Toronto

'It was family here': Alexandra Park marks 50th anniversary as old makes way for new

'Growing up here, I didn't know we lived in the projects... We were all just one people,' resident says

Ena Papp

Ena Papp's family came to Alexandra Park from Hungary, her grandparents fleeing to escape that country's revolution. "There was sand in our basement, with chickens — chickens running around. That was dinner," she recalled. (CBC)

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In the heart of Toronto's downtown Alexandra Park neighbourhood, past and future sit across the street from one another.

The maze of brown brick social housing townhouses and apartment buildings, nestled between Kensington Market and Queen Street, often makes the news for the wrong reasons: gangs, drugs and guns.

But as it marks its 50th anniversary, the community is undergoing a major transformation, with many of the buildings that defined it knocked down and replaced by newer, shinier condominiums and townhouses. It's all part of a 12-to-15 year project meant to revitalize the area and "connect this vibrant downtown community with the thriving neighbourhoods around it," according to Toronto Community Housing's website.

The vision, it says: "A better Toronto for all."

But for many born and raised there, the revitalization means home won't look so familiar anymore.

"It's not going to be the project anymore," Kathleen Sousa told CBC News. "When this is all done, you can't walk by and say that's where I got my first kiss, that's where I met my first boyfriend."

Alexandra Park

The maze of brown brick social housing townhouses and apartment buildings, nestled between Kensington Market and Queen Street, often makes the news for the wrong reasons: gangs, drugs and guns. What's often overlooked is the community of people who call it home. (CBC)

Sousa, whose parents came from Nova Scotia, grew up in a family of eight and moved to Alexandra Park in 1966. Her father drove garbage trucks. Their home then was 115 Grange Court, just one of several now slated for demolition.

"It's memories and it's just getting wiped away," she said.

Alexandra Park

As Alexandra Park marks its 50th anniversary, the community is undergoing a major transformation, with many of the buildings knocked down and replaced by condominiums and townhomes. (CBC)

Kiley Fleming agrees.

"It's hard to see our homes come down. With each part of the revitalization, it takes a piece of our history with it," Fleming said, visiting the area 20 years after leaving.

'We started from scratch'

For Fleming and others, seeing the places they called home boarded up and sprayed with graffiti is bittersweet. Now a community worker in the area, Fleming sees both memories and possibilities for the future when she looks around.

"You don't see the spray paint… I see our family dinner, my mom up in the window, Ena's papa across the street," she said.

Nevertheless, she said, "I'm excited for the new opportunities for people in the community ... I'm excited for the new families that get to have this new space and this fresh start, so to speak."

Ena Papp's family came to Alexandra Park from Hungary. Her grandparents fled to escape the violent aftermath of the failed uprising against the Communist government there in 1956.

"There was sand in our basement, with chickens — chickens running around. That was dinner," she recalled. "We started from scratch, she said."

But beyond the buildings themselves, it's that sense of togetherness, making it from the ground up that defines many Alexandra Park residents' memories of home.

"Growing up here, I didn't know we lived in the projects until we got to high school," Fleming said. 'There was no classification of race or gender or economic status. We were all just one people."

Kiley Fleming

For Kiley Fleming, seeing the community she called home boarded up and sprayed with graffiti is bittersweet. As she looks around, the memories are what she sees, she says. (CBC)

Despite the crime that's made the neighbourhood notorious, Fleming says she she never felt more protected than she did growing up there.

"You knew everyone was making sure you got home on time — you were safe."

'We're the kids of the village'

Sousa agrees.

"It was family here," she said. "Everybody knew everybody… If you did anything wrong, your parents knew before you came home."

It's a stark contrast to today, Sousa says. "Back in the day, everyone's doors were open."

Kathleen Sousa

"It's not going to be the project anymore," said Kathleen Sousa, whose parents came from Nova Scotia. Sousa comes from a family of eight and moved to Alexandra Park in 1966. (CBC)

"It's not as friendly... People keep to themselves."

That, in part, is why Fleming is planning a reunion for residents of Alexandra Park before the neighbourhood transforms completely. It's called the Back to the Block Reunion and it happens August 13th.

"Before a bigger chunk of it comes down, we can come back to our roots, stamp on the same concrete," she said.

"What we're really trying to celebrate is the goodness, the wholeness, that comes out of this place. A lot of people don't understand that.

"They haven't lived in this community. They don't understand it really takes a village. And we can attest to that. We're the kids of the village."