At the least, build a community centre
Feb. 18, 2006. 04:09 AM
There are many Rexdales. They can be found across North America, clustered on the fringes of the cities that spawned them.
The history of Toronto's Rexdale goes back to the mid-1950s, when developer Rex Heslop turned a vast swath of farmland into a typical post-war residential and industrial suburb. Heslop understood that the completion of Highway 401 and the airport would mean jobs and accessibility. By the early '60s, Rexdale was an established community.
Fifty years later, however, it has become shorthand for suburban blight, social breakdown and gang violence. In 2005 alone, five young men were shot dead in the area, a grey landscape of highways and highrises, shopping malls and churches.
And for the kids who live there — the subject of much concern and study — the common complaint is that there's nothing to do. Wandering around the anonymous streets of this place, that's not hard to believe. As much as anything, it is the result of growth patterns based on ideas of single-use zoning, separation, industrial scale development and, of course, the car.
The world envisioned by the planners and builders of Rexdale was a neat and tidy patchwork of precincts, one each for living, working, playing and shopping. All would be connected by grid of expressways along which residents sped happily.
Now we know better; our highways are clogged, our buildings and communities crumbling.
"It's a mess," Rev. Walter McIntyre, outreach pastor at the Kipling Avenue Baptist Church, declares apologetically but bluntly. "The community is underinvested. There's a sense here of being undervalued."
Though McIntyre would love to change the world, or at least Rexdale, he'd be happy to settle for, say, a community centre.
"A community centre isn't going to do everything," he admits. "But we've got to get kids diverted from activities like taking drugs and joining gangs."
McIntyre has gone the route of circulating petitions and meeting with politicians, so far without results. "They turned a deaf ear to our request," he says. "All we got was a Vince Carter basketball court. Even though it's not well run, it's still a success."
McIntyre also organizes cleanup parties that go to school playgrounds to sweep up broken glass and repair sports equipment like basketball hoops.
In these small ways, he hopes to reclaim the public realm of Rexdale, rehabilitate its spaces and get eyes back on the street. But open space in Rexdale tends to be land left over between things — buildings, streets, etc. It belongs to no one and reads that way.
"It looks like someone built a sketch," says planner/architect Kim Storey. "There's a lot of zoning going on here but when you look at the schools, the roads, parks and so on, you see they're all separate. If the schools worked with the TTC and parks, for example, you'd start to develop a richer mix of things. Rexdale needs to be mixed up. Right now everything's so isolated.
"I'm not so naïve I think design can solve everything, but the space is so disconnected ... You need to do something."
As Storey also points out, "Places like Rexdale were built for people with cars, who don't have cars anymore."
For people who depend on transit, or who must walk, these distances are especially isolating. But as poverty is pushed out of the city and into suburbia, the need for renewal grows ever more urgent.
"There are a million studies," Storey says. "We need to get the social agencies together with some designers and just do something. I'd start big. Instead of spending huge sums of money on the waterfront, which is irrelevant right now, it should be going to places like Rexdale. We're still acting like the city is downtown."
Storey would concentrate on Rexdale's schools, which, she argues, are resources that could do double or triple duty as community centres and playgrounds.
McIntyre agrees, which is why he has devoted so much effort to cleaning up schoolyards.
"The Silverstone/Mount Olive/Jamestown community was planned without providing space for kids," McIntyre says, "especially the Jamestown project on Dixon Rd."
Driving along Dixon, McIntyre points to a row of stumps, the remains of a hedgerow in front of a school that was cut to discourage drug dealers.
Take care of the little things, McIntyre argues, and the bigger things take care of themselves.
But, he adds quickly, "We're pushing for a community centre in the Jamestown area. That's our focus."
Mohamed Gilao, a leader of the Somali community in Etobicoke and Rexdale, one of the largest outside Africa, also supports the idea of a community centre.
"It's the most important thing we need," insists Gilao, whose only son was gunned down in Toronto last summer. "A place where people from different neighbourhoods can come together and interact. Even though the population has increased over the last 15 years, there have been no updates. We have a high population of seniors and a high population of youth, but there's a lack of services."
As Storey says, "These people know what they want; they just don't have the money."