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Jungle City? Or company town?

May 16, 2012

A warren of laneways that only the locals could navigate? A place of danger?

I’m not sure what I expected when I joined the Jungle City Walk, a Jane’s Walk led by members of the Lawrence Heights Community Safety Story Circle Group.

I only know that when I walked into Lawrence Heights, I saw neither a jungle nor a city. Instead, I felt I had wandered onto an army base or – as a friend on the tour more aptly described it – a company town in northern Ontario.  There were the same uniform townhouses and low-rise apartments, the wide barely-trafficked roads, acres of grass, and a big, big sky.

City of Toronto: Lawrence-Allen Revitalization Plan

Our tour leaders didn’t look like small town Ontario. They were too young for one thing. More diverse too. Before we began the tour, our guides presented digital stories about their lives. Some grew up in Lawrence Heights; others came from as far away as Somalia. Their short, moving tales spoke eloquently of family loyalty, disappointments, determination, violence and resilience – far too profound to summarize here.

But once on the tour they talked like small town people, filled with small-town pride. At every stop in the tour, we were shown points of local fame: the willow tree where people meet up; the grassy hill that offers a toboggan run every winter; the new “purple playground;” the community gardens.

There was bravado in some of the stories. A young woman pointed out the scene of a shooting the night before. Another described “the biggest girl fight in Lawrence Heights’ history.” Another talked of an unexpected swim when a street flooded – the result of crumbling infrastructure that floods local basements as well.

But these stories didn’t make them want to leave Lawrence Heights. As one of the guides said, “This is our home. It’s where our friends live.”

An uneasy isolation

Lawrence Heights is only five minutes from the Lawrence West subway station and less than half a mile from Yorkdale Town Centre, with the Allen Expressway running through it.

Yet it feels remote. When I asked for directions, the TTC ticket collector at Lawrence West had never heard of the street I was looking for, although it was only 200 meters away. And even with Google directions in hand I walked right past the sign that marked one of the few entry points into the development.

The territory that surrounds Lawrence Heights is as threatening as any wilderness. Our guides pointed to “the portal” – a sidewalk that connects Lawrence Heights to the residential neighbourhood to the east. A tall chain link fence lines the walkway at the insistence of Lawrence Height’s neighbours. Elsewhere our guides pointed out “the most dangerous bus stop in Toronto” — part of a No-Man’s Land contested by young men engaged in the turf wars with nearby Neptune Heights.

When the company goes bust

Lawrence Heights is also isolated by being a one-company town. That company is the government.

Toronto Community Housing owns all 1208 homes in Lawrence Heights. There is a community centre (puny by Toronto standards), a school (with, we are told, the worst EQAO scores in the province), a health centre, community meeting space (apparently owned by TCHC) and that’s about it. I did not spot a single grocery, coffee shop, convenience store or food truck on the tour. To the best of my knowledge, the government is the only employer in Lawrence Heights, and the sole provider of services.

Company towns only work when business is booming. Now that the government biz is shrinking, this town’s only hope is other investors.

Continuity and prosperity

Last November Toronto City Council approved an Official Plan Amendment to revitalize Lawrence Heights.  All 1208 TCHC units will be replaced with new subsidized housing, interspersed with another 4,400 private rental and ownership units. The revitalizations will also introduce new streets, servicing, parks and community services. (I didn’t see anything about businesses, but perhaps wasn’t looking in the right place.) Tenants will be able to stay on-site throughout the 20- year revitalization process.

Before the walk, I had imagined the goal of revitalization was to make Lawrence Heights look more like my own neighbourhood, known on the City’s website as the “Greenwood Coxwell Corridor.”

My neighbourhood has as much social housing as Lawrence Heights, but it’s barely visible amidst the other homes.  It has similar government services too: a school, parks, a library, a community centre. But they are nested among dozens of businesses, places of worship and volunteer-led organizations that serve and employ my neighbours.

But my neighbourhood will never inspire the fierce loyalty that Lawrence Heights does.  My neighbourhood doesn’t have a nickname, or even a name. (Nobody but statisticians calls it the “Greenwood Coxwelll Corridor,” and you’d be pressed to find local agreement on the neighbourhood’s real name or boundaries.) I worry that Lawrence Heights will  lose its heart when it loses its boundaries, and that new people won’t understand or appreciate the qualities that make it special.

During the walk I met one tenant with a vision I hadn’t heard before. She supported the Lawrence Heights Revitalization as a way to keep the brightest and best in the community. For her, the new condos and private rental buildings could ensure young people who left for university had a home to come back to, families could stay together, and residents would not be held back by government rules.

Continuity and prosperity. It seemed like the best of both worlds. I hope she’s right.


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