Photo Credit: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 16 Item 5
A History of Regent Park: A Neighbourhood of Many Stories
Present Day Regent Park – Beyond a Reputation
Regent Park has long held a reputation that precedes it. Despite only spanning 69 acres in the heart of downtown Toronto, stretching from Gerrard Street East to the north, Parliament Street to the west, Shuter Street to the South and River Street to the east, Regent Park is the site of Canada’s first and largest public housing development, and has been a landing place for immigrants and newcomers since the early 1900s. Located on the traditional territory of the Anishinabek and the Huron-Wendat, Regent Park is currently home to more than 10,000 residents. More than 45 percent of people who live here identify as immigrants, with over 50 percent of residents speaking English as a second language.
For decades the mainstream media has tended to create an image of Regent Park as a local and national site of poverty, with high levels of immigrant populations that were prone to violence and other negative social activities (Purdy, 2005). This conception of the neighbourhood stigmatized the area and its residents, and created the perception that Regent Park was a dangerous place. This created a dynamic where non-residents would avoid the neighbourhood, which in turn created a more insular community for people in Regent Park. As a result, there was a greater dependence and interaction among the local residents who lived here.
In 2005, after 56 years as a community, the Regent Park Revitalization Plan was announced as an attempt to address social and economic challenges in the neighbourhood. The Plan would include demolishing and redeveloping the current public housing to include mixed income buildings, in effect doubling the current population, and transforming the landscape of the community over the span of a 20 year redevelopment process. As evidenced by our storytellers, there are mixed views about the redevelopment. Although there has been a commitment that residents can return after being relocated as part of the development process, in Phase 1 of the process about 56 percent of families did not, and were ultimately displaced to nearby public housing units outside the community.
More than 10 years into the redevelopment, Regent Park has been ranked number four on a list of “Toronto’s Top Neighbourhoods”, listed by Maclean’s Magazine, with some of Toronto’s top recreation facilities, high walkability, neighbourhood activities and access to parks (Brown, 2017). In spite of this shift in perception about the neighbourhood, challenges of making ends meet on a low-income, gun violence, and crime that previously haunted the neighbourhood continue to touch the lives of many local residents, a reality that is further challenged by the breathless pace of redevelopment and displacement in the neighbourhood.
The Regent Park team wanted to understand how immigrants, newcomers and community members have shaped the past, present and future fabric of Regent Park. In speaking to community storytellers, we heard a more complex and nuanced story of this neighbourhood, one that could not be understood or explained in a simple sound bite, but that stemmed from years of experience living in the community, day in and day out. Storytellers shared memories of barriers they had faced and overcame, stories of community violence, intergenerational trauma, displacement, stigma, discrimination and neighbourhood change. In spite of these varied challenges, acts of healing, resistance, community activism, resilience and deep joy rooted in networks of people were the most prominent threads running through the oral histories of our Regent Park storytellers. Their words told the story of a neighbourhood with deep social bonds and complex networks of people located across social location who have been able to shape and realize shared goals to build a community that addressed the challenges they face.
For the Regent Park team it was clear that residents’ oral histories told a different story of Regent Park. Residents and community members shared life stories that underscored a deep pride of place, belonging and community; uncovering a sense of knowing one’s neighbour and looking out for one another– a feeling that is increasingly rare in a rapidly growing city, and increasingly polarizing world.
Listening to Deany and Taijah you can explore the various misperceptions of Regent Park. Taijah, Laurie and Kevin each share narratives of the impact of systemic discrimination that have shaped their lives as Indigenous Peoples, and how their connection to Regent Park has changed their lives, and for some, holds the promise of reconciliation. Through the voices of Mandeq and Dwayne we are transported to the Regent Park of their youth, reflecting on the ways the neighbourhood has supported them and has also changed over time. Shar-Dey and Elsaida reveal the pain of gun violence and the struggle and healing of being left behind, after the loss of a loved one. Sureya, Vanessa and Deany reflect on the deep sense of community; and we share Liz’s settlement experience as a recent newcomer to the neighbourhood.
