A Clean Slate?

In the 50 years since the construction of Toronto’s Regent Park, no pieties about social housing have been more thoroughly battered and forsaken than mid-century notions about what to do with the urban poor. But will the newfangled thinking currently fashionable among politicians, architects and city planners–note the key word “mix”–deliver any better results than those designed by middlebrow progressives in the 1950s?

We are about to have an excellent opportunity to find out. The $1-billion, 15-year redevelopment of Regent Park is due to begin shortly with the phased demolition of all but one of the publicly subsidized apartment blocks and townhouses on the 28-hectare site in downtown Toronto. As a gesture of goodwill to aficionados of Modernism, the city-owned Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), which is managing the huge overhaul, has granted a reprieve to one of five 22-storey slabs designed for Regent Park by Toronto architect Peter Dickinson.

Rising behind the bulldozers will be buildings that the TCHC devoutly intends to be mixed everything: mixed use and mixed rise, for people with mixed incomes and mixed social ambitions, from diverse races and diverse educational, social and cultural backgrounds. “My job,” says Mark Guslits, TCHC chief development officer and the corporation’s point man on Regent Park, “is to take a very large inner-city urban property that has been blighted by social conditions and manifestations of low-income people living close together, and return it to the city. It means turning it back into the urban fabric of what Toronto has become, and making it a wonderful neighbourhood. In wanting to create the best urban environment possible, we should strive for a mixed-income community, in spite of the tendency to drift away from that. A responsible city creates opportunities for mix.”

Mr. Guslits goes easy on the mid-century Toronto planners and thinkers who created the development. “You can only use the information you have and try to do the right thing,” he told me. But he has almost nothing good to say about the Regent Park they made. As actually built out, it was merely “a better pen, a better ghetto,” a monocultural dumping ground for the poor appropriate to an age “when the ghetto was acceptable.”

Strong, provocative criticism about previous Modernist planning and design such as Mr. Guslits’ has enjoyed a place of honour in the architectural culture of self-congratulation ever since Postmodernism tried to topple Mies. The elders got it all wrong–so the argument goes–and we’re getting it right.

But a measure of caution and humility is in order, according to Sean Purdy, a historian at Temple University in Philadelphia who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Regent Park. “I am not against the idea of renovating Regent Park,” Dr. Purdy says. “But this idea of social mix, the idea that networks, skills and contacts are somehow to be transferred from middle-class tenants to poor people–it’s a fantasy.” In this scholar’s estimation, the “mix” crusaders of the present are no better, morally or politically, than the local advocates of change who stickhandled and shaped the first development of Regent Park–planner Eugene Faludi, social activists Humphrey Carver and Albert Rose, and others.

“They were middle-of-the-road reformers who had a hackneyed, patronizing view of people. They were upset by the idea of congestion on street corners and children playing in back lanes and on porches, and they had the middle-class notion that privatized, orderly behaviour could be transferred [from bourgeois citizens] to the poor, that new physical surroundings would produce an efficient society.” Dr. Purdy believes the social renewal that “mix” is supposed to generate arises, instead, as a by-product of grassroots struggle and “movements of resistance to neo-liberalism.”

But after studying recent American public housing overhauls that have sought to deploy the “mix” model, Chicago social scientist Janet Smith has decided that “the premise is good, the idea is great. By mixing people together, we will build social capital, and the poor people will get into the middle class.” Poor people living with middle-class people will enjoy “an increase of self-esteem. I don’t discount that.” Yet Dr. Smith is concerned that the actual changes in the lives of low-income people in such redevelopments will be more cosmetic and fragile than substantial and sustainable. “We are integrating housing, but not dealing with the economic structures that are producing poverty. These are more extreme now than they once were.” She also finds worrisome the net decline in subsidized units that is occurring as mid-century social housing projects are knocked down and replaced by blended market-rate and publicly underwritten dwellings–a decline that, she believes, has sharply accelerated in the United States since the abandonment, in the 1990s, of a longstanding federal “wreck one, build one” policy. Incidentally, the TCHC plans to tear down Regent Park’s 2,500 units of housing, all low-income, and put up 5,100 new units, of which 1,779 will be subsidized. Another 300 subsidized units, to be built off-site, are also in the budget. It’s only a four-for-five replacement.

Whatever their political positions on mix–pro, con or uncertain–pundits agree that every opinion must face a stubborn factual problem. Not enough time has passed to allow observers to form a dispassionate, fact-based conclusion about recent renewals in the United States, or anywhere. Asked to say whether mix will improve the chances and lives of poor people, Janet Smith replied that her answer depends on how she feels on a given morning. In the end, even the experts don’t know if mix will work. And nobody can know, of course, whether the currently weak political will to eradicate poverty will toughen up, endure or simply evaporate altogether. The decline of welfare-state idealism among our political commissars from the 1970s onward and the decline of Regent Park in the same time frame are surely not coincidental.

On one matter, however, everybody with a view about social housing nowadays seems to be in perfect agreement. It’s the current abode–the ninth circle of Hell–created by the Torontonians who promoted and planned Regent Park the first time around.

As far as I can tell, they were, on the non-professional side, society women and politicians revolted by the sordid Toronto slums and possessed by a morally uncomplicated sense of obligation to help people who had fallen into the ash can of history. Like today’s critics of the mid-century design of Regent Park, Toronto’s high-minded socialites of the 1920s and 1930s appear to have had little patience with the notion that poor people can and do build creative vivid communities among themselves. Patronizing? Perhaps, but their attitude toward poverty was certainly preferable to the greedy self-absorption typical of the comfortable classes in our time. Be that as it may, the concerned and progressive citizens of Toronto in the 1930s and 1940s believed they could not discharge their duty by handing out a few extra turkeys to the needy on Christmas Eve. Something more drastic was called for.

Enter the professionals–first Faludi, and later, Carver and Rose and others who believed (along with the ladies and politicians they worked for) that the answer to the “slum problem” was wholesale demolition, followed by the construction of clean, well-ventilated, healthful new homes for the former slum-dwellers. That large public investment would be necessary was taken for granted. In early 1947, a commitment of $5 million in public funds for the Regent Park project was put to Toronto voters, who overwhelmingly approved it.

Reading the opinions, studies and proposals of these mid-century Modernist improvers now, after decades of hearing they were all witches, can be sobering. Albert Rose’s 1958 Regent Park: A Study in Slum Clearance, for example, is an entirely serious, scrupulous early assessment of the development’s history and success. Th
ere is a sharp difference, Rose notes, between the good lives enjoyed in Regent Park and the lives endured “in new suburban neighbourhoods created during the same period of time.”

The reason for this difference? It’s all about mix. “Diversity of age” and “diversity in the distribution of income,” which diffused “spirit and morale among those who have been housed.” The author continues: “It is not often realized that an important factor in the current esprit de corps among young and old people alike [in Regent Park] has been the very healthy diversity within the project.”

The prophets of mix in our own time could hardly predict more eloquently and precisely what they expect to find in the renovated Regent Park, some 15 years from now. But why should we believe that the visions of latter-day planners will be turn out to be happier than those of yesteryear’s earnest social engineers? “I believe what we are proposing will succeed,” says Mark Guslits, “because we are not creating anything new or different, but returning Regent Park to something normal.”

John Bentley Mays is an architecture critic and writes regularly for The Globe and Mail.