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Margaret Wente

Can bricks and mortar really change behaviour? Add to ...

On Monday, an 18-year-old named Nicholas Yombo was gunned down at his family’s townhouse in Regent Park, the oldest and biggest public-housing project in Toronto and the country. It was the area’s fourth homicide in two months, and people are in shock. “This isn’t supposed to be happening,” wailed the Toronto Star.

A lot of people were hoping that Regent Park had finally left its violent past behind. An ambitious billion-dollar “revitalization” plan has been widely hailed as a model of enlightened planning. The cockroach-infested, urine-stained, graffiti-covered buildings are being replaced with modern, mixed-income housing that will not only improve living standards for the residents, but also ease the area’s social dysfunctions.

“If you change the neighbourhood, you change what happens in the neighbourhood,” the planners promise. And when the first tenants moved into their brand-new units a few months ago, the media treated the event as the dawn of a brighter and more peaceful era.

Regent Park is typical of public-housing projects across North America. Built in the postwar years to tackle a shortage of low-income housing, it was hailed at the time as a bold experiment in social engineering. Back in 1949, when the first residents moved in, the Star described Regent Park as “Heaven.” Twenty years later, the same paper was calling it a “slum” and a “colossal flop.” Regent Park had become synonymous with poverty, crime and unemployment. Its residents were cut off from the city, even though they lived a short streetcar ride from some of its most affluent neighbourhoods and greatest cultural attractions.

Today, Regent Park is largely a settlement area for struggling new immigrants. The vast majority are law-abiding, but the area is a magnet for gang activity. Its once-progressive layout of high-rises, townhouses and open spaces is now regarded by the planning class as a terrible mistake that actually cultivates criminal behaviour. This mistake can only be fixed, they say, by tearing the whole thing down and starting again. The Toronto Community Housing Corp. calls the revitalization project “the most important thing we are doing as a landlord to improve community safety.” Several other high-crime, low-income areas are slated for redevelopment as well.

But can bricks and mortar really change behaviour? Consider the case of Nicholas Yombo, the city’s 29th gun-murder victim of the year. Like almost all the others, he was young, black and mixed up with gangs and drugs. His case is unusual only because no one in the family insisted what a good boy he really was. “He was a bad guy,” said his father, an immigrant from Cameroon. “I tried to talk to him but he didn’t listen. Now he has paid the price.”

This burst of candour was refreshing. It served as a useful reminder that changing what happens in the neighbourhood is a lot harder than just rebuilding it.

Across North America, dysfunctional public-housing projects are being razed and redeveloped in hopes of cutting crime. In Chicago, the last residents of the infamous Cabrini-Green have finally been forced out to make way for the bulldozers. Like Regent Park, the new, improved Cabrini-Green will include mixed-income private housing with better lighting, better street patterns, more amenities and better ties to the city. The idea is to transform these blighted ghettos into “normal” neighbourhoods.

Regent Park’s new housing units are swell. The new supermarket is great. The new swimming pool will be fun. But the hardest ghettos to eradicate are the ghettos of the mind.

The most successful “normalization” project ever launched in Regent Park has nothing to do with bricks and mortar. It’s an all-encompassing program called Pathways to Education, which mentors and coaches secondary-school kids through graduation and beyond, and guarantees them a bursary if they graduate. (A big advantage, in my view, is that Regent Park has no secondary school, so the kids have no choice but to venture outside the ’hood.) Pathways connects them with the world and shows them how to navigate it. Bricks and mortar can’t do that. Even Pathways can’t always do it – the program doesn’t work without strong grassroots community support.

Ultimately, a community must change itself. And if we ignore that, we’ll just be razing Regent Park again, 60 years from now.

 

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