Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Saidy's Garden

Elsaida Douglas went into the central plaza of Toronto’s Regent Park one morning and began to dig a garden. She had a shovel and a few plants and she set about turning up the soil on a small plot of ground in the otherwise concrete plaza. This simple act was both one of community building and defiance. It was also timely. Saidy’s act coalesced a pool of community energy that had been unfocused until then; she gave tongue and form to an emotional expression that had been vibrating throughout the community without voice. Her colleagues in the Dreamers came out to support her, and soon others joined them. Within a week, the 50’ x 50’ area had been transformed into a lush garden with flowers, shrubs and trees of all sorts. The Peace Garden came into being.

In fact, the Peace Garden had history that antedated Saidy’s act of creation. Regent Park was on the verge of a thorough renovation – Re-Vitalization, it was being called. Canada’s oldest, and largest, public housing developments was entering a new phase. Regent originally came about in the 50’s in response to a call for urban renewal. It replaced a community of shanties and tenements that housed the working and unemployed poor in the post-war years. It brought then modern concepts of high-rise, urban villages into practice, creating a community cut off from the surrounding city in key ways. There were no thru-streets in the original project of twenty-some acres, keeping it apart from the grid of city streets and the traffic that they carry. When the development reached its full 66 acres, only Dundas Street, a busy, main thoroughfare, bisected it, creating an unintended sense of north versus south that endured the following decades.
There were also no grocery stores, banks, or phone booths to serve the roughly ten thousand inhabitants, nor a high school. This meant that, while residents were forced out of the community to meet basic needs, there was little to draw people into it’s borders, reinforcing Regent’s identity as a place apart. This car-less nature of the community was advantageous in some ways. Notably, it created family friendly areas where mothers could congregate and allow their children to run and play. But there was also the unintended consequence that it made policing more difficult. Various corners of Regent became ideal for drug transactions, and as loitering spots for the youth who turned to “the game” for economic survival and street culture status.

Elsaida’s garden was a Peace Garden for a reason. She herseIf had lost her son to the violence of game. And as had formed the Dreamers as a collective with other mothers who’d endured this loss. The name, “Dreamers”, was not only an expression of the group’s hopes for a better future for the community. It also honored Saidy’s gift or seeing and being inspired via her dreams. She’s been forewarned of her son’s death via a dream, and first glimpsed the reality of her garden through another. This lovingly cultivated plot of land was meant as a memorial to the many community youth who lost their lives as a consequence of this game, and through other forms of violence.
The Peace Garden was one in a series of responses that Regent Park has made to its various challenges. Other responses include the creation of one of the first Community Health Centres, the formation of a wide variety of small non-profits and resident groups, to promote culture, serve children, youth and the elderly, and to address issues like newcomer adjustment to life in Canada. It was Regent Park, via the Health Centre, that gave rise to Pathways to Education, a tremendously successful, multi-pronged approach to decreasing drop-out rates, improving academic achievement, and getting more youth into universities and colleges. And Pathways is now being adopted by communities across Canada, standing now as one of Regent Park’s main contributions to the rest of the world.

By the time of Saidy’s act, the community had been lobbying for more than two decades for an overhaul of Regent, to upgrade it’s crumbling infrastructure, and to link it back into the web of city streets, in the manner that Jane Jacobs, Toronto’s guru of community design would’ve advocated. What resulted was a three year process of planning and consultations that finally initiated a complete rebuilding of Regent Park – one that is to be so thorough that there are fears as to whether the identity, cohesion and activism of the former community will survive.
Last night, I did something I used to do almost daily, but hadn’t in a few years - I took a good long walk through Regent Park, to see what was new and changed. I went into the new CRC building, where a community dinner was going on, provided by other neighborhood churches on a rotating basis. I stopped by the new Aquatic Centre, just opened a couple of weeks ago, a replacement for the old, outdoor pool that was closed two years ago. I made my way to the Daniel’s Spectrum, a long dreamed of Culture & Art Centre that seemed impossibly far from realization when groups lobbied for it in community meetings five years ago. That building in now the home of various groups that previously occupied basements and converted residential units in the old high-rises: the ArtHeart arts program for kids, the Regent Park School of Music, The Regent Park Film Festival, and other groups from around the City that have joined forces for the revitalization of Toronto’s urban core, like the Centre for Social Innovation and Artscape.

What I found missing on my walking tour however, is Elsaida Douglas’s Peace Garden. I was shocked to learn from passing residents that the garden was removed when a through street had to be created. I asked in vain for news about it being moved, or perhaps awaiting its own revitalization in the new park that’s to be developed next to the aquatic centre. No one could tell me anything. That made me wonder about Saidy. Where is she these days. I can’t imagine her allowing the bulldozing of her park without a fierce fight. Her original act of creation and defiance – on that day when she created her garden with a shovel and a dream – came in the face of Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s intransigence, as she and others demanded certain features in the new Regent Park. I was reminded, during that night of my walk, that creative tensions aren’t always apparent on the surface; the signs we see don’t always tell the full story.
As I walked through the Daniel’s Spectrum, however, which is vibrantly alive with art, I came upon a painting of The Peace Garden. It’s a beautiful work, by David Louis Wall. I was so glad to see that. So many signs of the old Regent – both good and bad – have vanished or are vanishing. Most of the people I happened upon and spoke with last night are new to Regent. They weren’t familiar with the old community spaces and buildings, pools and schools. But seeing Wall’s painting gave me a shot of excitement and hope. Something of the old Regent remains under this glimmering facade of the new. What’s ahead isn’t clear. But, from my way of looking at things...that’s a good thing. It reminds me that, on any given morning, an Elsaida Douglas, a private citizen, struggling and surviving the challenges of their own life, can step out into the public sphere, and surprise us.

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