Members of the community share their memories as part of the neighbourhood's revitalization.
It’s a familiar trope, and all the more satisfying for being true: sometimes your greatest weakness can become your greatest strength.
For the people of Lawrence Heights, the possibility of turning negatives to positives was proudly on display at the Collective Memory Bank project on Friday, November 14. As the community prepares for the massive revitalization project that will see the entire neighbourhood razed and rebuilt over the course of the next 20 years, residents gathered at the community centre to post pictures, tell stories, and talk about how to preserve the unique and dynamic culture that has sprung up in this marginalized parcel of North York.
Though its inhabitants rely on subsidized housing, Lawrence Heights hasn’t suffered so much prejudice (nickname: The Jungle) purely for reasons of culture and class: the actual physical features of the neighbourhood, its layout and buildings, are expressly designed to keep residents separated from the rest of the city. With only a few roads going in or out, Lawrence Heights was built to be isolated.
Constructed in the 1950s, Lawrence Heights was an experiment in optimistic ghettoization. A glance at Google Maps reveals its decidedly anti-urban design, with disconnected streets that loop broadly around a scattered system of cul-de-sacs, making a somewhat elegant pattern from the sky and little sense on the ground.
The original planners also created an imposing fence that once encompassed the neighbourhood, as if to enforce the separation. Though that ugly feature has mostly been removed, the sense of segregation persists.
This structural segregation is the wrong that Toronto Community Housing and its partners now seek to right by completely reimagining the neighbourhood, at a projected cost of $590 million (according to the original report in 2010).
Although many residents are glad to shed the stigma of isolation, the feeling of being sequestered from the rest of Toronto has also had its benefits. Over the years, the people of Lawrence Heights have formed a very distinct identity and a powerful sense of place, unlike anywhere else in the city.
“You’ll rarely find a tighter community,” says John Gladki, president of Gladki Planning Associates (GPA).
Gladki led the consulting team that planned the Regent Park revitalization. He could be found at the Memory Bank event sitting quietly at the Heritage Toronto table, taking in the scene and chatting with people from the community. Currently, his team is working on the Lawrence Heights project; together with local residents, they’ll develop a plan to capture and interpret all the memories that are being collected at events like the Collective Memory Bank.
At the event, organized by community activist Denise Bishop-Earle along with the organization Art Starts, attendees shared a potluck dinner and took turns filming two-minute reflections, having their portraits taken, and writing notes and recollections on a large sheet of paper along one wall.
Though the event generated a certain amount of material that will be preserved and artistically interpreted later—it will form the basis of future heritage projects, and all photos and videos will be shared with the community at an event in 2015—the vital social history of Lawrence Heights is harder to capture, Gladki indicated.
The awareness that a very special community cohesion has been created in Lawrence Heights was particularly vivid for Helen Kennedy, a Community Recreation Coordinator who’s worked at the Lawrence Heights Community Centre for over 30 years. While she acknowledges that much of the housing is decrepit and change is needed, she attests to the neighbourhood’s interconnectedness, despite its reputation for violence.
Kennedy, who’s also president of CUPE Toronto, points to several murals around the neighbourhood that illustrate the resilience and mutual support that Lawrence Heights residents show one another. “Deep Roots” one reads, and in big block letters on either side of a nearby underpass, “Love or Love” followed by “Home.”
“Love or Love” is a phrase that the young people of Lawrence Heights call out when they run into each other. Those are your two options if it’s somebody else from the neighbourhood—otherwise, it wouldn’t be home.
Construction for the Lawrence Heights revitalization project will begin in the spring of next year. The current 1,208 rent-geared-to-income units will be replaced with 4,092 market units, bringing a huge influx of people into the neighbourhood. Revitilization will also create 5,000 square metres of new commercial space, along with a new school, a new central park, and a new community centre. Sales for the first market condo launched this fall.
One local woman (who declined to be named) worried whether the new residents would find the same cohesion with the old guard, but was also excited to see more intermingling of groups. “The barriers make us feel shunned,” she said, and suggested that exposure to a greater variety of people would be a good thing.
The question remains whether that exposure will ultimately run both ways. Will the people of the neighbourhood be able to recreate the vibrant social networks that grew out of the old Lawrence Heights, flawed as it has been? For now, the memories are coming together. Bringing the people together will be an ongoing project.