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Welcome to Jungle

It’s easy to hide from the cops in Jungle. The cluster of cul-de-sacs connected by a web of streets tangle together in the Toronto community housing area of Lawrence Heights like vines, which is one factor that has contributed to its nickname.

 

I visit Jungle on a snowy day in late March with Abdullah Barez and Kevin Persaud, both friends who grew up in Lawrence Heights and now work with youth within the community. They are taking me to see the effects of what has now been a years-long revitalization process. The community is getting a facelift from Toronto Community Housing, Canada’s largest social housing provider, who is attempting to fix community violence and shabby living conditions within their housing units through rebuilding and rebranding itself as “The New Lawrence Heights.” Not everyone is enamoured about this newness, though.

 

“Have you ever been to Jungle, Christina?” Kevin asks as we approach the bus just outside of the Lawrence West subway station.

 

“No,” I say. “Not really.”

 

“Hopefully we don’t get shot,” Abdullah jokes.

 

“If anything, she’d be the reason we wouldn’t get shot” Kevin says. When I ask why, Abdullah says it’s because I don’t look like I’m from the hood.

 

We load onto a city bus and wait as it ambles through the late-March snowstorm, halting and heaving its way over the slushy roads. When we get to our stop, tucked behind the glitzy Yorkdale Shopping Centre, we file off near Flemington Public School and follow the sidewalk through the neighbourhood. Kevin and Abdullah point out landmarks as we dodge muddy puddles. There is the skate park their childhood friend set up to give kids in the community something constructive to do with their time. He has since passed away. Abdullah points out the community center, a colourful building that stands out in the dingy grey daylight. It was painted by members of the community, Abdullah included, years ago as a way for them to participate in revitalizing their own space. Abdullah’s name is still painted on the wall.

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Lawrence Heights used to be enclosed by a wire fence, literally separating it from the rest of North York. Most of that fence has been removed, but the place still carries a reputation for crime and gang activity. This was one impetus to create change in the community. In 2008, a twenty year plan was proposed to revitalize Lawrence Heights. Now, this community is the largest revitalization project undertaken in recent years by Toronto Community Housing, who is currently working to revitalize a number of low income Toronto neighbourhoods. This revitalization, in particular, includes introducing mixed-income housing, pulling people from different levels of income together into the once fenced-off and completely low-income community made up of mostly immigrant families.

 

 

 

We pass the Toronto Community Housing revitalization office situated near a construction site that has recently demolished some community housing buildings. “Taeron used to live there,” Abdullah said, mentioning a friend. There’s nothing left of the place now but an obvious gap, like a missing tooth. Around the bend, we cross a cul-de-sac with some garbage pails overflowing onto the wet pavement. I gingerly step over a soggy banana peel as Kevin points out his house a few yards away. It looks like many of the other community houses in the court: simple, boxy and brick, with low eaves and a few symmetrical windows.

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Kevins house

When we get through the front door, we kick off our shoes. As I put my hand out to steady myself on the low wall to my right, I notice little figurines carefully set between the white spokes rising up from it to the ceiling. The little bit of time-dust collected on them tells me they have been there a while. The house is essentially a square with a staircase going straight up the middle to the second floor. To my right, I can see the kitchen and straight ahead, past the stairs, is the living room. All the living room windows are covered with red, velvety curtains drawn straight across their pole from floor to almost ceiling. A thin, red-edged curtain hangs over the window above the kitchen sink, filtering bluish afternoon light over the microwave, freezer and table in the kitchen area. This house feels both clean and lived in at the same time. It feels like a home. It should, too. Kevin has lived here for 20 years. His time here is drawing to a close, though, because this home is coming up on the list for demolition

 

 

“I’m a sentimental person so I think I will shed a couple of tears when my house itself, that I’m sitting in right now with you, is torn down,” Kevin says.

 

It has been a long wait for the inevitable. “I was 14 or 13 ish. That was my first time hearing about the revitalization,” Kevin, who is now 24, says. “I guess my first mentality was that, oh, I don’t want my house to get torn down. That was like 10 or 11 years ago. When I really reflect, I feel that it’s a means of [Toronto Community Housing] being able to fit more people into houses by tearing down townhouses and building apartments so that more people in the city would have a home. Then I also realized that they are kind of marketing it as well so that people go buy a home so it’s mixed income. I feel like it’s also a way of pushing out people to go somewhere else, to try to get rid of the violence, like the bad name the community has.”

 

Kevin says all this while I listen, sitting on his living room floor drinking a mug of cool tap water set on his brown coffee table. His mother, who has just come home for a few minutes after work, sets down a plate of puffy chocolate chip cookies, baked fresh that morning.

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Abdullahs input

“When I also look back,” he says, “I’m like, you can’t just solve the problem by trying to make something new. You have to solve a problem by addressing a problem. So when I think about the stuff that’s happening, I really feel that, as much as they want to change the infrastructure, they also should have worked equally hard to change the social aspect as well. So addressing the violence and drug trades. Let’s go out into the community and fix the community as a whole.”

 

“There is really a lack of positive male role models,” says Abdullah. “So most of my friends who live in Lawrence Heights actually came from single parent homes. I was fortunate enough to have my father but there’s no real male role model for some of these kids and therefore they see the older generation who might be into gangs and drugs and all that stuff and they end up following them. And from that they’re able to pursue drug dealing and gang life. And there’s a glorification for it.”

