The audience sat rapt. It's rare to have a story of real estate development told with an R&B accompaniment and the swagger of jazz poetry.
The sold-out performances over two nights in late November were billed as a neighbourhood celebration, attracting a theatre and media crowd to hear a musical about Regent Park, a 69-acre neighbourhood of downtown Toronto that had become synonymous with inner-city troubles.
Left to decay for decades as a failed government experiment in lower-incoming housing, the neighbourhood has now seen a wholesale revitalization. "Buildings coming down/everything I've known," one song goes.
There were no tunes, though, about Daniels Corp., the development company behind the massive rebuilding project whose president, Mitchell Cohen, wrote the original script and music for the musical called The Journey: A Living History of the Regent Park Revitalization.
"The building of buildings is, to a great extent, the easy part of this work. The hard part is how do we lay the social infrastructure where people are going to feel good living together in this neighbourhood, sharing the same amenities," said Mr. Cohen, sitting before the show inside the Paintbox Bistro, a new restaurant also part of the redevelopment.
The performances, staged in the neighbourhood's new Daniels Spectrum arts centre on Dundas Street East, in its 400-seat theatre, is an example of property developers helping to boost the arts to cultivate a sense of community.
The neighbourhood's old bricks-and-mortar housing complexes have been torn down and replaced with glass-and-steel high-rise apartment buildings. The 15-year redevelopment, which formally began in 2006, is still in the throes of construction. About 7,500 housing units will eventually be built, with a mix of about 70-per-cent condos and 30-per-cent rentals. The exact numbers are still changing as the development continues.
The aim is to create a new mixed-income area with businesses gradually moving in, with amenities such as a major grocery store and bank, a new aquatic centre, athletic grounds and a six-acre park.
The rebuilding required 2,083 homes to be vacated; some families moved into new housing immediately, although some had to be relocated temporarily and then moved back into the new housing units. For many, the move was traumatic, with families worried about their displacement. The theme of the evening performances was this social and psychological shift.
The $30-million Daniels Spectrum centre, standing alone among the high-rise apartment blocks, includes five performance spaces that easily adapt to corporate events, with the bistro and a large catering-ready kitchen next door.
Daniels contributed $4-million toward the construction and operation of the centre. In fact, the development company's involvement in the arts and culture of the rebuilt community has been central to the development plans since contracts with the city were finalized in 2006.
"How are we going to bring people together?" Mr. Cohen said, citing this as the paramount theme behind the rebuilding.
Arts and culture considerations didn't exist in the zoning bylaw for the redevelopment. Yet a social development plan had been drafted as part of the partnership Daniels has with Toronto Community Housing for the massive project. It took into account the community's great diversity, with 57 languages spoken within its boundaries and a wealth of artists and grassroots organizations already there.
Mr. Cohen, soft-spoken but a quintessential people person, noted how he met Sakina Khanam by chance on the street. She and a group of Bengali women made traditional quilts, but found it hard to make a living from that in Canada. Mr. Cohen took them under his wing. One of their quilts depicting a Toronto street scene now hangs prominently in the lobby of one of the central, modern highrises. The woman are also developing tote bags for new residents moving into the community. Meanwhile, the hallways of the new buildings are also filled with other artwork bought from local artists.
"Embedding arts and culture in the DNA of our communities, how do we do that? That's the challenge we set for ourselves. And Regent Park was an opportunity to really take that thesis and work it very hard," Mr. Cohen said.
But with few places for arts groups to meet in the neighbourhood, Daniels and Toronto Community Housing had to shift the development plans. They had to free up space for the 60,000-square-foot, three-storey art centre, by adding apartments to the plans for surrounding buildings.
The centre is owned by Daniels, Toronto Community Housing and the not-for-profit Artscape, which develops and manages spaces for the arts. "Legally, there were the three partners, but the Regent Park community was a very principal player in the development, as well," said Celia Smith, Artscape's executive vice-president in Toronto.
Artscape has a 50-year lease to manage the building. Capital funding came from provincial and federal governments ($12-million from each), as well as a $10-million campaign by Artscape. To keep running, the centre has a $1.5-million operating budget, with rents from groups that use the space, such as the Regent Park School of Music and the Centre for Social Innovation, and from theatre companies and corporations using the performance space.
But "there's always room to grow, particularly on the programming side," Ms. Smith said. Part of the $10-million raised helps to subsidize rents. "There's also a piece that funds programs, particularly youth programs relating to the arts." As funding continues, new mentorship and internship programs for local youths are being introduced.
"What is unique about this one [building] is the very deep-rooted partnership with the community, which identified a need for this kind of a gathering place from the very beginning of the revitalization. This is the culmination of years of local activism and identification of a need for this kind of a place.
"And a place not only for the local community to gather and exchange, but also to connect with the larger city and beyond the borders of the city," Ms. Smith said. "It is clearly an integral part of the whole revitalization strategy to have this kind of a place."
And the art and theatre world is taking notice. The evening performances of The Journey included star Sterling Jarvis, known for his roles in The Lion King and We Will Rock You, and veteran jazz and blues diva Jackie Richardson, who both worked for much less than the normal performance fees. They were joined by young singers and dancers.
The aim is to maintain Regent Park's identity, and not, as some suggested, to call the redevelopment Cabbagetown South, which would try to link it artificially to the gentrified neighbourhood to its north. But Mr. Cohen stressed that simply building new housing isn't enough to revitalize the area.
"There are still enormous challenges ahead in using the physical infrastructure that is being built. The arts and culture centre is one of the most important pieces."