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Urban Experience

How to make a 'bad' ‘hood good

'A View from the Inner Suburbs' reveals community engagement in Toronto’s donut

By Stefan Dubowski

My wife Angie and I moved from the Beach to East York in August 2006, because we wanted a larger apartment for less rent. After moving in, we made a terrible discovery: according to an official Toronto neighbourhood map, we had taken up residence in the maligned Crescent Town, an area of high-rise buildings with a bad reputation.

It never occurred to us that our new building would be lumped in with the despised 'hood. Sure, our tower on Eastdale Avenue can’t be much more than a kilometre away from the red and yellow skyscrapers we thought comprised Crescent Town. Nonetheless, we were positive that the Crescent Town boundaries began and ended with those buildings just east of us, above the Victoria Park subway station on the Bloor-Danforth line.

We were wrong. The map puts Eastdale in the west end of Crescent Town.

We were mortified. Crescent Town is not desirable. It’s dangerous. You don’t walk outside at night.

So we thought.

Having lived here for nine months, we’ve learned that Crescent Town isn’t some relentlessly down-and-out, frightening, desperate area. Local green spaces such as Dentonia Park teem with pet owners and cricket players. Taylor Creek Park attracts families for picnics. Neighbours are friendly. People smile when you smile at them.

Now Angie and I are more likely to describe ourselves as Crescent Town residents. Personally, I think our change in attitude came about on April 10. On that Tuesday evening, The St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts held one of its excellent civic forums. Sponsored by the Toronto Star newspaper, this one focused on 13 neighbourhoods that the city and the United Way have identified as requiring attention – more social programs, better community funding – because so many of the residents need help: they’re generally poorer than people living elsewhere, and they lack the resources to change their circumstances, in part because so many are recent immigrants. Language and cultural barriers loom high.

Crescent Town is one of those 13 neighbourhoods. So are Lawrence Heights, Westin-Mount Dennis, Scarborough Village, and Jane and Finch. Representatives of those four areas took the St. Lawrence Centre stage to discuss “A View from the Inner Suburbs.”

The gathering’s title stems from a geographic fact: all of Toronto’s neighbourhoods-in-need exist outside of the downtown core, but they’re not far enough away to count as outlying suburbs – at least, not anymore. Most of them were parts of separate municipalities (Crescent Town is in what used to be called the borough of East York) that were crammed together with the Toronto core to form a single “megacity” in 1998.

The needy neighbourhoods create what some call a “donut” of distress around downtown, separating Toronto’s increasingly tony centre from leafy garden urbs such as Mississauga, Markham and Pickering. Between the middle-class tract houses and the Yorkville pied a terres, areas like ours collect people who can’t afford to live elsewhere.

The forum focused on two main questions: what makes a healthy neighbourhood? And what must we do to make the 13 neighbourhoods in need healthy?

Judging from the words of panellists, the answers are straightforward: fund programs, and engage the local community.

Eva Tavares, chair of the Lawrence Heights Community Health Centre board of directors, said she lived in Lawrence Heights for 25 years, left for 10, and returned. Why come back? She wanted to help make her old home as resident-friendly as other parts of the city. And to a certain degree, the locals have made it happen.

“We advocated for a lot of great things,” Tavares said. Foodshare, the landlord (Toronto Community Housing, which offers subsidized rents) and residents pulled together. People created a public garden. Programs for children are underway. And the more these initiatives succeed, the easier the neighbourhood finds it to win funds from the government for future programs.

“The only trouble is, they want to ‘revitalize’ it,” Tavares said. Lawrence Heights is slated to undergo a transformation similar to that of Regent Park, a downtown public housing project being rebuilt to include a mix of rented and purchased houses and apartment units. Like Regent Park’s residents, Lawrence Heights’ people will have to vacate while the area is ripped down and recreated. Tavares said she’s worried the disruption will make it difficult for residents to continue the endeavours they’ve undertaken.

Still, that residents are concerned about Lawrence Heights’ future is a step in the right direction. It suggests that the neighbourhood – sometimes called “the jungle” for the gun violence it has experienced in the past – comprises a community that people are increasingly proud to call home.

Christine Davis, representing the Black Creek West Community Capacity Building Project, said her neighbourhood, which encompasses the notorious Jane-Finch area, is also trying to make residents proud of their area. To that end they’ve created a community archive to record the location’s past. A shared history could help future Jane-Finch residents connect with each other. “We’ve been really focused on getting the residents involved,” Davis said.

Kosal Ky, speaking for the For Youth Initiative, said youngsters can play a roll in community development. A youth-run agency providing life-skills training, recreation programs and alternative education in Westin-Mount Dennis, the FYI facilitated discussions between teens and the police that prompted the authorities to amend some of their procedures for dealing with youth.

But the organization is never quite sure of funding. The city, the United Way, and the Laidlaw Foundation back FYI, but Ky hinted that financial support is tenuous. “We know we’re doing great work,” she said. “What we want is to be sure what we’re doing is sustainable.”

Sustainability is a matter not only of cash, but also of barrier-breaking, said community activist Sean Meagher. On hand to discuss the situation in Scarborough Village, he pointed out that residents lack shared experiences. Many of them come from different countries and ethnic groups. It can be difficult to build consensus. “Skills aren’t shared as widely as they could be.”

Nonetheless, Scarborough Village has banded together, even after a prominent local anti-gun violence advocate was shot dead in 2006. At an Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC) storefront funded by the United Way, residents helped devise Tamil and Urdu cultural programs, and they instigated discussions about public health and housing (learn more here).

Meagher noted that despite cultural barriers, neighbours share desires – a bigger community centre, improved street lighting, more youth engagement. Once the ethnic and language walls come down, finding common ground becomes easier, he said.

At the forum’s start, moderator and Toronto Star columnist Royson James asked the audience for a show of hands: how many people live in one of the 13 neighbourhoods? Angie and I proudly raised our hands. So did some others. But not the majority. It was distressing to see that so few participants resided in the locations discussed. That the forum was held downtown, far away from some of the inner suburbs, might have had something to do with the low turnout.

But we were there. Our city councillor, Janet Davis, was there too – just a few seats away. And when we raised our hands to identify ourselves as inner suburb residents, we essentially embraced the idea of calling Crescent Town home.