On the way home from school, there are a few things that can hold up a teenager in Regent Park. It could be an after-school tutoring session, commotion about an arrest at the townhouses, or, as is the case one evening this week, police canvassing the social-housing project.
This is a community long plagued as much by a bad reputation as by drugs and gang violence. Even after the area’s extensive, expensive, much ballyhooed revitalization, youth here must face the possibility that members of the community are committing crimes against their own. Theirs is a reality far removed from that of most Canadian teens – one shared only by their counterparts in neighbourhoods such as Rexdale or Jane and Finch. Tyson Bailey, a 15-year-old who was shot at a highrise at Dundas and River and died in hospital in January, was just one of several young victims of gun violence in the GTA this year.
Mustafa Ahmed, 16, Ashley Fraser, 17, and Trevlyn Kennedy, 19, were at an anti-drug leadership meeting at Dixon Hall Youth Centre this past Thursday(the same day police publicly floated the theory they believe Tyson’s killer may have hidden in a Regent Park building after the shooting – maybe even his own apartment). Dixon Hall, located at the bottom of a drab highrise near River and Shuter, serves as a program space and drop-in centre. Although Mustafa and Trevlyn recently moved out of the area as part of a relocation project tied to Regent Park’s revitalization, they’re in the neighbourhood daily, drawn by old friends and outreach workers who have become surrogate parents. Their conversation offers a look into the challenges of growing up in one of Canada’s most troubled downtown neighbourhoods – an area that has come to symbolize the potentials and pitfalls of ambitious urban redevelopment.
How Regent Park has become less safe in their lifetime
Ashley: When I was growing up, I lived at 65 Belshaw and it was a big sense of family. All the older people who were born and raised here from back in the days, they all came together eventually, put all their beefs aside. It was an amazing part of my life growing up with them and knowing I was safe and knowing they had my best interests [at heart]. But now, this is not like what I remembered it to be. I think it happened when two people who I thought were my family – my deep family – passed away a couple of years ago. After that it was like we were having a gun war then, we’re having a gun war now. It’s like a puzzle. Once you don’t have that piece, there’s nothing there...it’s like, I’m finished (she wipes away tears as the talks). There’s too much puzzle [pieces] gone now.
Trevlyn: I think the revitalization was what threw it off for me because it becomes open and – I don’t want to put it in a way where outsiders weren’t allowed to come in – but you could just tell the outsiders or not [before]; you could tell if there was a threat or something. I felt more secure when the revitilization was not happening: everywhere was lit, I wasn’t afraid to walk through certain paths. Now with the revitalization, it’s dark. There’s certain paths that are locked off. It became an unfamiliar ground to work around.
The way crime in Regent Park is viewed by the rest of the city
Mustafa: A shooting’s happening here, someone is being killed over there. They [the media] stop coming. It’s almost like these people that are dying are not human any more. It’s so recurring and so redundant that they don’t want to come to report this. Unless it’s after Tyson died. [Wednesday] there was a shooting and they just blew it out of proportion … because it was close to the new residents. They want to make sure the new residents are safe.
Trevlyn: If you’re known to police and you die, the world doesn’t care. But as soon as you see sweet [kids]: “Why are the good kids dying?” Then it becomes, “Oh, shoot, this should be something we look into.” But why should that be the case? Why should you be dehumanized when you run into trouble with the police?
How Regent Park’s reputation follows them in school
Ashley: At school [St. Joseph’s College, a Catholic girls’ school at Bay and Wellesley], it’s like, “Oh, Ashley, Regent Park, da da da, oh, are you you okay? Tyson died, da da da.” It’s like, dude, you never talked to me in your life! Two days [later they say to me], “Oh, yo, this girl just cussed out me because I was talking to her boyfriend. Yo, go rough her up for me.” Like, are you serious? Are you being real? That’s how you look at me? I’m being perceived as an angry person because I’m from Regent?
Mustafa: It’s unfortunate but I think a lot of the youth from Regent Park take pride in the fact that they’re from Regent Park. A lot of times people from Regent Park get into fights – little things that happen at school on occasion. And then another kid goes, “You’re seriously trying to fight this kid? He’s from Regent Park.” It instills a sense of fear in other students. Honestly, I think the youth are okay. I just think with all the media and everything that’s going on – it’s making them stray. Everyone’s becoming more paranoid and even more prideful. They don’t want to discuss anything – they want to go straight to action, to creating more conflict for themselves.
Trevlyn: I think with saying that “I’m from Regent Park” it could be like an S on your chest or a target on your back. And that’s one of the things I find. If you think it can give you an S on your chest that’s exactly what you’ll do. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re involved with the scary part but you do get some perks out of it and you do get some shit out of it.
On being ashamed to be from Regent Park
Mustafa: I know people who hate being from Regent Park. I know people who don’t even want to apply to a job – they are going to apply to a job with a different address. They aren’t going to apply with their Regent Park address because this isn’t the community they were raised in.
