Residents are hoping that a neighbourhood can be rebuilt without harming a community.
Minutes away from a barren demolition site in Toronto’s west end, women are chatting, children are running around, and mothers are squeezing themselves onto child-sized chairs to supervise screeching toddlers. No one in the Alexandra Park Community Centre seems bothered by the commotion. One man is so unfazed that he has plunked down on an old couch to take a nap; another is quietly rinsing potatoes in a kitchen sink for a beef stew he’ll deliver to community seniors.
The community centre in Alexandra Park is the main hub (or, as one resident puts it, the “home base”) for people in this small social housing project slated for a large-scale community overhaul. If all goes as planned, a decade from now Alexandra Park will boast 333 brand-new fixed-income rental units, 473 refurbished units, 1,540 private market condominiums, new shops, parks, and an expanded community centre. But with the scope of these changes come concerns that a community will be disrupted and residents displaced.
Alexandra Park last underwent major change in the 1990s. Then government-run, it faced problems including drug dealing, prostitution, and violence. Resident Dianne Williams had just reluctantly moved in: “Scary, scary! I said Lord, father please, do I have to bring my two small children to this?” But the Alexandra Park Residents’ Association (APRA) had begun fighting for change, and by 1998, Alexandra Park had become Canada’s first social housing co-op operated entirely by its own tenants.
Today, Dianne Williams is vice-president of the Atkinson Housing Co-op, which manages 410 of the 806 rent-geared-to-income units in the neighbourhood. She participates in a working group—involving the TCHC, the Alexandra Park Residents Association, and the Atkinson Housing Co-op—that meets monthly to make sure revitalization developers “stay on par with what we want, and they don’t stray.”
Before the first chunk of town homes were razed to prepare for reconstruction, teenaged resident Basma Al Nadhir worked as one of about 10 TCHC “animators” who went door-to-door asking residents how they felt about demolition beginning. Most embraced the revitalization, she explains, but felt a certain wariness. Many said they were keeping a close eye on Toronto Community Housing and its development partner Tridel—the two corporations entrusted with carrying out the gigantic, delicate task of replacing residents’ homes without damaging their community.
Often the residents Al Nadhir spoke with expressed fears of being kicked out—fears rooted partly in the stories they’ve heard about what’s happening in Regent Park. A 2013 study found that the TCHC’s revitalization of Regent Park—approved by council in 2003—had seen only a fraction of its originally relocated residents come home. The ones that did return found that old social structures and support systems—things like child care arrangements and study groups—had been destabilized.
“The experience of Regent Park was front and centre in our minds when we started building our revit program,” acknowledges city councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina).
Marwa Eldardiry, a former Alexandra Park resident involved in community advocacy in the revitalization’s early days, says, “There’s no point in having this great future community if the people who once lived there can no longer live there again.”
So in Alexandra Park, zero-displacement has become the goal.
But in order for revitalization to take place, people will still need to move out of their homes temporarily.
The Regent Park relocation involved some residents moving all the way out to Scarborough: in Alexandra Park, they’re trying to reduce the distance and disruption involved by shifting the majority of residents into empty homes within the community. There are, though, currently 25 families living in TCHC units outside Alexandra Park.
Al Nadhir’s family packed up and moved out of their home so that residents with small children could move in. The move wasn’t mandated—the family wasn’t even involved in the current revitalization phase. But they were willing to relocate‚ not because they were glad to leave Alexandra Park, but because they thought it was the reasonable thing to do.
It could take up to five years for families like Al Nadhir’s to move back into Alexandra Park. “I don’t know if I’ll be married by then,” she says. “Whether I’m here or not … well, we’re just kind of waiting it out.”
Photos by Megan Marrelli.