In the years following World War II the European
continent was busy rebuilding towns and cities after the cataclysmic
destruction of 6 years of war. City fathers in America too were trying to build
a better society and eradicate the sickness that was the squalid and
substandard living conditions of many of its inhabitants. This was the next
battle to be won, a battle for hearts and minds to persuade the population of
the benefits not only to themselves individually, but to society as a whole.
Typical of the time were methods of persuasion, such
as the following information campaign:
Any morning in Cabbagetown
is a horrible morning. The dreary climb up the stairs to the only bathroom in
the house, kettle in hand ready to be filled. The only bathroom that serves six
families in the house, two homes per floor, all crammed under one roof. That
bathroom is the only source of running water, sixteen families, nineteen
people, one bathroom.
The Smiths live in one of
the many substandard houses in Cabbagetown, with only one bedroom for the
parents, Jim and Jenny, and another room with couches to sleep on for their
children, James and Jennifer. One bedroom to store the family clothes, and for
each person to dress, and one room to serve as the kitchen, living room, and
There is always a hustle
and bustle in the morning, a constant battle between them all to find their
things, or to find their breakfast under those things. Understandable in a room
that served the family of five as the kitchen, dining room, living room.
Once everyone has left
for their day to start, Mrs Smith can do the laundry in that one room that
serves as the kitchen, living room, dining room, and now, laundry room. Every
day is washing day for Jenny Smith, but washing the dirt out of the clothes is
a pointless job, the dirt seeps out of the verminous walls and into all the
fabric of the rooms.
There are many types of
people in the house, some good people, and some bad people. There are the gentle
Millers, old age pensioners who live in their one room with a stove in the
centre, huddling around it religiously. The Wilsons live across the landing in
their home, which, was in even worse condition than most. For some families,
the Cabbagetown house wasn’t all bad. There were the Johnsons, who always found
a way to have a good day. Of course, they had a larger home, and it was warmer
The local Tavern was the
place to go at night, or the movies. But for most, this escapism wasn’t
possible, these luxuries were too expensive. Some would even hang out on the
streets in the cold, anything to avoid going home.
Jim Smith works in the
construction business, trying to make a living building new, modern homes. Jim can’t
afford to buy the homes he builds, or any other home for that matter. The most
modest new homes are above his reach to buy or rent. He’d consider himself a
lucky man to live any in any other home, not just the ones he builds. But he
always makes the best of any situation, and takes pride in all he has, and
Our great nation is
expanding rapidly, we have great skyscrapers showing our wealth, large spanning
structures covering our machines and motors and assembly lines. What our great
nation could not do is provide good quality housing for families like the
Smiths or the Johnsons or the Wilsons, but that is about to change.
Down came the slums of Cabbagetown! Down came the
walls! Down came the infected and unhealthy rooms! And up goes the first, large
scale public housing project, to be called Regent Park! 1300 new affordable homes
and apartments for Jim and the other families can afford. The Millers –
pensioners, $ 29 a month. Jake Johnson the truck driver, $40 a month. Jim, $70
The Smith family never thought the day would come when
they could move in. It was a beautiful spring day in Toronto, the sun was
shining off the bright white snow. They were a sore sight to see with their
boxes and bags and bundles, like migrants on the road. But now, they are the
proud residents of: 6 0 4 Regent Park.
The family open the door, and tip toe around their home nervously.
Jennifer is skimming her fingers across the brand new clean walls at the foot
of the stairs, it was as If she could see her reflection touching back. Never
before had she touched the fabric of a building without her finger being
discoloured. Mrs Smith hastily slaps her fingers away in case the dirt from Oak
street dirtied the wall.
A clatter upstairs leads the family cautiously up every step. They push
the door open nervously to James stripping down and running himself a hot,
clean bath. He looks up with a great smile on his face, and the family all
Mrs Smith leads the family through the rest of the home. Can be taken out
That first day, discovering the indulgence of more
space than they know what to do with, of doors that can stay open without
support, rooms that are for sleeping and nothing else, even one of them for
yourself. Hard to think this new home could bring so much joy to the families who
once, never wanted to set foot on Cabbagetown again.
