The wheatpaste of Fathima Fahmy was the first to go up just over a month ago. Two stories tall, it stands on the side of a newly-vacant apartment building slated for demolition in the heart of Regent Park. Since then, ten other larger-than-life portraits of other residents like her—those living in the fleet of low-rise buildings that are to be torn down and built on top of as part of Toronto Community Housing’s $1 billion Regent Park Revitalization project—have been installed, all eleven of them photographed, constructed, and put up by Dan Bergeron (Fauxreel).
Commissioned by Luminato for StreetScape, Bergeron’s project is all about displacement, the people who live in Regent Park being upended while their community is changed without them. With the portraits, Bergeron says, “the community has a face,” and he means it literally—they make it so that “people become part of the physical building” even as the buildings, bordered by Gerrard East, Dundas East, Sumach, and Sackville Streets, are steadily cleared of people.
The project began on a smaller scale earlier this year, when photographer Jamel Shabazz took photos of students in the area and Bergeron made them into smaller posters, pasting them around the stairs leading down to the Regent Park Focus basement.
Fahmy was one of the students and, says Bergeron, “she got it.” She told Torontoist that some people living in the area have recognized her since it went up—some others recall seeing her somewhere and can’t remember where, and a few have rather morbidly thought that she must be dead and that the wall must be a memorial to her, since in the portrait she appears to have a bit of a white glow around her. (She chuckled a bit at that misinterpretation.)
Photographing Mubusara, Ammanuel, and Marie (whose finished portrait we haven’t yet seen). Photos courtesy of Dan Bergeron.
Each image, all told, took about sixteen hours to complete. (Pasting them up from a Genie boom, Bergeron’s fingers were swollen and blistered from paint allergies by the time the bulk of the pieces were ready for Luminato.) So far, he says, the community’s reaction to the posters has been largely positive. There’s a line of thought about Regent Park that sees the area as mean, crime-prone, and wholly unsafe. Indeed, it’s far from perfect: about three hours before Torontoist arrived to check the portraits out and talk to Bergeron, two teenagers were injured after being shot beside one of the buildings. But as Bergeron pointed out during our time in Regent Park, “people are really good here.” Save for a noticeable security presence, the community showed no signs of wear: kids were still playing in the baseball diamond that Fathima’s portrait faces as the sun set, a pair of ice cream trucks pulled up onto the grass and offered free cones, and packs of camera-wielding visitors and natives walked around the area—many on guided tours provided by Luminato, some on their own.
All that’s not to say, of course, that the Regent Park Revitalization project won’t do what its name promises and completely transform the community for the better. Regent Park undoubtedly needs change, and has for decades: in a Star article in January, Sarah Barmak wrote, “Sixty years ago, we thought we had affordable housing all figured out….But within a few years it was apparent the good intentions and best-laid plans had gone awry. What followed were decades of physical decay, low tenant morale and persistent stigmatization as inner Toronto’s low-income ghetto.” But Bergeron, like many in the community, is skeptical about how mixed-income housing will work: people will be paying six figures for a condo right beside lower-income families in housing. Bergeron wonders, as well, if the people currently living in Regent Park—all of them guaranteed a spot back when the development is finished—will choose to move back after spending so much time in new communities. Concerns about a high school abound, too; there are none nearby yet, though the area needs one desperately to help fend off the extraordinarily high drop-out rates of the area’s teenagers.
Putting the pieces up. Photos courtesy of Dan Bergeron.
Others are a little more optimistic about the project. Leroy Williams is the father of Inez Williams, the adorable young girl who stands on the side of one of the buildings, smiling wide with arms outstretched. The family lives in the last building that will be taken down, and Leroy feels good about the construction coming—they’re “building something nice,” he tells Torontoist, as he stands hunched over the open hood of his van, tools by his feet and palms jet-black with grease. But the key to the success of the new Regent Park won’t be the buildings, he says, but the people. “Nothing will be nice,” he says, “until everybody’s nice to each other.”
All eleven portraits, including Inez’s, will stay up until the buildings they are on come down; they will, fittingly, fall together. Bergeron’s portraits of to-be-displaced residents are beautiful, to be sure, but it’s what will rise up in their wake that will hold the city’s attention for years to come.