Lawrence Heights Revisited

Revitalization of Toronto neighborhood puts it at risk of total erasure

One of Toronto’s most diverse and economically disadvantaged communities is being transformed by the TCHC’s largest housing project yet. The horribly named LARP, standing for the Lawrence-Allen Revitalization Plan, started in 2010, and plans to redevelop all 100 acres of the Lawrence Heights community.

Modelled after the revitalization project in Regent Park, the City of Toronto, TDSB and other private stakeholders, plan to replace all 1,208 existing social housing units and build 5,500 to 6,300 new market units. Along with new community facilities, parkland and retail, the project is set to remake the neighbourhood known to the city as Jungle.

At twice the size of Regent Park, the revitalization project in the neighbourhood, which sits just south of Yorkdale beside Allen Road and Dufferin, is an ambitious undertaking for the city, and its development partner Metropia. 

“Our task is to create a sense of place, and give residents a sense of ownership,” says Metropia vice-president of development and planning Kristy Shortall.

If you have ever been to Lawrence Heights, what stands out is the amount of trees in the area. It’s the beautiful views of foliage that gives it its Jungle moniker.. The area is also filled with energy. About half of the community’s residents in are under the age of fifteen. For Toronto as a whole, that number is less than twenty per cent. Young and black, the area is a hotspot for immigrants, from places like Syira, Somalia and the Carribeans.

It’s these groups that give Lawrence Heights its culture. Surrounded by schools, malls like the Lawrence Allen Centre, where teens hang out, and a community centre for them to play, residents are proud of their little enclave. The pandemic has had multiple effects on this community that was more likely to be infected, and also to the youth who lost educational opportunities and witnessed the massive Black Lives Matter protests. Surrounded by challenges, the members of this community are as close as ever.

For many, the changes coming to Lawrence Heights are interrupting a community that is close knit. Whether having a BBQ or dealing with the neighbourhood’s higher than average crime rate, members often work and play together. To residents of the community, it’s these networks between people that matter. Especially through these troubled times.

“They check in on each other, you know. They know each other’s medical appointments, and other schedules. I don’t know what will happen when they have to move out. Will they be able access that community network again? I don’t know.” said one resident, speaking to The Local. Many fear gentrification will ruin the close knit community, once it explodes in population. 

For their part, the City has designated plans with community consultations on the social aspects of revitalization. Dubbed the Heritage and Social Development Plans, to make sure residents don’t lose what makes Jungle so special. 

So far the situation between the TCHC and residents is tenuous. Kaydeen Bandasingh, a liaison between the city and residents of Lawrence Heights, initially was optimistic enough about revitalization to get involved. After dealing with city officials though, she is disheartened that officials won’t even recognise the name ‘Jungle’.

“Right now Toronto Community Housing refuses to create any association with this new community they are building, to ‘Jungle,’ because the media has framed this reference as this place that’s violent, that’s gang-ridden”.

The introduction of new, richer residents was never going to be smooth sailing, but with the revitalization project less than 10% complete, residents of Lawrence Heights are losing their right to choose their own story. Equating Jungle, a name used with love by residents and other Torontonians as synonymous, with gangs and crime, residents feel like they are losing any right to define their community..
With dead-end roads and broken streetlights, Jungle is in need of change. Condos are already selling, change is coming to this dense and lively neighbourhood. City officials, in the wake of the pandemic need to listen to residents, and keep what made the place so special. If not, revitalization will cut off community members from their community.

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