Not a trace of Oak Street remains, except its people.
Once a silent dinner table, now full of conversation
between the family about their day – often a day in the slums was one to
forget. Old possessions and worries gone, the faces may still be there, but
it’s different; their expressions are brighter and friendlier and more
interested and full of life. Life is looking up for this family.
Regent Park offers much more than just great homes
with mod cons, there great opportunities for the kids to socialise and play and
learn and enjoy themselves. Great plains of grass for them to play on is
definitely a change to the gritty, gray and grotesque street before congested
by automobiles. Regent Park was ‘turning its back on the City’, and the people
were turning their back on the old way of life.
This is just the beginning though, there are far more
corners of this nation just like this. But, there is one less Cabbagetown to
worry about, and we are building our great nation one corner at a time.
This of course was not the first time that the powers
that be tried to improve the lives of ordinary people. In England, in the
latter part of the 19th century, The Arts and Crafts Movement tried
to do just that under the leadership of William Morris. He believed that
society had gone too far with Industrialisation and the speed with which houses
were being “thrown up” to cater for the growing demand for workers who had been
flooding in from the country side to work in the factories. Morris believed
that surrounding people with good design would make them better people; the
quality of their lives would improve as a consequence of the goods, buildings
and artefacts produced by the hand-crafted work of the Medieval Guilds that he
advocated so strongly. Unfortunately, this method of working that he
re-introduced made the products too expensive for all but the few and
ultimately failed to enrich the lives of the ordinary working man and his
family as he had originally envisaged. A similar fate was to befall the
inhabitants of Regent Park, even with all new mod cons for the people, it was
not to be successful.
Like many housing schemes built post war, the question
of whether the architecture is to blame, or the people, is applicable here. All
too common a reason for the disrepair of these housing blocks is down to lack
of employment, and lack of funding. For example, if we take the Parkhill
Housing scheme in Sheffield as one of many examples, some of the same problems
arose there. Credited as being the first successful community-wide slum
clearance since the end of the Second World War,
it had a reputation as one of Britain’s most notorious “sink estates”
by the 1980s, with high levels of crime, anti-social behaviour, and poverty. From an architectural standpoint, the Park
Hill housing was designed very well; the idea of ‘streets in the sky’ were
designed to be a replacement for the cobbled terraces of the former slums, the
three-metre-wide communal walkways were wide enough to let a milk float go by
or to allow children to play outdoors, and were planned to encourage neighbours
to interact with one another as they might on a regular street. Essentially,
they were as social as any street but without the irritation of automobiles. Ultimately, the decline of Park hill
was due to the collapse of Sheffield’s steel industry – Sheffield’s biggest
income provider and employer – in the 1980s, which brought the modern ideals of
Park Hill to an end.
The Public housing scheme in Toronto fell into
disrepair following the first 20 years. The lack of recreational facilities,
bored youth and socioeconomic factors eventually led to drug problems and
violent crimes. Furthermore, the demographics changed from two-parent families
living in the homes to largely one parent homes, of which were mostly
immigrants. Cultural differences between the residents led to an
ever-increasing tension as well as stereotyping and racism.
Regent Park was built to be a Garden City, with the buildings placed in a pastoral setting,
facing inwards, and turning their back to the city. Streets were replaced with
large areas of green spaces meaning automobile access was very limited. This
created a sort of ‘no mans land’ within the scheme as the residents couldn’t distinguish
from what was public land, and what was private. In conjunction with the lack
of recreational facilities, Regent Park made the residents feel isolated from
the rest of the city.
Both schemes were devastated by poverty and social
problems, which inherently led to crime and to their ruin. Although, they
brought modernist ideals and new homes to the people who desperately needed it,
and in doing so, created new utopian lives for families like the Smith’s. For
the new tenants of Regent Park, the American dream was almost palpable at that