There is a cornerstone beside the entrance of Eesti Maja that quotes Henrik Visnapuu: "Meie kestame üle aja." The "meie" is not bricks and mortar. It is you and me – it is our community. With any luck, we can aspire to last another fifty years at least.



Veiko Parming, Toronto


+13 #1 Karl Otsa 2017-04-20 18:18
As always an excellent, well though out article by Veiko Parming! It is unfortunate that regardless of what you (those against a possible move) emotions are keeping some from seeing the light. As I had previously stated I drove up from Middleport, NY to Estonian functions for decades. I am sure others from Chicago, Cleveland Detroit, Rochester, Hamilton, St. Catherines, Ottawa and Montreal and others did the same. They, as I did NOT care what the location was. Seedrioru, JK, KJ, Eesti Maja or Tartu College'isse. We just went. Paid for parking or even on occassion got ticketed. We still came.
Tsiteeri | Teavita administraatorit
+8 #2 Karl A. Otsa 2017-04-20 18:19
For those who are complaining about parking, what do you think people pay for parking nearby the NY Estonian House? What about the Estonian Embassy in Washington, DC? These are probably the 2 MOST EXPENSIVE parking areas in North America. If the participants at those 2 locations can pay for parking how can you justify DEMANDING free parking. How many families in the early days of Eesti Kool at the current Eesti Maja even owned cars?

I occasionally took my son to lasteaed by Go Train and TTC, it helped that Eedu loved trains but we did it numerous times. Okay so I had one child! Unless you have a half dozen or more, does driving a mini school bus to Eesti Maja on Broadview become make sense. If you can afford to drive kids into Eesti kool you can afford to take public transit. I'm sure if there was a move to TC parents could and would make arrangements for dropping kids off at the door just like at you home public school, and the security would be JUST as competent.

FYI - while I was living near Buffalo, NY, I was a korpororatsioon i eesimees that conducted meeting on Friday nights that started at 1830. I was late for only one meeting due to a car fire on the QEW. It's as if NO-ONE in Canada had seen a car fire ;)

Later on my akadeemiline poeg drove up from Baltimore, MD and he too never missed a meeting. (okay granted he had additionally reasons for driving to Toronto).

Seedrioru Suvihari peaked in 1972 with several THOUSANDS of attendees, now IF we are lucky several hundreds attend. The parking hasn't changed, the locations is the same, the facilities have gotten better but attendance has dropped DRAMATICALLY.

Attendances at all three camps (Seedrioru, JK, KJ) has dropped dramatically as well. Have they moved? Haven't their facilities ALL been IMPROVED? Yet their parking is still free......... and Toronto Estonians are worried that without free parking or an additional 10-20 minute commute will keep them away???

If there is a will there is a way, but to claim parking is going to keep you away from an Estonian function, shouldn't you REALLY be asking yourself, just exactly HOW devoted to Estonian culture are you? All I can say is SHAME on YOU!
Tsiteeri | Teavita administraatorit
+11 #3 ingrid tanner 2017-04-21 15:20
Veiko Parming

I found myself agreeing with you on the youth, the community and lack of visionaries. I also agree that that the Estonian House is not Pretty nor inviting nor inspiring. Yes, to all of that.

Should we have vibrant spaces… YES
Should we encourage visionaries to create exciting and enjoying events like EstDocs… and JK jazz (which I dearly miss and I would work with anyone willing to try and get that going again…) and yes, a Kovik to meet up with friends – Estonian or Not… and I too join in at events at Tartu College occasionally.

Thus, we are on the same page…. I am super happy that Estonians who marry Estonians or non-Estonians bring their children to Estonian School.. Scouts and such… Kudos…
I believe there must be more to this story… and others have already pointed out how the Bank will finally be able to sell or earn revenue from the building they purchased on Madison. How SihtKapital can sell off houses it has purchased to help with the dwindling donations. And it seems like everyone wins in this scenario.

I am shocked that there was a report that said the Estonian House useful life is over… who says that about an asset? In my experience when I have been involved in Building Assessments… the report typically outlines the deficiencies and what needs to be done and in what time line along with associated estimated costs.… not sure how any company can say… t

The real problem for me is that the Estonian House has NOT been maintained. That means either the board members of the past either did not hire competent building managers or they did not allow the managers to get expert building assessments along the way. And thus we have a leaky building… and an incredibly OLD heating system. None of this is cost effective way of doing business.

Why over the years did none of this happen?
And how can you say that it will be better going forward?
Tsiteeri | Teavita administraatorit
+8 #4 ingrid tanner 2017-04-21 15:22
Too many variables with the move.

