Toronto is often called the City Of Neighbourhoods due to the strength and vitality of the many unique communities within its borders. It currently has 120 official neighbourhoods to its name. Unofficially? The total is probably closer to 240. Each of these 'pockets', either symbolically or literally, represent a unique history, culture, or class of residents, and those distinctions are reflected in the amenities, food, architecture and infrastructure found there.
One hundred years ago, there weren't so many small divisions, but there was definitely one big one of note: the east side typically housed the working class, while the west side accommodated a mix of residents, including the more affluent merchant and professional classes. This is because, in a booming centre of production and commerce, the most desirable locations are those which aren't downwind from all the industry. In Toronto, our lake breezes once blew all of the city's smoke, soot, and stench over the east end. From Toronto's inception this hardly appealed to the affluent, so they located north and west, leaving the less desirable east side for the working class. Remnants of this division are still felt today, specifically in the marginally lower house prices that the east side enjoys. Read more about this in our blog, 'Why Toronto’s East Side Real Estate Has Historically Been Cheaper'.
Historically, one of the poorest of the east side neighbourhoods has been the Regent Park area. Formerly part of the Cabbagetown neighbourhood, it's bounded by Gerrard Street East to the north, River Street to the east, Shuter Street to the south, and Parliament Street to the west. Irish immigrants that gave Cabbagetown its name by using their yards to grow food - including cabbage - became even more destitute following the First World War and the area gave in to squalor. In the early 1940s the city decided to "clear the slums", and began plans for razing Cabbagetown south, and building a testament to the new Garden City Movement, including plenty of pastoral green space and pathways for residents to enjoy and commune. In 1948 construction began breaking ground on what became Regent Park.
Check out this video by the National Film Board. This 1953 film by Grant McLean presents a before-and-after picture, as this large-scale public housing project came to fruition. Doesn't it almost remind you of WWII-era propaganda, the way the narrator speaks of how much better life is for the "Canadian family" in the new Garden City? It's called Farewell Oak Street.
Like many block-busting attempts to revitalize the slums of urban cities in North America by razing them, the good intentions of the community-centric design of Regent Park had the opposite effect. First of all, it should be noted that of the 623 families that lived in the shanty town that previously occupied the site, only 23% were accepted into the new buildings; you can imagine this led to some serious discontent. All of the green space and lack of roads between buildings led to confusion and disputes over where property lines were drawn. Furthermore, the inward-facing buildings, constructed that way to turn their backs on the "noise of the city", led to a disconnect from the rest of the Toronto, and a feeling of isolation amongst the residents. Not to mention the fact that the development was completely residential; without commercial or retail space, nobody from outside the "Garden City" had any reason to go there. In the early 1970s, academic Oscar Newman proclaimed some of the social ills were a reflection of the built environment, where the lack of Defensible Space by residents and their impeded connection to the landscape elevated crime, safety and well-being.
Decades after completion, the entire development - housing 7,500 residents - had fallen into disrepair where falling rents made Regent Park one of the few areas that newcomers to Canada could afford. Throughout the 1970s large numbers of immigrants arriving from Southeast Asia, China and the Caribbean came to the area, and soon 60 per cent of residents were immigrants speaking more than 70 languages. Two-parent households that could afford to move elsewhere, did. By the time of the 1976 census, one in seven households in Regent Park was headed by a single parent.
Here is what the area looked like in 2005:
Image courtesy of Global News
These changing demographics strained social interactions between families and cultures throughout the 80s and 90s. Studies asserted that the lack of recreational amenities contributed toward a rise in crime amongst youth. Eventually, gang violence began to flourish. Clashes with police became commonplace, and in 1996, with city-resident relations reaching a boiling point, hundreds of residents rioted against the police in what came to be called the 'Riot in Regent Park'.
The situation in Regent Park became cyclical, as residents faced continual economic hardships, racism, and negative stereotyping. According to Statistics Canada data, Regent Park was one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada, with nearly 70 per cent of residents living below StatsCan’s low-income cut-off rate. In fact, as of 2005, fewer than 150 households made over $30,000 a year.
After many failed attempts throughout the 90s to revitalize the area finally, in 2003, Toronto City Council formally endorsed the blueprint for a new Regent Park. The official goal of the project was "to transform an area of the city that was originally built to be solely a social housing development into a thriving up-and-coming mixed-income neighbourhood sparking a social, economic and cultural revival to the area. The physical transformation, in collaboration with the Daniels Corporation, includes an implementation of diverse styles of sustainable architecture (a shift from red and gray social housing projects), expanding and reconnecting the road networks to the Toronto Transit Commission as well as new streets and alleys maintained by the City. It also means adding new parks, open space, retail locations, and a new arts complex." (-Wikipedia)
Demolition began in 2006, and the project was scheduled to take 10-15 years. One of the most prominent and important claims made by Toronto Community Housing from the beginning of the revitalization plan was that all Regent Park residents who have been relocated due to construction are guaranteed a right to a new unit in the revitalized neighbourhood. Check out this amazing photo of one apartment building being torn down in 2014, taken by photographer Alex Lukey.
Image courtesy of Alex Lukey Photography
Here's the completed community rec centre and pool that opened in 2012:
Images courtesy of The Toronto Star
The transformation continues to this day, undoing past mistakes and creating a vibrant community that mixes uses and social strata. We're seeing unbelievable change, including more of the outdated infrastructure demolished, the erection of multiple condo towers, the Daniel Spectrum Arts and Culture facility, and a brand new park. They're even beginning to re-create the original grid of the area, bringing back the thoroughfares and streets that were once scrapped to create the 'Garden City'. Even more importantly, retailers are coming back to the community (Shoppers Drug Mart, Tim Hortons, FreshCo, etc.) which is not only feeding the lifestyle of the area, but creating hundreds of new jobs. In fact, the revitalization of Regent Park is sparking refurbishment and new building in the surrounding neighbourhoods, like Corktown. Check out these 'Five New Condo Projects Redefining The Corktown Neighbourhood'.
Regent Park's new 6 Acre Park, which features a splash pad, green space, community events, and a bake oven, is getting plenty of use:
Photo courtesy of Nicola Betts and the Toronto Star
The Arts and Culture Facility:
Photo courtesy of Nicola Betts and the Toronto Star
Did You Know? Regent Park was awarded 'Best International Neighbourhood Renewal Program' presented by The International Journal of Neighbourhood Renewal
The Toronto Star aptly said this of project: "The revitalization of Regent Park is itself a rare instance of urban enlightenment in a city that all too easily forgets it’s a city. Though the remake has years to go before it sleeps, already things are changed beyond recognition."(Toronto Star) When it is complete, ultimately 17,500 people will live in the new Regent Park’s 69 acres. They’ll be in a blended mix of market condos and community housing, plus seniors housing and purpose-built rental buildings.
Curious to learn more about the Regent Park Neighbourhood? Here's our Corktown/Cabbagetown Neighbourhood Page which includes census data, our flavour video and amenity blogs! Or check out our other Neighbourhood Pages!
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Want to learn more about Toronto's East Side? Check these out:
The Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage
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