Through these stories, we hope to tell a more complex and perhaps underrepresented story of Regent Park: a story of challenge, resilience, and deep networks of people. A story that shares what joy looks like in Regent Park.
A History of Immigration & Settlement in Regent Park – A Community Built for Transition
Originally a part of Cabbagetown, the area now known as Regent Park was mostly settled by poor white working-class British immigrants, many of whom were Irish Catholics and Protestants. Until 1986, this group remained the largest migrant population into this area, with waves of other groups from Europe, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine coming to the neighbourhood in 1951. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when Regent Park began to see immigration from Asia, the Caribbean, Africa and Central and South America (Siemiatycki & Isin, 1997). A number of storytellers also shared that a large number of Indigenous families were also said to have resided in the community during this period and lived on Sackville street during these years.
During the period of increasing immigration to the area, it was decided that a new neighbourhood should be developed. In 1949, Regent Park North was developed (Purdy, 1949). This area became Canada’s first public housing project to support working poor communities to get off their feet, improve their circumstances and eventually transition out of the community to a better life. Characterized by low brown brick walk-up style homes, this effort was seen as a pioneering effort in slum clearance and urban renewal, in a period of widespread economic hardship emerging out of the Great Depression. By the late 50s, the development had expanded to create Regent Park South, extending until Shuter Street. Regent Park North and South were divided by Dundas Street East, and for many years acted as a gateway between the two communities in within one Regent Park. The homes in South Regent Park were predominantly high rise buildings that faced inward in a centralized courtyard, and overtime became populated with higher number of racialized residents, while residents in the north were more commonly white and of European decent. Throughout this period the neighbourhood was characterized as a ‘slum’ due to the poor housing design and small size of the area. This is a narrative that persisted until recent years, and reinforced social problems and crimes that occured in the area.
By 1971 there was a large uptick in immigrants identifying as Asian, this increase was also coupled with an overall decrease in European settlers, markedly shifting the demographics of the neighbourhood. In response to these population changes a number of grassroots organizations emerged in Regent Park, including the Regent Park Health Centre in 1973, which ran out of the ground floor of 15 Belshaw Place (a public housing building).Support Enhance Access Service Centre (SEAS), a settlement agency was established to serve the growing South East Asian community of newcomers in Regent Park in 1986. And Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre officially opened in 1997 at the corner of Dundas and Parliament to respond to the large numbers of Indigenous Peoples gravitating to downtown Toronto, positioning Regent Park as a hub for Indigenous knowledge, teachings and gathering events.
Today, Regent Park is recognized as one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Toronto, with the top 5 countries of origin being Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and other places in Africa (City of Toronto, 2017). This diversity is at the heart of what makes Regent Park unique, because as many people have noted, Regent Park is not the buildings, parks, or pools, Regent Park is the people who live and work here; and this central fact is at the heart of our exhibition and storytelling process for Year 1 of Block By Block.
Meet our storytellers
Shar-Dey was originally born in Regent Park, but moved from the neighbourhood at 2 years old, later returning with her family at the age of 8. Shar-Dey describes her upbringing in Regent as one of the main things that shaped her in both positive and negative ways. The intersections of Shar-Dey’s identity don’t fit into any one box. She has both Indigenous and Jamaican ancestry and came out as 2-spirited in her early teens. Shar-Dey credits Council Fire for creating a gathering place to share and learn about her history and culture, while offering opportunities for community growth. At 31 years old, Shar-Dey is able to recognize the many ways that trauma has affected her and her community, and is working to heal from that to stop the cycle of intergenerational trauma. Shar-Dey has conflicting feelings about Regent Park. When she was young, she felt a strong sense of community, pride, and belonging in the neighbourhood. Now, after losing many family members and friends to violence, she feels a deep resentment toward the area. Despite conflicting feelings of love and resentment for the neighbourhood, Shar-Dey confesses she would not have wanted to grow up anywhere else.
