Revitalization: Regent Park

Regent Park, Canada’s first public housing project, and North America’s oldest, is home to 12,000 people. Originally designed as an urban utopia and imagined as a place where children would grow up in a park, it has failed decades of tenants. Poor urban planning created no through streets and wide-open spaces which shelter deviant behaviour. As such, safety and security issues have plagued the area and left tenants to fend off and resist joining a culture of widespread criminality.

Poverty remains rampant: seven out of ten families living in the park are statistically poor and earn incomes half that of average Torontonians. This cycle of poverty has kept the park in a dark shadow of stigma and isolation with many from the outside choosing to turn a blind eye to a community in dire need of assistance.

After years of dissatisfaction and talk of change, the final attempt at revitalizing the area has officially begun. Buildings have come down, promises have been made, and the first phase of tenants have been relocated awaiting potential return to a newly designed, safer community. But behind David Miller’s “Clean and Beautiful”[1] intentions lies suspicion and doubt, and the predominant fear among residents that their home will merely become an extension of Cabbagetown &mdash a gentrified area just north of the park. With a proposed plan for approximately eighty percent of the new buildings to be sold as condos or rented at market rates, there is a good chance that current tenants, once relocated, will be unable to afford to return. Those needing rental rates geared to income will be pushed to a less visible are of the city, while those who can afford it will move into a properly designed neighbourhood in a gradually expanding commercial stretch of Toronto.

Originally hired by a children’s charity to seek out images of child poverty, I found myself working alongside a family support worker with ten years of experience in Regent Park. After months of introductions, time spent with a few key families, and my work for the charity done, I realized I was simply unable to leave. I have met generational tenants – those whose parents grew up in the park and whose children will most likely follow suit; and I have met families new to Canada, struggling to understand how a country with so much promise could be offering them a life of vandalism, drug use, prostitution and security issues as the context for their new lives.

Knowing I couldn’t leave but unsure of how to proceed, I kept visiting and shooting…until one day, with one shot, it started to come together. It was in south Regent, and the subject was a three-year old girl sitting on a bare bed. Trying to picture the life ahead of her, I decided to stick around for the duration of the revitalization, to watch these families grow, their lives be turned upside down for better or worse, and to hold the ideals of the plan accountable. I can’t wait to see Mariah ten years from now – to contrast the two images – and to watch her evolve in such a tenuous time and environment.

I am at the beginning of a long photographic and social journey, one with many threads, hundreds of individual tales, struggle, and wonderful moments of hope and humanity. Choosing ten images meant deciding between sharing an overview of my progress or the intimacy of one family’s story, and after much thought, I have decided on the latter.

I have considerable growing to do as a photographer, yet feel privileged to be able to do it while bringing to life the stories of those so desperate to be heard, respected and cared for.

Tory Zimmerman, December 2006

[1] Taken from the name of Mayor Miller’s campaign promise for a “Clean and Beautiful City.”

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