The slayings in Flemingdon Park this summer have brought a shadow of violence back to a community where, on the surface, it appeared to have lifted. When the sun is shining on the fresh green soccer pitches and children are playing in the newly constructed parks, the neighbourhood seems lively, close-knit and, most of all, safe.
It had been easy to forget about Omar Wellington, and how, four years ago, the 17-year-old was tortured, stabbed and paraded around the same grounds where children chase soccer balls today. But when Dianthony Evans, 19, was shot in the head on July 13 just blocks from where Mr. Wellington died, Flemingdon's history of violence couldn't be glossed over. In a macabre twist, Mr. Evans was one of the youths convicted in Mr. Wellington's murder.
As if that weren't bad enough, on Saturday morning a 25-year-old man was stabbed to death in the lobby of his nearby apartment building - news that almost mocked the neighbourhood's efforts at revitalization.
Souria Chaabo, 50, has lived in Flemingdon Park for 13 years, and her son is the same age as Mr. Evans. Her eyes filled with tears as she remembered the sharp crack of gunshots on July 13, the "sparkling" in the dark as the guns fired, and then the wailing as Mr. Evans cried for his mother.
"It's disgusting, this killing people," said Ms. Chaabo, an immigrant from Syria. "Like it's easy. Like it's a game."
Flemingdon Park is one of Toronto's "priority" areas. Census data from 2001 showed that 71 per cent of the 22,000 residents were immigrants, and 34 per cent lived below the poverty line. The average family lived on less than $45,000 a year.
When Mr. Wellington was tortured to death in 2006, terrified residents went inside and shut their windows. No one called police. This prompted the city, province and police to invest money and time in the neighbourhood, trying to build it up and break its "code of silence."
But the violence continues. According to police statistics, violent crime reported in Flemingdon Park increased by 8 per cent from 2004 to 2008. At a community safety meeting on July 21, Sergeant Kate Kinnear said those numbers have gone down in 2009 and 2010. Mr. Evans's homicide was tragic, but isolated, she said.
Yet one woman said her seven-year-old is afraid of getting shot. Another said her 13-year-old hasn't left the house since Mr. Evans was killed. Ms. Chaabo stood in the middle of the circle of lawn chairs and berated the police for not doing more and the city for spending money on pointless projects. She's scared, she said.
"When Dianthony was shot I considered moving back home," Ms. Chaabo said. "And I'm from the Third World."
The wrong initiatives
Since 2009, the city has spent $1.5-million to create parks and playgrounds in the neighbourhood. But right now, Flemingdon doesn't have a bank and its only grocery store is scheduled to open in the fall.
Councillor John Parker blames poor urban planning. "It was thought that the thing to do with your poor people is to bundle them up and put them all in one place," he said. "Why would anyone want to set up a bank in a place for, quote unquote, poor people?"
As more organizations spend more money on community projects, many overlook a basic problem: getting the word out to the people, many of whom don't read English.
Flemingdon Neighbourhood Services spent nearly $1-million on community projects in the past year, including an all-girls basketball team. At the community safety meeting, outreach worker Maymuna Shaikh said no girls have come out. The coach shoots baskets by herself.
The parents shrugged. They said they had no idea the team existed.
To help with safety concerns, Toronto Community Housing installed 120 security cameras in Flemingdon Park in 2006, at a cost of close to $1-million. Mr. Parker said the cameras were installed in response to the violence that occurred across the city in 2005, coined "the year of the gun."
Despite the cameras, police were unable to identify Mr. Evans's killers. Many cameras have been vandalized, rendering 22 inoperable.
None of these initiatives are likely to break the cycle of violence, according to York University sociology professor Carl James. The way to get through to Flemingdon's most vulnerable - its youth - is to provide them with opportunities and hope, including better access to education and jobs.
Marilyn Lawson, a resident, said at least three youth gangs are still active in the area and that since Mr. Evans was shot, people are afraid to let their children play outside. "People are afraid of all-out war," she said.
She said she knows that the rest of the city looked down on Flemingdon residents for their reaction, or non-reaction, to Mr. Wellington's murder. But to this day, she doesn't blame her neighbours: They are terrified of retaliation, she said.
Staff Sergeant George Mullin said his division has been successful in breaking down some of the barriers between police and the community. He said residents are less tolerant of gangs and are more open to coming to police. "People now realize they have to take down that code of silence if they want to help the police with policing the community," he said.
A new code
The police and politicians urged people at July's community safety meeting to focus on the positive changes in the neighbourhood: free summer camp for children, a wheelchair-accessible community garden and a pilot project with Toronto Hydro to improve the quality of the streetlights.
Mr. Parker and the police talk often about how friendly the residents are, how peaceful everyone is. And on the warm summer night of the community safety meeting, with children playing tag in the street and adults sitting in lawn chairs, sharing pizza, it did seem peaceful - never mind that they were discussing a teenager shot in the head, and another one stabbed four years ago.
Detective Sergeant Dan Nielsen said the killing on Saturday is not a reflection of the community. It's just a coincidence that another young person was violently killed in Flemingdon Park, he said.
Ms. Chaabo has a hard time remaining positive. She has difficulty sleeping, getting Mr. Evans's final cries out of her head and not imagining her own son coming to harm. Sitting on her couch, smoothing her skirt with her hands, Ms. Chaabo said she doesn't see any differences in Flemingdon, despite all the money and all the work.
"After what we saw, what happened," she said, "it's not easy to feel safe."