Sunday, July 18, 2010

St. James Town and Regent Park

Yesterday, despite the all-capital severe thunderstorm warnings garnering all the Toronto weather websites, I got the biking itch and decided to brave the possible storm and explore a few parts of the city that I hadn't seen. After reading John Sewell's The Shape of the City (a truly excellent book about the history of urban planning in Toronto), I became interested in checking out some of the housing projects that were created when urban planners had Le Corbusier on the brain and thought bull-dozing areas of the city and constructing towers amidst a sea of green grass was just the bees knees.

There were two places that I wanted to check out: Regent Park and St. James Town, done in the 1940s and 1950s, respectively. Both of these areas saw their streets systems destroyed along with whatever housing occupied the site. They are radically different from each other in look, but eerily similar in feel. My observations obviously stem from an initial bike through the site. I don't live in either of these areas and so can only speak as someone passing through.

St. James Town consists of a number of very tall, very imposing, very wide slab apartment buildings. I rode my bike down one of the "streets" that serves the area, craning my neck to get a good look at everything around me. It's not the most welcoming place as the buildings loom tall on all sides, cutting off light and the rest of the city. It feels very isolated inside St. James Town, as if you have entered another city. I put street in quotation marks because it's mainly a meandering set of curving roads that serve to connect a number of above and underground parking lots. A brick school is located in the centre that looks out of place amidst the towers. There was a farmer's market stand selling fruits and vegetables sitting alongside one of these roads and next to that a woman had plunked herself down on a concrete divider and was having a kind of yard sale sans the yard.

Image from WikiCommons by SimonP

Further south east was Regent Park, which consists of low-rise apartments as opposed to the tall ones found in St. James Town. Most appeared to be three stories and made of a brick. Again, there were no real streets in the area (all having been destroyed during the original redevelopment), but only extended driveways that connected parking lots and walking paths that went to each of the apartment buildings. Again, the same feeling of stepping out of Toronto and into a completely different area appeared. Regent Park is all social housing with a large percentage of the occupants living at or below the poverty line.

The area is currently undergoing redevelopment in order to "undo" many of the ideas put in place by the planners of the 40s by restoring the street system and constructing housing that fits with the surrounding neighbourhood style. Market housing is also planned for the site to help pay costs. Hopefully these changes will see Regent Park become a more integrated part of the city.

What struck me most about these areas was how obvious it was you were exiting something and entering something else. There was a definable moment when I left Toronto and entered each of these housing projects, which is a feeling that I rarely (if ever) get when I bike or walk around other parts of the city. The worst thing to me about these areas is the lack of through streets, which I think is one of the main contributing factors to my disconnected feeling (and the fact that the housing looks miles different from the surrounding housing). It's like a separate box plunked in the middle of the existing street grid of Toronto. Why planners of the past thought wiping out the streets was a good idea, I don't know. Everyone loves streets. The farmer's market and yard sale in St. James Town prove that people want to be out on the street, even when what they have is an extended driveway.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Jake. I volunteered for a while at a school garden in Regent Park, and I remember feeling very disoriented after getting off the subway and trying to find the school.