Ashley: I try to take every part of inner self to try to seem like I’m not from here. So as soon as I leave Regent Park, I’m from somewhere else. If would see a random girl walking down here wearing tights, I will not wear tights ever again in my life. I see a girl walking here with diamond earrings, I won’t wear diamond earrings.
The way they react to neighbourhood crime
Trevlyn: Once something bad happens, this is the foundation. Everyone just comes here. Sandra or Kenneth [two of Dixon Hall’s employees] or someone is always here. I know when shootings occur, I’m worried about who it could possibly be, this is where I’m at. What happened? Is everyone okay? You see faces come through the office so you see who it’s not. I know when I don’t see people during the week I call them. I’m pretty sure throughout the community people check in as well. We’re a safety net for each other. We’re also the lookout for each other.
Their exposure to guns
Trevlyn: I have never seen a gun. And I think when people think that everyone in the community has seen a gun, it’s from everything they’ve seen about the community [in the media]. One of the things about believing that everyone in the community is involved and knows what’s happening in the community [is] you ‘other’ them – you make them their own island and they have to deal with it themselves. That’s very disturbing.
Ashley: With me? I was raised differently. I’ve definitely seen a gun before. I shouldn’t elaborate.
Mustafa: My older brother had gun charges and stuff so even as a kid I never thought much of it. I used to tell, “My brother has a gun charge” – that’s what I used to say around the school. I’m in Grade 4 and I’m telling the whole world. For me, it was every person I met had a gun. Every house that I went to, they were taking guns. They were all situations where these people don’t want guns. Who wants to go to jail? Who wants to do time for having a weapon? They were put in a situation where they felt like they needed a weapon because they were at risk. These are people that feel like they can’t depend on the protection of the police and all of that to help them. Those people need to protect themselves. I know so many people who have had guns for years that have never used them before.
Their relationship with the police
Trevlyn: If you don’t feel safe enough to have the police protect you, how else are you supposed to feel safe? A lot of people at the end of the day are feeling worthless when they see their friend’s crime going unsolved and nobody’s being found for a killing. However your approach is when you’re in the community, you can’t expect people to come to [cops] for help when you treat them a certain way, when you abuse your power.
Ashley: If I were to walk outside and I would see a shooting or killing, I would call Sandra [youth worker at Dixon Hall] so fast. There’s no way I’m calling the police. I would rather be a bystander and not do anything than to go through the police, because they start throwing out descriptions and “this woman [snitched]” …
Mustafa: From the part of the community I come from, everybody knows they can give this tip, they can tip someone or tip the police [about neighbourhood crimes]. Right now I can tell you, someone got stabbed and half the community knows. Everyone knows that if they were to tell [police], it wouldn’t come back to [the tipster]. It’s because it’s a civil war. Everyone is within the community. That’s creating a lot of, “I don’t want to do this, this guy’s from my community doing this to someone else from my community.”
Personal loss from violent crime
Ashley: I lost two very close people to me when I was about 10. When the second person (Amin Aafi, whose 2007 murder has not led to any arrests) got shot it was hard. (She pauses to dry tears.) The phone call I got was basically tears. I didn’t really understand it. All I heard was, “Shot. Club.” That’s it. He’s like family to me. He was like someone who was there from me from the bottom up. I called back my sister and Amin’s sister picked up and I said, “What’s going on?” and they said, “Amin got shot in a club.” I said, “Oh, I’m coming over, we’re going to the hospital.” She’s like, “There’s no need.” I’m like, “What do you mean there’s no need?” I was confused. She’s like, “He’s dead.”
Trevlyn: When this community mourns and feels broken, you feel broken too. I was more personally connected to the last loss – which was Tyson – and for me, loss doesn’t only come with death. The more people that go to jail, that’s a loss for me. When you love someone and you lose someone either to gun violence or either to jail or whatever it may be, that’s a piece of you that’s taken, regardless of whether you’re really personal with them. One of my things is, I don’t like funerals and I don’t like going to funerals, but once it’s someone really close to home, you have no choice. We go to more funerals than we do to weddings and that’s disgusting. I feel like our youth is in enormous, enormous trouble.
Mustafa: For Tyson – he was closest to my age, he was a year younger than me and we went to school together and went to the community centre together and we played basketball together and used to go to a friend’s house together. It was very hard. It was just like poof and you don’t see that person again. I went to Tyson’s viewing but I didn’t go to his funeral because I’m far too emotional for it. And when you know that someone in the community killed the other person in the community, you don’t even know how to mourn properly, right? You’re living in a state where you don’t know what to feel any more. You don’t know what your position is with all that’s going on. You’re just faced with two losses: Someone who was taken away from your life and someone whose life was taken away from them.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.