Almost home: Toronto’s Regent Park at a crossroads

Saturday, May 29, 2010 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

TORONTO — Yasin Khawaja and his family know they’re almost home. The 22-year-old, his parents and two sisters are set to move into their apartment in Regent Park’s brand-new reincarnation.

They just don’t know when.

At first it was August. But earlier this month they were told to expect delays. Now the family waits on tenterhooks, a September reunion in Bangladesh facing postponement, until they find out their fate. “The whole thing has been kind of a mess,” he says.

But the tone in the Khawajas’ Shuter Street townhouse is one of excited, nervous anticipation when they talk about the upcoming move – a new building (with a balcony, he notes with pride), a new neighbourhood in the works and, maybe, a new way of providing social housing.

“They gave us choices, they gave us floor plans. … Whenever someone asks, ‘Where do you live?’ and I say, ‘Regent Park,’ they’re like, ‘Ohh, are you serious?’

“I’m hoping it’s better.”

The thousands of residents of Canada’s biggest, oldest social-housing complex are starting to move out of a five-year limbo in the final phases of one of Canada’s most ambitious social engineering experiments. The utopian bid to revitalize swaths of postwar poverty ghettos – while pledging, in Toronto’s case, “zero displacement” of original residents – has been attempted in the United Kingdom and several U.S. cities.

If Toronto is successful at creating a truly “mixed” community of rent-geared-to-income apartments and snazzy market-rate condos in the shadow of a former housing complex that over decades gained a reputation as a notorious miniature slum, it will be a Canadian first.

It’s also the first of many similarly ambitious projects in Toronto. Next is Lawrence Heights, the notorious inner-suburb “jungle,” where the city hopes to build a neighbourhood from scratch. Consultations with hundreds of residents in the first phase of its construction are ongoing.

But some of the Regent Park families – those recently moved, preparing to relocate and in limbo between the two – are skeptical of the outcome of these broad social experiments, which critics point to as another form of gentrification.

Will placing pricey downtown condos beside rent-geared-to-income apartments create an egalitarian, economically diverse neighbourhood – something becoming increasingly rare in Toronto’s polarized metropolis? Or will it simply make for smaller, more concentrated ghettos? Will the people who’ve lived in Regent Park for years or decades be able to maintain a voice in what happens in their newly revitalized community?

The most basic fear, says Toronto Community Housing Corp. president Keiko Nakamura, is “If I move out, will I be able to come back in?”

Terrified they’d miss out, people displaced by Phase One construction started lining up at 4 a.m. to enter a transitional housing lottery in 2005.

“There was a lot of misinformation on the street … a lot of fear and anxiety,” Ms. Nakamura said, adding that much of that has been assuaged in subsequent building phases.

Now, that same process is repeating itself in Lawrence Heights. Residents there, too, were fearful as community consultation began earlier this year. But Paulos Gebreyesus, who works at the community health clinic, says there’s a growing optimism.

Azizur Rahman is a Regent Park emblem: He has been at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new social-housing units; a plaque from the city honouring his contribution hangs in his family’s new Sackville Street apartment.

His daughters, for their part – 23-year-old Nusrat and Suraiya, 21 – like the new place. But for two people who grew up in Regent Park, the new and improved look is disorienting; the rules that accompany their shiny new building myriad and confusing. Objects in the window, for example, are verboten: A family on the floor above them was asked to remove plants they hung up after moving in.

“Living here, in this environment, it’s different,” Nusrat says. “But I think, in 10 years, it will be really different … It’s on its way to developing into a new kind of area.”

But, Suraiya notes, “We still have that barrier: Here, this is a housing complex. That,” she motions to the condominium building across the street, “is a private complex. I’m pretty sure people will still think that.”

Jeff Kugler, executive director of urban schooling at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for the Study of Education, spent 20 years teaching the children of Regent Park. He became intimately acquainted with a polyglot, close-knit community living in run-down housing that “wasn’t meant for people to live in.”

He says it will be “years and years” before it’s possible to say whether the attempt to reinvent social housing in Toronto has been a success.

“There’s a whole lot of potential and possibilities that we don’t even know what they are. People that are very different from each other will hopefully find out ways to share with each other and communicate with each other,” he said. “Regent Park really is the largest public housing community in Canada … This really will be the foundation of what this could possibly be: What will work and what won’t work.”

****

SOME EXPERIMENTS IN OTHER CITIES

From Glasgow to Milwaukee, housing corporations are attempting to change the meaning of social-housing, replacing 50-year-old ghettos with healthier neighbourhoods.

Glasgow Housing

Association

Starting in 2003, the GHA began a billion-pound project – the largest of its kind in the U.K. – to “modernize and upgrade” thousands of units of social housing in Glasgow.

“It is fair to say that we are transforming housing in the city,” says spokeswoman Yvonne Flynn, adding that the GHA is looking to partner with the city council to create more mixed-income neighbourhoods that would include private homes and condominiums.

‘Choice Neighbourhoods’

initiative

Hope VI, the U.S. federal program to transform “distressed” social-housing neighbourhoods into mixed-income communities, began doling out grants in 1993. It has spent more than $5-billion so far transforming neighbourhoods from Washington, D.C., to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This year it’s rolling out a $65-million pilot project to bring schools, libraries, social services and other amenities into the mix. A 2004 report on the program’s outcomes noted that while Hope VI programs have succeeded in making “better-designed and higher-quality” neighbourhoods, it hasn’t replaced all the “deeply subsidized” units torn down by construction: Social housing is better quality, but there isn’t as much of it.

Little Mountain

Vancouver is in the process of transforming its largest and oldest social-housing complex, downtown Little Mountain, as part of the province’s 2005 housing strategy. Demolition on the 1950s-era, 224-unit complex began last year; the plan is for the city to work with a private developer to redevelop the site.

Anna Mehler Paperny

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