Additionally, I have concerns with the move… for example…
• Share holders will be gone
• So WHO owns the new asset?
o The board members of Estonian house?
o Non-profit status?
o All 4 parties who are advocating for this
o If a profit venture, again.. who owns the new house?
• Who controls the funds after the sale?
• How will the new Estonian House be managed?
• Who will take out the mortgage (the liability) to pay for the New Madison House? If there is a donator of funds they can donate to the current house. (maybe the lender will own it?)
• Who pays the consultants
• Who makes sure that tenders are properly vetted and not awarded by board members (like the Architect was awarded the job)

There truly is a long list of items we really should understand before “fast tracking” this plan because the Board(s) waited too long to tell us about their plan.
Tsiteeri | Teavita administraatorit
+7 #5 ingrid tanner 2017-04-21 15:25
How can we be sure that the Board or the managers will do a better job going forward with a new building?

I have not paid much attention over the years to the financial records of the Estonian house… and I am not a financial expert… but I would really like to know if anyone has looked into how much one would receive AFTER selling the Estonian House… example, we sell for 5 million.. if there were any write-off’s over the years then there would be recapture happening.

Also, I believe that any capital gains over all the years … means 50% of the capital gains will be taxed. Thus, how much of the 5 million will we even get?

Did anyone do this calculation? Was it presented to us?

And really, since no one looked at the cost of “revitalizing” the old Estonian House into a “Place to be proud of” we have no cost comparisons.
Tsiteeri | Teavita administraatorit
0 #6 Siren 2017-04-21 16:09
Let the money-heads crunch the numbers and the design profession step up. (where is that Tõnu when you need him and yes I am talking to you Linda-in-Vancou ver) We need to create a 'charette' (that should have been done with all the fine returns from the 2010 brainstorm session but no one was qualified to extrapolate the ideas and wish lists). After next week when the dust has settled, a design charette would engage AND empower community members. Bring out the crayons and newsprint and Site Plans for both sites. Thank you Veiko and Ingrid for the inspiration! Rita
Tsiteeri | Teavita administraatorit
+5 #7 Shareholder 2017-04-24 11:54
If EM is sold, and my shares eliminated, I want the dollar value of the shares returned to me. I am not interested in funding these shenanigans.
Tsiteeri | Teavita administraatorit
+4 #8 Silvi 2017-05-04 23:06
'in writing this article I tried a little exercise: I wrote down the names of everyone I could remember from my Eesti kooli klass. I then tried to remember the last time I ran into any of them at Eesti Maja. The result was this: I honestly could not and cannot remember the last time I saw any of them there in at least the last five years, and probably closer to ten. I wish this was an exaggeration. Of the names I have written down, probably around half of them I have barely seen at any Eesti events, although I don't assume that they are necessarily "lost" to our community just for that reason. The other half is people I still run into elsewhere – at Tartu College, Roti Maja, Suvihari, Kotkajärve, EstDocs, and so on. But not at Eesti Maja. I suspect this is not all that different from other Eesti kooli lennud as well.'

Sul on täitsa õige Veiko! Minu eesti kooli lõpetajate lend oli vist suurim ajaloos ja vaadates lõpetajate pilti, kahjuks ainult peotäis on neid, keda oleme aastate jooksul näinud Eesti Majas ja mujal eesti ühiskonnas.


Kirjutan rohkem minule väljakutsele vastuseks teise artikli all. .... ikka oma nime all, mitte anonüümselt, nagu paljud kirjutavad, ja ikka austusega igale, kellel oma arvmus.
Meid on vähe. Hoiame ikka kokku, missiganes suunas me liigume.
Tsiteeri | Teavita administraatorit
+4 #9 Silvia Vaikla 2017-05-05 08:43
Well said, Silvi!

As I have shared with many, the Toronto Estonian community is precious to me and my family. Admittedly I woke up from my own winter nap to learn of a new Madison plan that truthfully just a little over a month ago I knew nothing about. I am thankful that my 3 children attend Estonian School and I was able to find out through that organization.

I quickly questioned and wanted to learn and share with others I thought may have been similarly out-of-the loop. At first I didn’t use the most ideal diction in a note I sent out, probably coming from a place of shock though as a scientist by trade, admittedly writing is not my forte. Still, I do sincerely apologize to any and everyone I may have offended in the process. It was never my intention to do anything but learn and share.

And then as I went through the process I received so many amazing responses back. For all the feedback that came my way regardless of whether via talking face to face, via email or via online comments, or whether anonymous or not, I am sincerely grateful.

As I also shared with many - in the end, while I didn’t own a share and couldn’t join the pivotal meeting a week ago - I still cast my vote ‘in spirit’ for peaceful resolution and a community that pulls together with a common goal, trusting that what is best for the longevity of Toronto Eestlased will unfold. As you say Silvi, there aren’t many of us and we must stick together. Isn’t this the best way and what our forefathers would have wanted most their legacy to be?
Tsiteeri | Teavita administraatorit
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