I live in downtown Toronto, in Cabbagetown. Perhaps you’ve attended one of our (I’m convinced) real-estate-agent-sponsored festivals or craft fairs. We’re Toronto’s go-to destination for $90 wind chimes three days a year, should you find yourself in need of vintage cutlery on a string. It's like Tron that weekend except, instead of the ENCOM mainframe, I'm trapped in the Etsy server.
Maybe you’ve taken a walking tour of our neighbourhood’s historic homes, and I’ve ruined your perfect photograph of a gentrified Victorian house. I’m pretty sure the local No Frills, which has its finger on the pulse of these streets, intentionally discounts jumbo packages of toilet paper (the good stuff) during these tours because I always seem to find myself proudly (score!) walking through someone’s shot with an enormous bale of toilet paper on my shoulder, and I see neighbours doing the same.
Just south of Cabbagetown lies Regent Park – the largest and oldest social-housing development in Canada. The original design for the 28 hectares of subsidized low-rises and row-houses – built to replace the slums that were the original, unreal-estate-agented Cabbagetown until the 1940s (the cute name was co-opted by what was until then called Don Vale) – wasn’t, from the outside, dissimilar to the University of British Columbia student housing where I lived as a little girl. This may in part explain why I’ve always liked Regent Park.
The homes were clustered around courts to provide lots of green space, light and a homey scale. The good intention of this design was still visible beneath the disrepair (trouble began to set in the 1960s) when I bought my home in the 1990s.
This decrepitude and crime – partly enabled by the courtyards, which seemed ideal but separated the neighbourhood from main streets and made policing difficult – gave the area a bad reputation.
Once, when driving friends in from the airport, I was asked, “What’s that area?” as we went by, and replied: “That, I’m told, is Canada’s worst housing development.” My eyes were on the road, so I didn’t understand why they all laughed until, turning the corner, I saw a croquet game, complete with little girls in Alice in Wonderland dresses, in progress. My guests (from Los Angeles and New York) never quite took our country seriously after that.
I don’t want to play down the depressing and sometimes dangerous problems caused by a minority of its residents, but that croquet level of community has always been apparent to me in Regent Park. Walking through the area early on a summer evening I’d hear strains, sometimes barrages, of different music fade in and fade out. That unintentionally artful mix, coupled with the olfactory fusion produced by the assortment of barbecues (there’s a large immigrant population), and with the children, not confined to their parents’ barbecues but playing together, was Canada working.
For several years, in a plan developed under former mayor David Miller with much thoughtful, diligent community input, Regent Park has been undergoing a transformation. Residents are being moved out in shifts and then, if they choose, back to new homes. Creative financing is allowing some who were renting to buy the new condominiums that are changing the housing mix from fully subsidized to about 60 per cent at market rates, partly financing the transformation while doubling the density. There is new arts and community space. In the spring, a large park will open beside the best public pool in which I’ve ever swum.
Last summer I tried out the pool during a ladies-only swim, something Regent Park’s sizable Muslim population makes essential. I assumed it would be quiet. I was wrong. The blinds were drawn, and the place went wild. They let us use the Tarzan swing. There’s a water slide and a fountain in the children’s pool. It’s better than it has to be.
As I walked home, four teenage girls, two wearing hijabs, walked my way, looking at me and exchanging remarks. There I was, warm dust on my still-damp toes, rolled-up towel under my arm and feeling 12 again – self-conscious, wondering why they were looking at me. Then, as they passed, one girl said: “We really like your skirt.”
Something else is being said here, I thought as I left Regent Park, where a city is doing something bold but researched, clever but elegant – ensuring that people get housing they deserve and reminding us we can build great cities rather than endure bad ones. Those girls were smiling at me, welcoming me and, with a certain pride, they were saying: “Yeah, you can totally come use our pool,” and I do.