By Dan Levin
February 28, 2016
Her face framed by a yellow Hijab, Idil Hassan watched her young daughter splash with other children at the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, an architectural jewel of glass, wood and chlorine in the middle of Canada’s largest housing project.
The center has given Ms. Hassan, a 34-year-old nurse, the ability to do something more than just watch her child: she, too, can join in.
On Saturday evenings, mechanized screens shroud the centre’s expansive glass walls to create a session that allows only women and girls to relax in the hot tub, swim laps or careen down the water slide, a rare bit of “me” time treasured by many of the neighbourhood’s Muslim residents.
“I wouldn’t come before because my religion doesn’t allow women to be seen uncovered by men,” said Ms. Hassan, a Somali immigrant. “It’s really helpful to have that day to be ourselves. I even learned to swim.”
Until not too long ago, the mention of Regent Park here in central Toronto brought to mind cockroaches and drug-fuelled gang violence. It was an embarrassing stain on a progressive city that for decades had welcomed immigrants fleeing war, famine and poverty only to leave them trapped in an isolated collection of decrepit brick apartment blocks where crime and despair took root.
Hard lessons have been learned, and today, an ambitious rejuvenation plan for the 69-acre neighbourhood, with the aquatic centre as its centrepiece and a ring of condos that are helping to pay for new subsidized and affordable rental housing, is disrupting entrenched notions of class, race and religion at a time when concerns about income inequality and immigration are growing in the West.
As Canada accepts 25,000 Syrian refugees, the new Regent Park, thick with immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, provides a blueprint for successful economic and cultural integration.
To some sociologists and urban designers, it also represents a scathing indictment of the meagre efforts by New York, London and other cities that have failed to protect middle- and working-class residents from the displacement wrought by gentrification.
Even as Regent Park has been transformed by sleek glass condominiums and crisply designed townhouses, residents have been given the right to return after living in temporary housing while their apartment buildings were demolished to a new home in the neighbourhood, regardless of their income level.
There are no “poor doors” in the new Regent Park. Instead of apartment building entryways segregated by income level, the subsidized townhouses resemble the market-rate homes across the street, erasing the stigma of poverty. A recreation centre has opened down the block from a new arts building, both of them free to use.
“We want to make sure people aren’t isolated and their mental health is strong,” said Pam McConnell, a deputy mayor of Toronto who lives in the neighbourhood. “You do that by offering activities that bring them out of apartments, so everyone feels like they belong.”
Ms. McConnell said the city has mandated that new businesses in Regent Park — among them a bank, a cafe and a supermarket — employ residents, providing nearly 1,000 jobs, a boon in a neighbourhood where around 70 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the last census in 2011, which listed 10,000 residents.
But mixing incomes goes only so far without incorporating other community needs, Ms. McConnell said.
“You have to make sure the people here who were disempowered gain their power and have their voice always acknowledged,” she said.
Grass-roots participation lies at the heart of Regent Park’s billion-dollar transformation. From the start, the city and the developer incorporated residents’ needs into the design, from ensuring they were not forced out of the neighbourhood, to stocking food that met Muslim religious requirements, and scheduling private swimming and yoga classes for women.
“It didn’t happen by itself,” said Sureya Ibrahim, an Ethiopian immigrant and community activist who is Muslim and who has lived in Regent Park for 18 years. “We had to fight to make the redevelopment accessible and inclusive, but now it’s really a model of collaboration.”
The aquatic centre reflects that ethos of inclusion. After the weekly women’s swim ends, the blinds stay down for a private session popular with transgender people who want to swim without feeling they are being stared at.
Out of the pool, everyone uses gender-neutral locker rooms that provide private cubicles for changing.
The design benefits families like that of Assiatou Diallo. As a single mother with a developmentally disabled 9-year-old son, Ms. Diallo finds that gender-neutral locker rooms let her help him change privately before his swimming lessons without making him feel awkward.
“Now we come here once a week, and he’s become so confident,” said Ms. Diallo, a refugee from Guinea.
New civic amenities like the pool are attracting Torontonians who would never have dared enter Regent Park just a few years ago. “It seemed like the best-kept secret,” said Lisa Qwirke, 37, a research consultant, who often comes via streetcar from her neighbourhood for her child’s swimming lessons. “This is an example of community revitalization done well.”
Hawa Elmi, 55, a Somali refugee and mother of 11, began taking women’s yoga classes three weeks ago. “My Muslim friends told me to come,” she said on a recent afternoon before entering the mirrored studio. “Here nobody is judging anyone.”
Around two dozen women of various religions and ethnicities have joined, including Raheema Majeed, 49, a native of Sri Lanka who carried a blue exercise mat in a sack on her back and whose face — save for her eyes — was veiled by a black Niqab. “Yoga relaxes the mind and helps my breathing problems,” she said.
Across the hall, a pair of Chinese men were lifting weights in the gym, while down below, teenage girls in Hijabs were shooting three-pointers into a basketball hoop with practiced ease.
Still, ghosts of the old Regent Park haunt the neighbourhood, particularly in the public housing blocks that have yet to be demolished. Sally Beebee, 58, a Muslim immigrant from Sri Lanka, worries about using the stairwells in her building, where she says young men use and sell drugs.
The risks are especially high for young Somali men and boys in Regent Park. Aside from the perils of drugs, which have led to the sometimes violent deaths of dozens of Somali-Canadians over the past decade, the authorities worry about the lure of Islamic extremism, particularly from terrorist groups like the Islamic State and the Shabab, the Somali branch of Al Qaeda.
In 2014, a Somali-Canadian man was convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempting to join the Shabab. Several Muslim-Canadians who attended a Toronto mosque disappeared in 2009 and are thought to have joined the terrorist organization, according to Canadian authorities.
Regent Park’s new activity centres are only part of the city’s efforts to engage young immigrants. In addition to the city providing tutors and employment counsellors, neighbours volunteer to coach younger residents and guide them away from crime by helping them find jobs or new hobbies, a goal that residents say is made easier with the arrival of new economic opportunities in the neighbourhood.
Abdullahi Maolim, 29, a youth volunteer who is active at a local mosque, tries to help young people find jobs or productive activities when they fall in with the wrong crowd. As a Somali refugee who moved to Regent Park as a child, he understands the stigma and alienation many youths feel.
“Everyone wants to be as Canadian as possible,” he said. “You don’t want people to know you’re Muslim, or an immigrant, or a black person. What they don’t realize is being Canadian means being yourself.”