What if an entire neighbourhood disappeared without a trace? This is exactly what happened during the construction of Regent Park, the downtown Toronto district that was the largest public-housing project in Canada. And over the past decade it has happened again as that district, itself, disappears.
With Skip Stop, his new exhibition at Pari Nadimi Gallery as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, the artist Jesse Colin Jackson raises interesting questions about what’s being built and what’s being lost – not just here, but more generally as we discard some of the 20th century’s ideas about the city.
The most compelling image is a single frame that was assembled from many exposures. It reads as a diptych, the new and the old. To the right, a squat brown-brick apartment building huddles on the edge of the frame; a middle-aged woman walks past, pushing her groceries in a cart. (She’s buying a lot of drinking water.) To the left, a group of three teenagers in brightly hued coats walk toward the camera, greeting some friends, while a colourful new residential building towers over them.
Past and present are in conversation, our sense of time scrambled by the fact that the characters – the woman, the teens in their puffy coats – each appear more than once. And while the youth are clearly the future, the woman, and the building behind her, have their own dignity. The image evokes the slow trauma of seeing your home rebuilt around you; it hints that just because the new is better, doesn’t mean the old is without value.
Regent Park was designed and built, in quick succession, between 1947 and 1959. It was home to roughly 10,000 people in Toronto Community Housing. Many had lived here in the old working-class neighbourhood that was then known as Cabbagetown, which was levelled for a new crop of buildings, first squat brick lowrises in the late 1940s and then tall towers in the 1950s. These new buildings, nearly indistinguishable, were set in a vast field of open space, driveways and parking lots. In many respects, it was a classic example of the urban renewal that remade North American cities.
And it was seen as a failure. The place was vilified. The sameness and generic quality of the buildings were seen, by many locals as well as architectural professionals, as alienating. All that “undefended space,” to use some jargon, is widely thought to have contributed to street crime in the neighbourhood. The current rebuild is replacing the grid of streets that was eliminated by urban renewal, adding thousands of units of market-rate housing in new towers, and offering units to all of those who were had been living here. Still, some residents disagreed passionately with the scheme; some refused, at first, to leave their old homes.
Jackson engages, a bit sideways, with this debate. He visited the area 10 times between 2010 and 2013, capturing images of the 1940s low-rise buildings and the 1950s high-rises, the latter of which were designed by the prominent Modern architect Peter Dickinson and won a national design award. In a series of images called Iterations made together with the artist Tori Foster, Jackson overlays these images on each other. That the architecture is the same reads clearly. What is different – people, trees, bikes, construction equipment – fades into oblivion. The buildings, particularly the Dickinson buildings, read as neutral and even handsome. Was this architecture really fatally flawed?
Jackson, who now teaches in California, is attuned to buildings and to the subtleties of the Modernist period in Canada. He was trained as an architect and is best known for a body of work called Radiant City: photographs that documented the tower neighbourhoods that house many thousands of people in Toronto. These images were often deadpan, sometimes beautiful, generous in their focus on places that are culturally invisible.
At Regent Park, he’s done much the same work. Not that he is complaining that these buildings should have been retained – “I’m neutral on that question,” he told me during a recent call.
However, it may be that city officials made a mistake in wiping the slate completely clean. There was detailed discussion of saving one of the Dickinson buildings, which were ultimately all demolished. The artist expresses mixed feelings on this point.
Take the title, which comes from a piece of architectural jargon. A “skip-stop” elevator is one that stops only every two or three floors. In Regent Park’s high-rises, this unusual arrangement allowed for apartments that were large, had two levels, and enjoyed views in multiple directions. On the other hand, the translation of this avant-garde European idea was not perfect: The stairs in each home were narrow and steep, the navigation confusing. “When I was in those buildings, I couldn’t help but be excited by that idea,” he says. “And yet, this elegant architectural idea and the lived experience of that idea are very seriously at odds.”
In other words this place was flawed, like all human projects. Jackson says – correctly – that the current debate around Regent Park sounds a lot like the discourse of the 1940s, when it replaced the previous Victorian neighbourhood. “‘This is a damaged part of the city, and it’s going to be replaced,’” Jackson says, paraphrasing. “It’s hard not to notice that the rhetoric surrounding the change is exactly the same.” Maybe we’ve gotten it all right this time, and maybe not.
Skip Stop runs at Pari Nadimi Gallery until July 20.
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