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Sandra Costain is pictured at the Dixon Hall Youth Centre in Regents Park in Toronto on Tuesday June 5, 2012. (Chris Young/Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)
Sandra Costain is pictured at the Dixon Hall Youth Centre in Regents Park in Toronto on Tuesday June 5, 2012. (Chris Young/Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

Guns in downtown Toronto produce shock; in Regent Park, shrugs Add to ...

Sandra Costain is as horrified as anyone about what happened at the Eaton Centre on Saturday. She feels for the innocent people who had to dive for cover when the shots rang out.

But she has a question for Toronto. “If those people were traumatized, can you imagine if that was in your house or in your backyard – what that feels like, in a place where there is an expectation that you’re safe?”

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It happens all too often in her community. She grew up a mechanic’s daughter in the troubled east-end housing project of Regent Park and still works there running youth programs for the Dixon Hall social agency.

The project has struggled for years with street violence. Just a year an half back, it saw a string of three murders in the space of three weeks. There was a flurry of media coverage, but nothing like the uproar that followed Saturday’s events. At the Eaton Centre, says Ms. Costain, “the mayor shows up, [police chief] Bill Blair shows up. That’s not our experience.”

When something bad happens in Regent Park, she says, the city seems to feel that “it’s just another day in the ’hood.” After one double murder, “the blood in the elevator didn’t even get cleaned up. The community had to do that.”

You can hear that can kind of weary sentiment in many disadvantaged corners of Toronto today. The Eaton Centre shooting was a shock for everyone in Toronto, rich and poor. But for those in the city’s most troubled neighbourhoods it was also part of a continuum.

On a less sensational scale, they have been struggling with street violence for decades. In downtown housing projects such as Regent Park, clashes between violent young men are part of the cloth of life. Only when we get a shocker like Saturday’s shooting or Jane Creba’s killing in 2005 do we wake to what they live with day after day.

It is human nature to focus on events that affect us directly. Watching the Eaton Centre events, we can’t help but think: I could have been there. It’s harder to care about some obscure killing in a shabby housing project.

But the roots are the same: young men drifting into a life of guns, drugs and gangs. The resulting violence runs like an underground river through vast stretches of this generally safe and orderly city.

In places like Regent Park, people encounter its offshoots all the time. Just before I visited Ms. Costain at her office, I saw two police officers on bicycles stop a young black man and pat him down for weapons.

“It’s nothing new around here,” said the man, Shaun Jacobs, 28, who wore a red ball cap. “They look at any black guy around here and they will absolutely approach you.”

Across town in Alexandra Park, another troubled housing project, a well-known thug keeps taking potshots at people and buildings. The last time it happened was just hours before the big shooting on Saturday.

Local youth worker Olu Quamina says, despite what police say, the Eaton Centre shooting was not an isolated incident. “Go five minutes west and five minutes east and you can see things happening three of four times a week in our communities.”

Back in Regent Park, a place where the accused Christopher Husbands is said to have lived, Ms. Costain says “people are heartbroken and a little scared” after the Eaton Centre shooting. At the very least, she hopes the event will bring attention to the fear of violence that is the constant lot of some Toronto communities.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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