Haroldene Peters, affectionately known as “Deany”, first came to Regent Park in 1981 at the age of 20. After being evicted by an abusive landlord in Parkdale, Deany moved into an RGI unit at 15 Belshaw Place with her three children. As a single mother she was quickly connected to the tight-knit network of sole support moms in Regent Park, and soon identified that “there is something beneficial about a community where everyone is low-income” — because everyone looks out for one another. In 1984, she participated in the Community Worker Training Project, an initiative funded by the Regent Park Residents Association to create opportunities for residents to work in their community. In 1992, Deany was hired as the first full-time Community Development Worker at the Regent Park Community Health Centre, and has worked there for the past 27 years. Deany’s life history is one of deep community activism, with many stories of how local residents came together to build their community from the ground up, including the creation of Regent Park’s first Community Centre. Deany has also served as former Board President of Regent Park Focus and Dixon Hall. In 2013, she was nominated by her peers as the recipient of the James Woods Community Development Award.
Born and raised in Regent Park, Mandeq has had a front-row seat to the rapid changes taking place in the neighbourhood. Mandeq’s parents arrived in Canada several years before her birth, and settled in the Southside (south of Dundas Street) of Regent Park in 1997. Mandeq fondly remembers Southside as “a bubble” that had everything she needed: its own school, recreation centre, community events and free programs. Today, Mandeq is a passionate and engaged youth who has been deeply shaped by all her neighbourhood has to offer, especially programs like Pathways to Education— a program that introduced her to filmmaking, a craft she has honed for the last seven years. She is also a writer and creator of a web series called ‘The Regent Park Project’; made by and for Regent Park youth, it highlights the challenges and opportunities of growing up in this unique neighbourhood.
Kevin was born in Hamilton, Ontario on the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississauga, and is part of the Bird clan of the Dakotas. He grew up around Pow Wows and travelled every weekend as a dancer. He has seven children and one grandchild. Kevin works at the Toronto Fire Council Native Cultural Center as a Coordinator for the Little Embers program, where students learn about Anishinabe culture through art and storytelling, and feels closely connected to the Regent Park neighbourhood, which he credits for ‘saving his life’. Although he is currently living in the Beaches neighbourhood, Kevin’s family and kids all see Regent Park as a home and spend considerable time here. Kevin hopes to move back to his reserve in Alderville when he retires. Kevin is also the leader of the All Nations Juniors Drum Group.
Growing up in the 1970s, Laurie Okimawinew went back and forth between her home in Englehart, Ontario and Regent Park in Toronto, where she visited family. She is a band member of Attawapiskat First Nations and experienced years of intergenerational trauma as the granddaughter of residential school survivors. It was only when she moved to Toronto and started attending the healing circles at the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre that she began healing her wounds. It was also here that Laurie started connecting with her Indigenous roots by learning traditional teachings, making her own regalia, and learning about the deep cultural significance of Pow Wows. Today, Laurie is the Cultural Resource Coordinator at Council Fire, the very same organisation that helped her. Although she does not live in Regent Park, she identifies as a proud member of the Regent Park community and helps to build bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members. Laurie has 4 children.
Sureya Ibrahim was born in the city of Harar, Ethiopia. Sponsored by her brother and his family, she came to Canada at age 17 and moved to Regent Park shortly afterward. She has been an active member of the Regent Park Neighbourhood Association for many years, and is one of the founders of the Regent Park Catering Collective. Catering more than 300 events, this venture has created income-generating opportunities for 65 Regent Park residents. In 2014, Sureya was recognized as the recipient of a number of awards including, the Woman Who Inspire from the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and a Distinguished Service Award from Muslim Association of Canada, to name a few. In 2015, Sureya was also selected to hold the Pan Am Relay torch during the opening ceremony march through Regent Park. Sureya is currently the Supervisor of Community Connections at the Centre for Community Learning & Development.
