Urban renewal in ‘the Jungle’: Toronto’s plan to redevelop Lawrence Heights

Thursday, February 25, 2010 – Globe and Mail

In the centre of what’s set to become Toronto’s massive social-engineering experiment, Hersi Abdirizack reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out two vials: tiny red specks in clear liquid.

Bedbugs in alcohol, he explains, shaking them slightly.

For the Somali entomologist turned tenant advocate, this is part of what community revitalization will mean in Lawrence Heights.

Today, the city will unveil its latest plans to reinvent one of Canada’s largest social-housing complexes and the chronically marginalized neighbourhood around it.

Howard Moscoe, the North York councillor behind the sweeping plan, calls it Toronto’s biggest project – one that he envisions taking a quarter century and transforming the notoriously poor subsidized housing complex into a vital, diverse neighbourhood, neglected parkland into lively green space and hellish intersections into well-engineered traffic hubs.

What Mr. Abdirizack wants to see is an end to shoddy plumbing, poor heating and the pariah status that has turned his neighbourhood into one where even cab drivers refuse to go.

And an end to the bedbugs. And jobs for unemployed youth. And space to continue the community programs – from computer literacy to bedbug prevention – residents have started almost in spite of the outside world.

“[Talk about] revitalization has been here for a while. My goal is to get better housing. And a better socioeconomic environment,” he says, slipping the vials back into his pocket.

Barely six blocks away, Sarah Miller has six rambunctious children to put to bed.

She and her husband are trying to move out of their three-bedroom Caribou Road apartment and into something a little less cramped – ideally a four-bedroom, maybe with two bathrooms.

“We’d like to get [a bathroom] off the main suite. … We have little boys, they can’t aim, do I need to draw you a picture?”

But they’d also need a place to live that’s within walking distance of their synagogue on Lawrence Avenue, and near the boys’ Talmud Torah and near the families they carpool with to take the girls to their school.

The Millers are one of dozens of families in Toronto’s close-knit Jewish community Mr. Moscoe hopes will buy into a reinvented Lawrence Heights – 44.5 hectares with 7,500 units that will include condominiums and townhouses – some subsidized – interspersed with retail and grocery stores and parks.

“It gives us an opportunity to build a community from the ground up.”

But families like the Millers are looking to the more immediate future – ideally to a proposed development closer to home under the auspices of Toronto’s Options for Homes.

“Lawrence Heights is a long way off, and it’s debatable whether people would be willing to move that far because they’re scared of who would be living there. We already have a lot of violence in the surrounding neighbourhoods,” said Ronda Stoller Wunsch, who has been advocating for families struggling to move out of cramped quarters but stay in the same neighbourhood.

Things in Lawrence Heights are getting better: Since Mohamed Ali-Aden moved here three years ago, he’s seen crime go down and literacy rates go up – 17 per cent in nearby Sir Sandford Fleming high school.

But taxi drivers are still wary of entering “the Jungle” – the name the neighbourhood earned in part due to violence and crime.

Mr. Moscoe compares the city’s plans for Lawrence Heights to its ambitious plans for Regent Park, a similarly notorious complex downtown. City council approved its second phase of revitalization funding this week.

But while Regent Park sits in the middle of Toronto’s dense downtown, blocks away from Bay Street and at the centre of numerous urban arteries, Lawrence Park was completed in 1962 as a self-contained low-income community. Now, the city is trying to reverse that effective ghettoization with the new holy grail of urban planning – mixed income.

That sounds good to Mr. Ali-Aden – “as long as they mix it for real: The guy living next door doesn’t know what my income is.”

One of residents’ greatest fears is that the project will turn into an effective gentrification, and a purge of the thousands of people now living there, who have an average annual income of about $18,000.

The Toronto Community Housing Corp. has promised that residents won’t be displaced, although it’s not yet clear what will happen to them during construction, which could start in late 2011. The corporation wouldn’t say yesterday exactly how many of the estimated 7,500 units in the re-envisioned neighbourhood will be reserved for social housing.


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