Checking out a New Lease on Life

When the Bluett family moved into their brand new apartment, Mrs. Bluett looked at the clean floors and modern appliances and beamed.  It’s like walking into a dream, she said.

The place? Regent Park.

This was in 1949, and the Bluetts were the first tenants to move into Regent Park, Canada’s first public housing complex.  After enduring years of cramped and fetid slum housing, working-class families like the Bluetts were obviously hopeful that a new era had begun.  Anyone familiar with the run-down public housing stock in this city can hear echoes of that hope today, as families move into the “revitalized” Regent Park.

This historical context is one of the pleasures to be found in “A New Lease on Life: Rental Housing in 20th Century Toronto”, an exhibit at the City of Toronto Archives.  Photographs and correspondence document a wide range of public and private rental housing, from the high-end apartment buildings at Avenue Road and St. Clair to the hard-to-believe trailer parks that dotted Toronto in the 1940s.   But the most revealing aspect of the exhibit is the history of enthusiasm and disappointment that surrounds big public housing projects.  “The intentions were always good,” says Sarah Carson, the archivist who put the show together.  “Nobody was trying to create bad housing.”  She refers to St. James projects, which opened on Ontario Street in 1959-1960 as a high-rise community for urban, middle-income singles and couples.  But demographics changed and cycles of poverty deepened and, today, urban planners see the neighbourhood as a classic what-not-to-do in public housing.

Something to keep in mind as we follow the revitalization of Regent Park, St. James and Lawrence Heights.

A New Lease on Life:  Rental Housing in 20th Century Toronto is on exhibit until the end of the year at the City of Toronto Archives, 255 Spadina Road, 416 397-0778