This past spring, Jay led her first ever Jane’s Walk — the Not So Typical Regent Park Walk. As a writer and narratologist, Jay was interested in leading a walk that truly engaged community members, uncovered untold stories, and challenged negative perceptions of “at-risk” neighbourhoods. In this series of blog posts, she’ll introduce you to local unsung heroes actively engaged in placemaking and community-based innovation.
Meet Aleshia, the lovely young woman standing on the right beside her equally lovely mentor Sandra. With such an electrifying and warm smile, it is difficult to imagine that Aleshia was one considered an angry girl. So angry in fact, that she was one of the young women featured in a TVO documentary called Angry Girls. The film examined violence among young women, and also, highlighted community-based programs designed to address the issue.
Standing in front of 19 Beavins — a building in Regent Park scheduled for demolition — Aleshia shares her story to participants in the Not So Typical Regent Park Walk. “I grew up my whole life in Regent Park,” she says, “but I would say that my story starts here, in a girls group that was run by my very good friend and mentor, Sandra Costain.”
We are outside, amid traffic with residents milling about, but the entire group is focused, dangling from Aleshia’s every word. She tells us that although the building looks a bit sketchy, within its walls Sandra, a Child and Youth Manager with Dixon Hall, created a safe space for her to unpack issues with boyfriends, school, and fighting. Because the program was run out of an actual apartment unit, Aleshia and her peers could prepare meals in the kitchen, share ideas in a real living room setting, and retreat to the bedroom to cry or reflect silently when they were going through difficult times.
Aleshia praises Sandra for also ensuring that the girls felt safe and confident enough to explore and pursue their dreams in the larger community. Together, the young women travelled to museums, camp sites, local festivals, and shopping centres. The excursion that was a pivotal turning point for Aleshia and many of the other young women in the group was their journey to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, one of North America’s most infamous housing projects.
Aleshia recalls, “The trip was really eye-opening, and showed me that there were other people in inner-city neighbourhoods across the world struggling with even more severe issues than we were.”
After witnessing the harsh consequences of young women unable to find healthy outlets for their anger and sense of disenfranchisement, Aleshia and her peers began to seriously reflect on past conversations they had with Sandra, their destructive patterns, and their future aspirations. Upon their return to Regent Park, they promptly dropped all talk of being “hard” and “gangster.” Another positive outcome of this trip was that it ignited the young women’s passion for travel — a number of the group members began to save their hard-earned money from part-time jobs and visiting destinations in the U.S., South America, and the Caribbean.
Aleshia ends her story by underscoring her love for the group, Sandra, and her community. Immediately the complex relationship between space, identity, safety, and design become evident. For example, the girls group, considered a safe space, is housed in an apartment building that has a reputation for being an unsafe site; once, a man was murdered and his body was left out in plain view for hours — horrifying young children and neighbours. At the same time, Sandra was able to re-imagine the space, thereby contesting its reputation as unsafe. Within the girls group she created a counter-narrative of kindness, hope, and possibility, which became etched on the walls of the tiny apartment.
Given the dynamic and complex nature of built environments, it’s crucial to ensure that the next phase in the Regent Park redevelopment process preserves its hidden beauty while responding to the nuances of particular sites. For one, it is important to understand that all spaces — even spaces considered undesirable – are multi-storied and embody immense emotion. Think back to the mud pile where you built your first dilapidated fort, the rusting fence where you had your first kiss, or the squeaky gate that announced your arrival when you tried to sneak in past curfew. The longstanding residents of Regent Park also have emotions and wonderful memories bound up in some of the spaces that they have and will continue to watch be reduced to debris.
Secondly, in the next phase of the redevelopment and design process, it is important to remember that space is not simply a “backdrop” to our lives; it is an “actor” co-constructing our daily experiences. By this I mean that the ways that groups engage with spaces can teach us important lessons. For instance, within the program space, if Sandra noticed the young women consistently heading for the fridge upon arrival, she knew that may be an indication of food security and hunger issues. Frequent crying sessions in the private bedroom would sometimes be a signal to create more time for conversations pertaining to sexual health or managing depression. Sandra astutely looked to the girls and their use of the space to inform her program priorities. This approach should also be embraced by leaders managing new, mixed-use spaces intended to engage an even broader range of residents than ever before.
Finally, moving forward, there needs to be a real focus on defining and practicing space equity. New tenants can learn a lot from community leaders and experts like Sandra and her colleagues at Dixon Hall, who managed to transform lives without big budgets and beautifully designed spaces. Respectful and equitable relationships need to be fostered to ensure that these leaders feel valued and included in the new vision for the community. They should also be given real access and opportunities to operate some of the new spaces that are currently being developed.
Oh, one more thing: Want to know one of the many reasons Aleshia is no longer angry? Today she is a College graduate who works with Dixon Hall leading the very same girls group that changed her life a decade ago.
Jay Pitter is a senior marketing communications specialist and narratologist. With a Master’s Degree in Narrative Theory and Methodology, Jay investigates “story” as a communicative mode, data, art form, economy and social discourse. Her writing credits include CBC Radio, the Toronto Star, Walrus Magazine, Spacing Magazine, Fireweed, Sister Vision Press, TVO and the book Climate Change: Who’s Carrying the Burden?