Signs of hope and prosperity in Lawrence Heights

[attach]4228[/attach]When Torontonians hear or read about Lawrence Heights, it’s easy to consider the history of violence that has been intermittently plaguing the area for years.

But there must be more to it, right?

Sure is, I discover during a May 7 walking tour of the largely immigrant-settled neighbourhood. The tour was part of Jane’s Walk, an annual event held in cities across the world to honour the late urbanist, Jane Jacobs.

The two-hour walk, aptly named, ‘A Lens on Lawrence Heights’ is already underway as I catch up to the group of 40-50 people at Amaranth Court, a residential street off of Flemington Road.

Lawrence Heights is made up of a series of residential streets all branching off of Flemington Road and Varna Drive, with Ranee Avenue to the north, Lawrence Avenue to the south and Allen Road as a central divider. Built in the early 60s, the neighbourhood is predominantly community housing.

At the time, it was the largest housing project in the country. Today, it is one of the oldest.

Though in rough condition now, hope for Lawrence Heights abounds.

As the tour heads over to Zachary Court, the chatter turns to talk of revitalization.

In 2007, the city and Toronto Community Housing announced a plan that would see the replacement of the housing units in Lawrence Heights with mixed-income housing.

Many residents have been concerned about displacement and changing the face of the neighbourhood. There is also a contingent of neighbours on the periphery who have voiced concerns about how the 20-year plan for revitalization may bring traffic and congestion woes to the surrounding area.

Many on the guided tour said they hope revitalization will bring more accessibility to the isolated area.

[attach]4229[/attach]Hersi Abdirizack, a community housing tenant representative and 30-year resident of the neighbourhood said the revitalization is a major step toward a common goal.

“The goal is to live together,” he said. “Revitalization is hope for our children, hope for us, hope for everybody.”

There are other signs of hope on display during the tour.

Community gardening is huge in the Heights, I discover during the jaunt.

While it is modest for now, group leaders say the activity is social and gaining in popularity. An impromptu stop to chat with Abdul, who was toiling in a backyard garden, demonstrates that growing interest.

Inherent problems with the aging neighbourhood are easy to spot during the tour, including when local councillor Josh Colle stops to take a picture of a crumbling walkway.

Lawrence Heights resident and activist Abdi Mohamed seems neither fazed or surprised.

“This is why we need revitalization,” Mohamed says.

On Bredonhill Court, our group finds out why the street is known to many in the community as “Beverly Hills”.

Behind the drab row of overgrown lawns and dilapidated two-storey housing units lies a large, green hill. It was a glimpse of a picturesque space not being utilized to its full potential.

With all the signs of a change for the positive, the negative side of the community’s negative image linger.

A woman on the tour questions one of the speakers about the appropriateness of using the term ‘Jungle’ to describe the neighbourhood.

One woman says she recognizes the negative view that term has because of its widespread use in the media when reporting crime stories. But she supports the name.

“‘Jungle’ is like an identity to me,” she said.

[attach]4232[/attach]Andrew Cox, a community activist says using the term is “not meant to evoke negative connotations — it’s just where you’re from.”

Yet another sign prosperity shows itself as the walk winds down, as we stop in the rear of the former Bathurst Heights SS, which has been closed for a couple years. Mohamed is proud to tell us that the school will be open again this fall, as John Polanyi CI, in honour of the Canadian Nobel winner.

We end after a tour of the neighbourhood’s only community centre, a place that both Cox and Colle speak highly of in terms of its importance to the people of Lawrence Heights.

The multiple-room facility offers workout equipment, gym space and rooms for young children as well. One volunteer on the walk notes that the facility is open seven days a week.

It’s a place that Cox says he hopes is considered as a priority during the revitalization because the undersized facility is beyond capacity already.

“It needs to be about 10 times this size,” he says.