“They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us….we have no right to obliterate.” – John Ruskin
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When you move out of a place it can be emotionally devastating. Especially because, for most of us, it is so rarely our choice. As a child you fear you may never again find those special spots, the comforts that made it a home.
By the time I arrived at Regent Park the homes had been abandoned for weeks, months, years. And on the horizon, new monoliths. The razing began in 2005. Six years later, here I was – amazed at how easy it was to get in. Vandals had made their way in before me, tagging walls, breaking windows. But with their imprint, so too laid the notes of past residents – those displaced – that had been left behind. Items which fell from moving vans, overflowed from boxes, or remained, were a statement to say “I was here. This was ours, once.”
I could read the emptiness in the plants: overgrown, creeping up between the broken slabs of cement. Community gardens now a jungle of weeds. As John Martins-Manteiga wrote in Endangered Species, “was it wrong to raze the original Regent Park neighbourhood in 1949? The people who lived there said so.” Was it wrong to raze it again? With YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter and Facebook, the answer is there for those who choose to find it.
As I walked past the detritus – a picnic table, a carved up tree, beams, rebar, fences and concrete – I wondered, where will all of this end up? The earth’s resources, civic infrastructure, human design has all been swept away beneath a grand facade – new resources, new infrastructure, new design in The New Revitalized Regent Park. But what of the memories and connections the old piece held?
True, there were issues with the post-war housing projects like Regent Park. The lack of the urban grid, as in my old neighbourhood of St. Jamestown, had a strange way of making you feel disconnected from the rest of the city – though in another way more connected to your neighbours. And there was green space. There was social fabric. There was always a home.
When we tear these things down, we fracture our collective heritage, our histories. When we rebuild, we can often find the same problems rotting underneath the new. Who’s ever heard of insta-homes or fast-community? But politicians, developers and a number of community members agreed that they were, in the words of Councillor Pam McConnell, “rebuilding [a] dream to renew [the] community and bring together all incomes and backgrounds.” And didn’t it seem like a good idea in the morning paper?
“It’s one thing to build buildings, right? Frankly, that’s the easy part of this. … The harder part is, how do you build community?”
Sheila Braidek, Executive Director of the Regent Park Community Health Centre
How do those who are displaced feel? I can’t begin to answer this for them, but I can question the motivation and validity of the action to push them out and tear down the physical spaces of their community. Once changed, altered and torn down, can the site really represent or hold the same value as it once did? And what of wiping clean rather than tackling the underlying stress?
There was a prayer on one of the doors of the last unit I visited that afternoon, which went: When entering one’s home. O Allah…seek good entry and a good exit.... And those words stuck with me. I contrasted my experience as an intruder with the experience of being intruded upon. I was staring at poverty and displacement in times of austerity, and saw the parallels between excessive spending and the reshaping of communities. What about the shape of that community and the heritage of the modernist buildings we once marveled at? And how soon before these new towers crumble and we’re left, once again, to ask “what happened to the dream?”
While some bemoaned Pam McConnell’s purchase within the New Regent Park as a sign of corruption, others touted the councillor’s new digs at 1 Cole St. as a small victory. “[The project] is being watched around North America as an example of how to transform isolated housing projects into something more livable,” wrote Marcus Gee. I hate to be cynical, but haven’t we heard that kind of speak before?
I haven’t lived in all of these places, but passed through them. The most captivating and honest records of the transition has come from the children who grew up there – whose childhood has been interrupted – and the elderly who spent their lives calling it home. A woman who misses the lively banter, crying children and sirens of the old neighbourhood. A teenager whose circle of friends has been broken apart by miles. They need no one to speak for them. And these photos can merely illustrate what they left behind. An addition to the already rich discussion on how we construct, and deconstruct our city.
“Regent Park serves as a reminder of our arrogance that we knew what was best for other people. The buildings are not the problem, it’s the policy.”
So where are we headed? It cannot be ignored that there are many amazing things happening here and the community as a whole should not be viewed as a helpless victim. In the nineties, Bay Weyman, Deedee Slye and Roger Rochat made their documentary film Return to Regent Park. They showed how the community was designed to be an answer to problems forty years before but had fallen victim to the same troubles it was supposed to solve, and to new difficulties no one had foreseen. Weyman, Slye and Rochat found a haven for drugs, prostitution and violent crime. They also found residents who had banded together to fight back. But a decade later, tax dollars had gone to raise the cranes and raze the land – anything, it seemed, but raise the people. New boxes were built up to the sky as new-and-improved dream homes.”The most practical reason for saving these towers is that there is nothing seriously wrong with them, and much that is right,” John Bentley Mays wrote in the Globe & Mail on February 25, 2005. Forty years from now where will these glass towers and their residents be?
– Matthew J.W. Higginson
Photos by Matthew J.W. Higginson