When the first phase of Regent Park opened in 1949, everyone was transfixed by the bathtubs.
During the initial viewings of the first completed units of the Regent Park housing project in March 1949, incoming residents and the press were transfixed by a household fixture most Torontonians took for granted: the bathtub. As the Telegram observed, “If you haven’t had one in your home for eight years; if you have had to bathe five growing children in an old washtub, or sponge-bath them by the kitchen sink because you live in a condemned house without a tub or any hot water except what you heat on two old-fashioned stoves, then a shiny-new tile bathtub in a clean seven-room house really means something.”
The presence of a bathtub in their future home convinced railway worker Alfred Bluett and his wife that their family would finally escape their condemned home across the street at 218 Sumach Street. “We have always been in the dumps, all our lives,” he told the Telegram. “We are going to start life anew over there.” When she saw the bathtub, Mrs. Bluett was ecstatic. “I’m going to sit in it for a year. Just let anyone try and get me out.”
The Bluetts were the first family to be informed that they would be moving into the first large-scale public housing project in Canada. City officials hoped the project would transform one of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods and help ease the postwar housing crisis.
While there had been earlier experiments in providing affordable housing, such as the Toronto Housing Company‘s Spruce Court and Riverdale Courts complexes, little more was done until Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Herbert Bruce chaired a committee to study housing conditions in 1934. Bruce’s group investigated the physical conditions in two areas of the city: the Ward, and a loosely defined Moss Park district that included present-day Regent Park. The findings were appalling: of the 1,332 dwellings studied in both areas, 55 per cent were infested with vermin, 57 per cent were overcrowded, 58 per cent were damp, 59 per cent lacked a bathtub, and 75 per cent fell below minimum health standards.
The following decade saw a flurry of reports and recommendations on replacing slums with modern low-rent housing, but nothing was built. The city commissioned a proposal from Housing Enterprises Limited, which envisioned the demolition of over 750 substandard homes in Regent Park and their replacement with 854 units consisting of a mix of row housing and family-sized apartments. The Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHPA), a housing advocacy group, criticized this plan in an August 1946 report for charging rents that were higher than most of the affected families could afford:
It will not in its initial stages result in slum clearance; it is not low-rental housing; it will further overcrowd an already crowded area; it will eventually displace hundreds of families who cannot afford the higher rentals. Hence it will prejudice the cause of true slum clearance and public housing.
The CHPA believed a project on the scale of what was proposed for Regent Park would never be undertaken by the private sector, and would require public subsidies, which neither Ottawa nor Queen’s Park appeared interested in. Luckily, Toronto Mayor Robert H. Saunders was on their side. After discussions with the Board of Control, the following question was placed on the municipal ballot for voters to approve on January 1, 1947:
Are you in favour of the City undertaking as a low cost or moderate cost rental housing project, with possible government assistance the clearance, replanning, rehabilitation and modernization of the area bounded by Parliament, Rover, Gerrard and Dundas Streets known as the Regent Park (north) Plan at an estimated cost of $5,900,000.00?
While the press initially demanded more financial clarity, the Globe and Mail and the Star urged voters to approve the ballot question. The plan was also backed by the Toronto Board of Trade, which believed that Regent Park “will mean more and better housing for more people, improved city appearance, a definite advancement in community life.” The CHPA campaigned for a yes vote via a blitz of radio interviews, flyers, and letters urging municipal candidates to show their support.
There was little organized opposition. The loudest voice for voting no was the Telegram, whose editorial page warned taxpayers about the dangers of approving a large project with few concrete financial details. “Ratepayers may properly insist on the same care being applied to civic business as they are accustomed to give their own private affairs,” observed a Telegram editorial, which proceeded to compare the possible cost overruns to a recently-purchased Island ferry which ran nearly $100,000 over budget. The paper also believed that nobody had justified why homeowners living near the project should subsidize their neighbours’ rent, and that such costs should be the responsibility of higher levels of government.
The Telegram’s arguments didn’t sway the public. When the ballots were counted, Regent Park was approved by a vote of 29,677 to 18,028. The groundwork for the project was laid out over the next two years, including the creation of a new public agency (the Housing Authority of Toronto), setting of rents (generally 20 per cent of family income), and establishment of eligibility criteria for the first wave of residents (had to live in the neighbourhood as of July 15, 1947). Lobbying higher levels of government took time, but succeeded—the feds agreed to grant up to $1.15 million, while the province offered $1,000 per residential unit.
On September 29, 1948, Mayor Hiram McCallum laid the cornerstone for a 48-unit apartment building which, along with an eight-unit row house, formed Regent Park’s initial phase. McCallum praised the co-operation between the three levels of government. “The plan may cost more than we thought,” he noted. “But who knows when costs are coming down? And we can’t and don’t intend to let this stand idle for years.”
By March 1949, the row house units neared completion and the tenants were chosen. The news couldn’t come soon enough for the Bluetts, whose home was crumbling. Condemned during the Second World War, their four-room dwelling was held up by bricks and railway jacks Mr. Bluett installed in the back. The floors sloped. The plaster was cracked. Heating was belched by an ancient coal stove. There was no bathtub. Though their monthly rent would rise from $19 to $67 when they moved into their six-room Regent Park unit, the Bluetts and their five children felt they had risen in the world. As Mrs. Bluett put it, entering the unit was like “walking into a dream.”
The Bluetts moved in on March 30, 1949. They were guided through their new home by Mayor McCallum. Though Mrs. Bluett received a bouquet of flowers, she told the Star that “there are other things that catch my eye.” She proudly pointed the press to her new electric stove, fridge, and a seemingly endless supply of cupboards. Their children marvelled at having a basement. “We are going to make it into a den,” noted 14-year-old Billy Bluett. “We’ll take our old sofa and bookshelves and put them down here. I’ll be able to do all my carpentry; we can have all the gang down here.”
The remaining families in the row houses moved in over the rest of the week. Officials soon touted improved crime, education, and health statistics. Regent Park enjoyed a honeymoon that lasted for many years before problems around design and social issues emerged. In the current redevelopment of the area as a mixed-income neighbourhood, there are echoes of the hopes and excitement of the original project’s first residents, even if the wish for better living conditions are no longer symbolized by a glistening new bathtub.
Additional material from Regent Park: A Study in Slum Clearance by Albert Rose (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1958); Regent Park: The Public Experiment in Housing by David Zapparoli (Toronto: The Market Gallery, 1999); the March 31, 1949 edition of the Globe and Mail; the December 12, 1946, December 20, 1946, September 30, 1948, March 16, 1949, and March 30, 1949 editions of the Toronto Star; and the December 29, 1946, December 30, 1946, and March 15, 1949 editions of the Telegram.