Canada’s oldest social housing project creates obstacles for the youth of Toronto’s inner city
BY ANDREW RUSK
The eastbound ride on the 506 Carlton streetcar is the best introduction to urban planning I could ever ask for. I get on at St. George, south of the posh griminess that is the University of Toronto (UofT), ride past the ultra-modern research buildings and office towers at University Avenue and begin to creep into Cabbagetown, a slightly rundown neighbourhood recently reclaimed by the city’s hipsters. Each has a distinct style directly connected to when they were settled and with what purpose, all within fifteen minutes of each other. When I get to Parliament I take a right and then a left onto Gerrard and the storefronts are replaced by a grey commonality. Welcome to Regent Park.
Regent Park was built between 1948 and 1959 as part of a wave of public housing that emerged after the Second World War. Inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement in the UK, the development aimed to create a social-housing complex in a park-like setting. The city tore up roads that previously ran through the east Toronto neighbourhood in favour of a series of walkways and parks. Today, Dundas Street, which divides the region into North and South, is the only road in the development.
Construction began in 1948 with the construction of three- and six-story townhouse complexes, with the first residents consisting of Toronto’s working poor. Twenty per cent of residents were previous homeowners. When construction of the southern section began in the late 1950s, the selection of tenants focused more on their income levels. As a result, the residents of Regent Park South were in considerably rougher financial shape than the earlier residents.
Today, the development consists of 2083 social-housing units spread across 69 acres. Few families there earn more than $18,000 per year: less than one-third of national average. The neighbourhood is stigmatized, there are few businesses, few employment opportunities and not enough schools. While in the 1940s, developing the area into a garden city was seen as a revolutionary way to transform Toronto’s slums into a vibrant community; those same efforts have helped create a situation that throws up barriers to its residents’ — particularly its young students — long-term success. For all their good intentions, Regent Park’s original planners have worsened the problems they sought to address. Today, community members and outside groups are left with the challenge of revitalizing the neighbourhood without repeating past mistakes.
Thirty-five per cent of Regent Park’s population is comprised of school-aged children (5–19), compared to 17.5 per cent for the City of Toronto average. In spite of this, there is only one school in the development that serves kids past Grade 6. Nelson Mandela Park Public School is a composite school of 500 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 8. Seventy per cent of the school’s students speak a primary language other than English at home, a situation that, when combined with the realities of the inner city, creates a unique set of challenges for educators.
Regent Park/Duke of York Junior Public School (junior kindergarten to grade 6) also serves Regent Park South.
“When you work with kids in the inner city you need particular understanding about what their lives at home and their lives on the street are like,” comments Deborah Gladstone, a teacher at Nelson Mandela. “It is important to reach out to the community so that students are interested and willing to contribute.”
Nelson Mandela Park is a designated model school by the Toronto District School Board. What that means is that the board provides the school with the tools, resources and opportunities to support the diverse needs of its students. It allows a social worker and psychologist to work at the school full time, English language and vocational instruction for immigrant parents, and clubs that provide students with a wide variety of opportunities, from producing a school paper, podcasting or joining the debate team.
The neighbourhood’s park setting, which cuts off any traffic that would pass through, means gang violence can go about fairly undeterred after dark. On December 23, 2007, there was a shooting steps from Nelson Mandela’s playground, further complicating the issues the school faces.
“Parents often worry about the safety of children walking home alone, even if it is a short distance,” says Giorgio Traini, a UofT student who’s worked in the area. “Many students can’t participate in activities after school.” For students who are allowed to participate, parents or older students are often required to walk them home afterward.
Traini was part of a program created by the Centre for Community Partnerships, a department at the university focused on connecting academic courses with projects in the community. At Nelson Mandela, UofT students assist by tutoring individual students, helping with teacher prep, or, in Traini’s case, coaching an afterschool debate club. These programs offer educators extra assistance with courses and help target high student-teacher ratios. A coordinator at the school monitors the initiative, all of which is made possible as a result of the Model Schools Program.
Once students graduate from Nelson Mandela Park they face another set of problems. “There is not a neighbourhood high school,” Gladstone says. “Kids are required to leave the community. It is a difficult transition.”
The Regent Park Community Health Centre founded the Pathways to Education Program in 2001 to address this problem. The program helps ease the transition to secondary and post-secondary education. It provides tutors four nights a week in five subject, mentors who give career advice, support and counselling for parents and students, and a scholarship of up to $4000 for those who participate. As of June 2008, Pathways claims to have reduced the drop-out rate in Regent Park from 56 per cent to 10 per cent and increased participation in post-secondary programs from 20 per cent to 80 per cent.
While social programming has assisted at-risk youth, more long-term solutions lie in changing the foundation of Regent Park itself. In 2002, Toronto Community Housing recognized this by launching the Regent Park Revitalization project, which over a 12-year period plans to transform the Park into 5,115 mixed-income units (compared to the 2083 currently on site), creating a community that reflects a typical Toronto neighbourhood. The development will reopen all the original streets in the area while also creating additional streets to open up traffic. They’re also integrating additional storefronts in the neighbourhood, which will provide residents with more services within walking distance.
Planning for the second phase (of six) is accelerating in 2009. It could do a lot for the neighbourhood, but there is some resentment from residents. Some will need to relocate when their buildings are being redeveloped. This will impact youth in particular, many of whom were born in the park.
“Kids see Regent Park differently — for them it is home and while they have quite open eyes about the poverty and violence and the day-to-day difficulties, they talk about it matter-of-factly without a lot of laden language,” Gladstone points out. “Many students feel nostalgic already about the old neighbourhood. They worry it won’t be home. ”
Phase one, which was originally scheduled to finish in 2008, has already been delayed two years. This only worsens apprehension. The question also lingers as to whether rebuilding the area will ameliorate its problems. One of the main struggles youth face is transitioning between elementary and high schools, which takes them out of the neighbourhood for classes. There are currently no provisions in the revitalization plan to address this.
A region restricted by its architecture, Regent Park raises obstacles for youth trying to develop and integrate into the greater community. Amidst these struggles, however, Gladstone offers a suggestion to look beyond the stigma too often associated with the community: “At the end of the day, kids at Regent Park remain just that: kids.”