Fondly known as “Momsy” and “Sadie”, Elsaida is a powerhouse figure in Regent Park whose life has been marked by both tragedy and accomplishments that were foretold in her dreams. After migrating to Toronto from Jamaica in 1972, Elsaida arrived in Regent Park in 1977. She worked various odd jobs and studied in the Personal Support Worker program at George Brown College. Elsaida has been a strong advocate for Regent Park with a focus on tackling violence in the community after her son, Cleamart, was murdered in 2001. Gardening was the only thing that gave her solace, so she founded The Dreamers’ Peace Garden dedicated to victims of violence and accidents in the community. Originally located at 605 Whiteside Place on the Southside of Regent Park, the garden was moved during the redevelopment and is now at the Christian Resource Centre at 40 Oak Street. To this day, Elsaida can be seen watching over the neighbourhood on the steps of the Big Park in the public art piece Faces of Regent Park.
Vanessa Ling-Yu was born and mostly raised in the small town of New Glasgow, on the north shore of Nova Scotia, with her younger brother and parents. Originally from Guang Dong, she sees her parents as a typical family immigrating from China at that period. In her youth, Vanessa spent most weekends cutting vegetables, peeling shrimp, clearing tables, and doing dishes at her family’s Chinese restaurant. It was here where Vanessa found her passion for food and catering, leading her to found caterToronto, a network of racialized, immigrant women and youth caterers and entrepreneurs seeking better social and economic outcomes through food employment. Vanessa has lived in Regent Park since 2013, but first came to the community to work on an anti-gun violence project with youth in 2012. She describes the community as “beautiful and welcoming… people just care and look out for each other here”. Although Vanessa misses Nova Scotia, she continues to strengthen her sense of chosen family in Regent Park. Vanessa describes home as “a place where you can decide to put down roots and paint your walls”. She plans on painting the walls in her condo soon.
Taijah Abotossaway is not currently a resident of Regent Park but feels the neighbourhood has deeply shaped her life. Born in 1994, she spent her early years living in Jane and Finch and at Sherbourne and Shuter, until finally moving in with her aunt in the Northside of Regent Park, where she attended Duke of York Middle School. She is of mixed Indigenous, Canadian, and Barbadian ancestry, and is the great-granddaughter of residential school survivors. In her early years,Taijah was embarrased to identify as Indigenous due to discrimination and negative stereotypes she heard about Indigenous peoples. She notes that Pow Wows were her only connection to her Indigenous culture and language, and recounts many stories of getting dressed in beautiful traditional dancing regalia. Today, Taijah helps to organize one of Toronto’s largest Pow Wows in Regent Park, supporting local youth and residents to connect to Indigenous, culture, history and tradition through dance.
The oldest of four siblings, Dwayne is a self-taught photographer who moved to Regent Park in the 1980s with his mother, an immigrant from Jamaica. He remembers his childhood in the neighbourhood as one filled with community members who served as role models. Shooting hoops at Dixon Hall also connected him to other kids and provided an outlet for him to stay out of trouble. Dwayne’s reflections on how the redevelopment has affected Regent Park and its community, specifically Black bodies and Black spaces, were documented in ‘Last Ride Through Regent’, which served as both his first feature short film and part of his Masters’ thesis at York University. Although he has moved out of the neighbourhood, Dwayne remains an active community member. He mentors neighbourhood youth and serves as a board member for the Regent Park Film Festival.
Born in 1997, Liz is a young Filipina who moved to Canada in 2016. While Liz and her three siblings were growing up, their mother worked abroad in different countries. The family finally reunited when they moved to Regent Park. As an immigrant, Liz has built community by accessing programs and services at SEAS, the Support Enhanced Access Service Centre, a support centre that has been serving Regent Park’s Southeast Asian community for more than 30 years. Inspired by the challenges she has faced as a newcomer, Liz is passionate about helping other Filipino newcomers, with a specific desire to support their mental health and well-being while they adjust to a new country. She hopes to go to school for social work to break the stigma around mental health and to promote a culture of self care within her community.