What do you see when you look at this picture? Probably big machines tearing down an old neighbourhood, as a new one rises up from its dust.
What I see is a toddler, running up and down nearby Ontario Street in old Cabbagetown. The year is roughly 1941 —70 years ago now— and that little boy is my dad.
That part of Toronto now known as Regent Park has had a curious history. It has been a famously troubled neighbourhood for all of my life. Yet it was a Utopian project in its day. A family friend remembers taking a trip to the new development back in the 50s, to see “the houses the city was building for the people on welfare.”
It was a social experiment that was meant to change people’s lives for the better. Lately, that experiment has been widely deemed to have gone wrong. Well-meaning urban planners killed the front porch culture that had functioned as a kind of neighbourhood watch. They made dead-ends and cul-de-sacs that forbid flow-through traffic and made it hard for the cops to do their jobs in those sometimes wild streets.
So athough it’s been home to two generations of people now, many of them new Canadians who might not have had many options about where to start, no one denies that Regent Park has had its problems.
Once I said to my dad, “I can’t believe they ever built that place; it had to be such an obvious disaster waiting to happen.” And my dad said quietly, “You should have seen what was there before.” His early childhood memories of old Cabbagetown include seeing a stray cat killed by rats. My grandmother used to say she kept the rats off his bassinet with a stick.
That was the neighbourhood Hugh Garner, in the novel Cabbagetown, described as the largest Anglo-Saxon slum in North America, where drunkenness, violence, crime and fire were facts of everyday life. Given the number of Irish and Eastern European folks who also grew up there, Garner was probably being euphemistic – perhaps he meant to say “not Black, Asian, or Latino”.
But that was my father’s lifetime ago. I remember the grumbling even in my own childhood as white neighbourhoods on the wrong side of the tracks became mosaics. “There goes the neighbourhood” was the shorthand for the phenomenon, as waves of immigration changed whole swaths of the city in succession, just as the waves before them had.
In today’s Regent Park, the children of the rainbow attend Nelson Mandela school. I saw a slew of kids run by my window squealing with glee the other day: little brown-faced girls with wide bright grins, all headscarves and helmets and skates as they made their way home from the rink. Classic Canadian childhood moment.
I say today’s Regent Park, but really that was yesterday’s. The city in its wisdom is tearing down the projects now like they tore down the old townhouses of south Cabbagetown during my dad’s childhood. “You should have seen what was there before,” is what I’ll tell my daughter one day.
Opportunity knocks, and the future calls, while history only whispers. Not many hear the stories of the poor side of town.
Even the ones who know some stories, like my dad, and probably the parents of those keen little skaters, often prefer to be silent about what’s been left behind, for the sake of being hopeful about what’s ahead.
Up go the highrises, in go the condos and the mixed-income housing. Out with the ghetto drug deals and the sorry-looking hookers, and in with the Tim Hortons and the Royal Bank.
And there goes the neighbourhood, again…