 

Although Abdullah moved out of Lawrence Heights near the beginning of the revitalization process, he still has close ties to the community. “Another problem with pushing out people,” says Abdullah,” is that people grow and they build community. You’ve lived there all your life and being told to move out because they’re going to destroy your home, it’s kind of disheartening. They have to relocate everything and find a location where they can actually afford and, on top of that, lose the convenience of having a subway station right by your house so that you could actually travel and go to work in a timely manner.”

 

 

For Abdullah, simply giving Lawrence Heights an external facelift doesn’t go deep enough to address real solutions. The revamped name, “The New Lawrence Heights,” doesn’t sit well with him either. “Why are they trying to remove the history behind the area and all the people behind it?” he questions.

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At the meeting

 

 The atmosphere is tense on this April Thursday evening at Metro Hall in downtown Toronto. As the sun dips lower outside, this room fills with rings of Toronto Community Housing (TCHC) tenants and advocates gathering around 10 tables. This meeting is put on by Tenants First, an arm of the City of Toronto, whose purpose is to implement a plan, along with TCHC, that makes tenants feel safe and connected to appropriate services in their communities and for their buildings to be in good repair. The purpose of this particular meeting is to provide an update on the 2015 mandated report to provide an accelerated timeline for the Tenant’s First project.

 

Halfway through the presentation, a hand goes up at the front table. More clarity about tangible numbers and tangible plans is demanded. No clear numbers are provided. Murmurs ripple through the crowd and suddenly the agitation is palpable. I realize that this meeting is not a one-off. It is a stepping stone in what has been, so far, a tough journey for most people in the room. Tenacity is written on their faces. Most of the people in the room are older than 40 years old. Most are seniors who are tenants in TCHC buildings and feel unsafe due to consistent violence and disruption in their buildings. They also, clearly, feel unheard.

 

After the presentation, we break into small groups to discuss solutions to violence within communities. The ideas and comments pour forth immediately as if on cue. Transparency from management. Reinstating security. A hotline. An incentive program. Bullying education. The most consistent suggestion, rotely predictable by the time the tenth table shares their thoughts, is to put more cameras in the hallways and stairwells of buildings to monitor activity. The theme threaded through it all, though, was a demand for respect and to be actually heard. The word “patronize” was repeated, spoken about as if it was a rusty nail or moldy leftovers. One man said emphatically, after sharing his table’s ideas, “even though we’re marginalized, we’re just regular people.” The room exploded with cheers: “Hear hear!”

 

Later, when the evening has drawn to a close, one of the tenants approaches me. “You’re not a tenant,” he states. I’ve been fielding suspicious looks like these all night. Everyone can tell that I’m not from community housing. They also aren’t sure if I’m part of TCHC. When I say I’m a journalist, it is like a magic key that unlocks a vault of impassioned stories and opinions. It works with this tenant, as well. I ask him if he thinks the suggestions put forth tonight will be implemented. He doesn’t look confident as he tells me that, in order to make change, they have to fight to be listened to.

 

I also ask Anita Dressler, TCHC tenant, chair of Seniors Voice, and one of the outspoken members in this meeting, if she thinks the suggestions will be implemented.

 

“No” she says resolutely. It is strongly implied that she speaks from past experience.

 

TCHC did not respond to requests for interviews in time for publication.

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Kevin has been to TCHC meetings over the past eight years, getting regular updates on the process. His view is less cynical but tells a similar story. “They’ll have meetings every so often during the process right now. I guess they are doing their best job at getting input,” he says. “The staff I’ve met are people involved in hearing from the community. And they do seem like caring people, nice people. But I don’t know the mindset of the higher ups who are fully in charge of it, who spearheaded the project. It definitely started off hearing about the community and how it could be improved socially. I haven’t really seen it reflect social changes they want to bring about. I could be wrong, but it hasn’t really been brought to my attention. That’s something I try to keep an eye out for. So I don’t think it’s something that they really focused on. I feel like whoever was in charge of the meetings or in charge of the revitalization in general could have focused more on changing the social aspect of the community before changing the physical. I feel like if you want to have a community, that’s based off the people where people share a vision. I hope that’s not too idealistic, but I feel like our community should be one that’s working together in all aspects.”

 

When it is time to leave, Kevin waves good-bye to Abdullah and I, who head over to the Yorkville subway station to go home. We cut between the houses, avoiding the road, and I can see how easy it would be to dart away from a cop car here. In the pelting snow, we pass by the crumbled remains of a home with one wall and a bit of foundation still standing, with dooming orange spray paint still visible on the bricks. We pause to look at it. It strikes me that Lawrence Heights is about to lose a child and youth worker from within the community that desperately needs help with internal social issues. Because, pretty soon, that will be Kevin’s house, too.

Twenty years and one child and youth worker. Gone.

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“I felt like whoever was in charge of the meetings, or in charge of the revitalization in general, really could have focused more work on changing the social aspects of the community before changing the physical.

I feel like, if you want to have a community, you have to have a community that is based off the people. Where people share a vision which should hopefully be to love one another and to get along with each other. I hope that’s not too idealistic but I feel like a community should be one that’s working together in all aspects.” -Kevin Persaud

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