Pride starts with a paintbrush
South of Finch, east of Jane. To most Torontonians that means one thing: Stay away.
But for those who live in the area, that's not an option. Regardless of what others may think, this is their home, a place they want to be proud of.
And so a group of residents, civic officials and private citizens has spent countless hours transforming their small part of the area into something resembling a neighbourhood.
The Yorkwoods-Grandravine Community, which occupies the northwest quadrant of Driftwood Ave. and Grandravine Dr., was built in the early 1960s according to the utopian principles popular at the time. That meant lots of open green space shared by the inhabitants of the 300 inward-looking units.
No one here has a street address, and it's hard to find your way in or out. The separation was deliberate, but not the isolation.
"A different relationship with the street would have created a different relationship between neighbours," explains M.S. Mwarigha, a manager with Toronto Community Housing Corp.
"It had become a community of hopelessness."
As Pastor Bill Sunberg of the nearby Emmanuel Church of the Nazarene points out: "We had started to tell stories that made us afraid of our neighbours."
After that, residents demanded the removal of street furniture - park benches and the like - and the neighbourhood had been sucked into a downward spiral from which it's only now emerging.
For architect Susan Speigel, who helped organize the rehabilitation efforts, the exercise is all about "making a ridiculously small amount go a long way."
In fact, the project received TCHC funding of $180,000, a token sum that verges on meaninglessness.
That money, after much leveraging, cajoling and donating, has led to many changes: dozens of trees, hundreds of flowers and backyards planted, breezeways cleaned up, entrances lighted, TTC furniture replaced, units painted ....
Speigel calls them "small moves that have a very big impact."
In the process, Sunberg says, a sense of community has been bolstered if not built.
Women long afraid to leave their home now venture out regularly. Kids formerly "at risk" are now engaged in rebuilding.
"It's a lot better now," declares Jasmine Geddes, a 16-year resident of Yorkwoods-Grandravine. "We got our community back."
For those fixated on the bottom line, Mwarigha points out that only 2 per cent of tenants don't pay their rent, down from 20 per cent.
"The difference," he says simply, "is that we made a promise and kept it."
In this part of town, that's not just unusual, it's cause for celebration. Keep in mind that the isolation residents feel here is social as well as physical.
"We started a conversation two years ago," Mwarigha says. "We created this vision."
Of course, there are changes that could happen only if the whole place were to be torn down and rebuilt. Don't hold your breath for that; this isn't Regent Park, not yet, at least.
And although this kind of housing project would probably not be proposed today, it's clear that for all the problems associated with planning and design, the overwhelming issue is funding, or rather, lack thereof.
"No other place in the world pays for social housing through municipal taxes," says Toronto Councillor Maria Augimeri. "It's unsustainable."
Remember that Toronto Community Housing was formed after the provincial and federal governments simply withdrew from the field and dumped their properties - 60,000 units in total - on the city.
Yorkwoods-Grandravine was built, then abandoned, by the province.
"You go in, you paint and you build relationships," Sunberg says. "We will only help you if you help us."
In some neighbourhoods, that is a lesson still waiting to be learned.