Residents Share "Regent Park Stories"
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Residents Share “Regent Park Stories”

A TCHC initiative sees residents in Canada's first social housing community share stories about what makes the neighbourhood special.

Ashrafi Ahmed remembers what Regent Park was like before the revitalization project underway here brought things like new affordable high-rise housing alongside condos, retail chains, an aquatic centre, and a farmers’ market.

“Scary,” she says, likening a trip through the old neighbourhood to a game of hide and seek.

But she has happier memories as well, ones of potlucks and children playing near a garden that’s since been uprooted. “We always see people there bringing the food, sharing with other people,” recalls Ahmed, 34, who hails from Bangladesh and moved to Regent Park 10 years ago.

Stories like Ahmed’s, which showcase the neighbourhood’s dynamism, are one of the focuses of a new Toronto Community Housing Corp. (TCHC) initiative.

Regent Park Stories, a project that ERA Architects and Swerhun Facilitation developed for TCHC, provides a way for people to share their stories about Canada’s oldest public-housing community, via a website launched last month. It’s part of a broader strategy from TCHC to find different ways to commemorate the neighbourhood’s heritage, as it’s transformed by a multi-stage, billion-dollar redevelopment effort.

“One of the things that we’re trying to figure out is what’s the relationship between a building and how people experience place and home,” says Jed Kilbourn, an associate development manager at Toronto Community Housing.

By collecting residents’ stories, TCHC, ERA, and Swerhun want to discover how—and what, exactly—the community would like to see remembered about Regent Park, from both before and during the revitalization period.

To get people thinking about different ways to tell their stories, ERA outlined five broad categories for submissions: individual/family stories, collective/community stories, migration stories, place-based stories, and neighbourhood evolution/built heritage stories.

Kilbourn says the categories “aren’t absolute,” so if a story doesn’t seem to fit any of them, writers shouldn’t be discouraged from participating. Nor should they shy away from covering what might be perceived as unsavoury elements of the community’s history, says Graeme Stewart, a principal at ERA Architects. “It’s not about good or bad, it’s actually about people communicating what the lived reality was in this dynamic place,” Stewart adds.

Swerhun, which got the Regent Park Stories website developed, has been canvassing the area for submissions, and although Kilbourn didn’t have any numbers at hand, he said stories are trickling in.

“It’s really interesting to be able to get this whole spectrum of stories from people in a neighbourhood that has gone through several iterations,” says Kilbourn. The settings of the stories have dated all the way back to the ’40s—one woman wrote about what life was like before Regent Park was built—to almost right up to today. “For young people who we’ve started talking to, it’s cool to hear them talk about what their experience has been throughout the change.”

For now, the stories will remain confidential, but with authors’ consent, some of what is gathered may be published in the future. The format for this has yet to be determined, but another of the project’s objectives is to help work that out.

By late December, ERA will make recommendations to the housing authority about different ways to publicly present the stories. “At the end of this, we’re not saying, ‘Great, we have our top five stories and we’re done,’” says Stewart. He notes possible outcomes could be the creation of a museum or growing the project’s web presence.

“Changing some of the stigmas that people might have about the place in a really open and hopefully democratic way,” is another one of the hopes for Regent Park Stories, adds Stewart.

The deadline for story submissions is October 9. In addition to submitting stories online, Regent Park raconteurs can drop off hard copies at the Regent Park Operating Unit Office (415 Gerrard Street), from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. TCHC will also accept submissions at today’s update tenant meeting from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas Street East).

Asked if there are any themes that keep coming up in the stories TCHC has been receiving, Kilbourn says there is a broad one. “It’s a sense of place, and it’s a sense of community.”