Monday, December 7, 2009

Regent Park Housing Project - Friday October 16, 3:30 pm

Regent Park was built in the 1950s as a transitional housing development for low income families. The development was plagued by poverty and high rates of crime during the latter half of the 20th century. It is currently undergoing massive structural changes as part of a revitalization project. The development is bordered by Parliament, Shuter, River, and Gerrard Streets, and is composed of 3 storey apartments clustered together. There are also some two storey townhomes. There are no roads inside the development; small parking lots and walking paths separate the buildings. These pathways intersect forming interior courtyards. Each grouping of apartments shares a garbage dumpster, which sit just off the walking paths.

Some of the empty buildings have tall, uncut grass growing wild in front of them. There are also drifting piles of fallen leaves and small branches that have not been raked or cleared away. Some homes have weeds and vines growing up against them. The weather is crisp but the area is very sunny; the low height of the buildings ensures that residents receive a lot of western light. The interior of the development is almost eerily quiet – some buildings have been vacated as newer ones are constructed. There are noises from the cars and people on the surrounding streets.

One woman sits on her balcony facing the street, and several children walk home from Regent Park/Duke of York Public School. Near almost each dumpster that I pass are people talking, usually middle aged women in groups of two or three. It is unclear how many buildings now sit empty because of the revitalization project, but there is a noticeable absence of people. Wildlife seems more prevalent than humans here, and there are many squirrels and birds. Many of the squirrels were eating and scavenging through trash they had plucked from the dumpsters.

The absence of people was the first thing I noticed, and on a sunny Friday afternoon it seemed particularly strange. This made it difficult to imagine what the development was like when it was fully populated, and what other activities might have been taking place. I live in a busy, middle class neighbourhood and it was difficult to relate to both the low noise level, and the experience of living in low-income housing project. The eerie silence of the area especially made me feel out of place. At most of the other sites I visited, it was relatively easy to blend in and participate in the activities taking place, and not feel uncomfortable taking photos. In Regent Park, I felt more like an outside observer than at any of the other sites.

Another surprising observation was the way residents utilized the garbage dumpsters as a tool for social connection. Perhaps the interior design of the building limits social interaction, but there are definitely no visible benches or well-designed gathering spaces outdoors. The communal act of throwing out garbage is a substitute, with the dumpsters acting as informal meeting places. The interior courtyards have been cited in the media as an enabling factor in the criminal activity that Regent Park struggled with. When the development was created, it was considered to be very family-friendly because of the lack of dangerous traffic intersecting the apartment buildings. Ironically it was the lack of traffic, low visibility and clandestine nature of the interior courtyards that enabled crime to flourish. The dumpsters are also symbolic of irresponsible decisions on the part of the city. Perhaps it was not considered worthwhile to implement a recycling program in a development that was about to be torn down, but there are always alternatives to just dumping garbage.

Andre Gunder Frank’s critique of “The Development of Underdevelopment” can be applied to the past, present and future manifestations of Regent Park. Gunder Frank uses the example of Brazilian development to argue that development assistance only makes poverty and inequality worse. He discusses the concept of “dependency theory” to show that development creates a hierarchy of “satellites” – towns and regions that are dependent on the economic resources and growth of larger urban areas. Considering that Regent Park is in its third stage – from an impoverished neighbourhood of row houses to subsidized housing development to “revitalized” mixed-income housing – it is clear that development has done little for the Park. This evolution of repeated attempts at gentrification has not made Regent Park independent or prosperous. Instead, the Park relies on city-run projects that shape the development as they sit fit, disrupting the lives of thousands of residents. Was Regent Park an embarrassment to municipal government? Is it being rebuilt for the betterment of its residents, or just to deter crime? The concept of gentrification relates to our class discussion about the criteria for international cities. In addition to Dundas Square, the revitalization of Regent Park is part of a trend of poorer Toronto areas being given a facelift. These projects are always accompanied by government rhetoric about Toronto striving to become an internationally recognized city, and of possibly reclaiming its title “Toronto the Good”. Clearly neighbourhoods like Regent Park cannot remain as they are if they want to be included in Toronto’s idealized future.

Regent Park is somewhat constitutive of a human/nature relationship, albeit an irresponsible one. The lack of maintenance and care for the lawns and plants surrounding the empty buildings is the most visible sign of a faltering human/nature relationship, and contributed to an atmosphere of neglect and abandonment. Our class discussion about Zoo Woods and its maintenance applies to this issue. Zoo Woods was designed to be low-maintenance and appears to grow of its own accord, but a closer look proves that routine pruning and clearing is performed. The grounds of Regent Park do not need to be manicured, but basic activities such as clearing away fallen branches, should be performed for the safety and well being of its residents. The lack of maintenance might be excused by the fact that these buildings will soon be demolished, but it would be interesting to compare the level of grounds keeping in the past with that of the future site. The prevalence of animals is also a sign of an irresponsible relationship with nature, as it relates to garbage. The use of garbage dumpsters instead of a green bin/recycling program is ecologically irresponsible, and makes it easier and more accessible for animals to eat garbage and overtake the area. This is not in the best interests of animals or people. The fact that there is no recycling program shows that this neighbourhood’s environmental needs are not a high priority for municipal government. The City of Toronto can repair Regent Park’s relationship with nature by implementing a recycling program and ensuring that the “revitalized” Park is people-friendly and has sustainable, easily maintained grounds.

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