"Happy But Not Happy" in Regent Park

Published on Apr 09, 2014

An older apartment building in Toronto's Regent Park. 

Steve Paikin just completed a series on the ambitious plans to redevelop Regent Park, a lower-income neighbourhood in downtown Toronto that has suffered from a decades-long reputation for crime and run-down buildings. 

As Steve's series pointed out, many people are quite happy with the redevelopment so far. But satisfaction with the project is by no means unanimous. In this guest contribution, Sharon Kelly, a PhD candidate in the University of Toronto's department of anthropology, writes about the concerns some Regent Park residents have expressed to her about how the redevelopment is going. 

“We are happy but not happy,” Arun announced to me over coffee, a few months after moving into his new Phase 1 building in Regent Park. Arun had experienced a relatively seamless move into his new unit, so I was surprised by his ambivalent attitude towards the redevelopment. But over the course of two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Regent Park during the first two phases of the redevelopment, I found that ambivalence was a common sentiment among residents.    The redevelopment of Regent Park is a long, complex process with a deep impact on residents, who experience upheaval and lives lived in flux as their homes are demolished and rebuilt. Experiences of relocation and return vary widely, and while residents may espouse support for the presumed benefits of redevelopment, long-term hopes for secure, well-maintained homes are sometimes overshadowed by stressful experiences of relocation and return.   Not surprisingly, the biggest cause of stress for residents during redevelopment is their housing situation. Returning Phase 1 residents had six new apartment buildings and 50-odd townhouses to choose from. There was no opportunity for the majority of Phase 1 residents to view these units in advance of moving, due to construction timelines. Units were assigned to households by order of a lottery number, assigned to each household in a random draw. In cases where two households listed the same unit as their first choice, the unit went to the household with the lower lottery number. While residents were able to choose their new units, they often felt that their choices were constrained by a number of factors. Ibrahim, for example, had listed as his first choice a unit in a building that he did not even want. When I asked why he would make this seemingly illogical choice, he explained that he did not want to lose his chance to move to a new building. He believed that if he chose a “nice unit,” he would lose out to someone else with a better lottery number. By choosing what he believed to be a less desirable unit, he was trying to ensure his odds of being assigned a unit, rather than failing to be matched.   Of the six new buildings, some were more desirable than others in terms of location or occupancy date. Three of the six were located outside the Regent Park footprint, elsewhere in east downtown. This is part of the mandate of social mix. The existence of off-site buildings, which is restricted to the first phase of redevelopment, has been controversial. This fact did not become clear to residents until the move-back process was initiated, although the right to return contract, signed by each household in 2005, does state that residents have the right to move back to a new unit in Regent Park “or surrounding areas.” Not surprisingly, the realization that they may not return to Regent Park upset many residents. “If I don’t get Regent, I will die,” one life-long resident told me.    The desire of many residents to return to Regent Park underscores the desirability of Regent Park as it already exists. Counter to the discourse of revitalization, which presents Regent Park as an isolated, deprived neighbourhood, many residents find Regent Park an attractive place to live, with various forms of community which they wish to preserve. In particular, residents long to remain in close proximity to neighbourhood services and amenities upon which they rely, and to preserve the community ties that they have established.    “My concern was not leaving here, not going far away when they demolished the building,” Monir told me, about his desire to remain in Regent Park. “I didn’t find any reason to go elsewhere. I found this area more suitable for kids, for families. So I decided to stay around this building, not even thinking about what it looks like, or what facilities it has.” Monir also found Regent Park desirable because it is a well-connected downtown neighbourhood. “Everything is nearby,” Monir said. “Hospitals, all these facilities, transit, schools. That’s the main thing I like. Very central.”    Residents who faced uncertainty over their individual relocations stressed the importance of social and support networks within Regent Park. Samira, recounting how she felt when she was relocated, said, “I wasn’t happy leaving that place. All my kids, I had them at that place, and we had a good relationship with the neighbours, that we needed something we could ask. We shared everything, anyway.”  Jen, a single mother raising two girls in Regent Park, wrote a letter to the housing authority expressing her anxiety at her upcoming relocation. “I am very worried about leaving all my support, and friends. I don’t want to go far from the support I have now in the Regent Park community.” Abdi had moved to an off-site building and was largely content, but felt anonymous in this new building. He reminisced about living in Regent Park, “where everybody knows me.” He said: “When you move to a new place you are a stranger, people are looking at you, but when people know you, you are safer.”    When faced with the often-fraught process of relocation and return, residents worry about maintaining the elements of community upon which they rely. Losing the types of sociality and connections described here, either as a result of relocation or through the changing composition of the neighbourhood (eventually, the proportion of market units to rent-geared-to-income units on site is likely to be 75/25) is of concern to some residents. While residents hope that redevelopment will be accompanied by positive changes including increased safety, security and buildings that are better maintained, it also carries risks that prompt feelings of “being happy but not happy” among Arun and many others.   Related:   

 

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