Tuesday, 17 January 2012

City Budget in Microcosm: Alexandra Park

As Marwa Eldardiry walks through her Alexandra Park neighbourhood, she points to areas that gave shape to how she grew up, "This was where we used to play red ass, and over here we would play soccer or baseball." 

Eldardiry, a 24-year-old who recently graduated from Ryerson with a degree in planning, points to a small quadrant of nooks and crannies in Alex Park when she refers to her childhood sports. She goes on to explain how it's a self-sufficient community that makes the most of what it has. 

"In the summer the basketball courts are packed, and older kids help out the younger ones. It's a tight-knit community."  

Alex Park is tight-knit by virtue of its geography in addition to its inhabitants. Bordered by Bathurst on the west, Queen to the south, Spadina to the east and Dundas to the north, the dense neighbourhood has just under 5,000 residents. Many people live in public housing established in a 1960s project similar to Regent Park. Like Regent, it' s a low-income neighbourhood, with average income the second lowest in Toronto at $19,687 (2006 census).  

Yet Eldardiry speaks of a sense of pride in the community. "I don't know the stats, but everyone says that Alex Park has the best graduation rates of any public housing neighbourhood in Canada. People do well here." 

Local Councillor Adam Vaughan notes this too as he discusses the area's relatively low drug use that Public Health can attest to and strong outcomes for well-being. He adds that there are challenges that come with this success although it's encouraged, "The neighbourhood has a great degree of turnover that's tied to the educational capacity, the community. Because they are getting their kids educated and their credentials upgraded people have the ability to move to where work is when that work becomes available to them. You have a lot of kids in university, a lot of parents with foreign degrees and a strong emphasis on education and those values feed off each other in a positive way."  

Because there is a certain degree of turnover from this educational capacity, outside groups like the Atkinson Foundation have focused on retaining youth leaders like Eldardiry on community boards to provide direction, leadership and a sense of history to younger individuals.  

The latter is particularly important as history provides a sense of and context for the community. In 2007, beloved teenager Yonathon Musse (who was also a drug dealer) was murdered and it rocked the community. For many people it provided a wake up call to be vigilant about their choices and options. 

Next to the two basketball courts, a mural of the teenager adorns the brick wall. Other newly-installed art projects spruce up the area, including planters for area homes made by teens and a mural of a tree. These are the kind of small projects that build skills and confidence in youth and provide a creative outlet to connect with the area. They're also funded through grants.  

Asked about Rob Ford's general opposition to grants, Eldardiry is puzzled by the stance, "With grants, they're fishing rods. We know how to fish, we just need the tool to get it going."  

Services and programs are vital to how the community functions too. There are three nearby community centres, a community pool, a park and parkettes and a recently converted convent that is now a shelter for vulnerable women. Eldardiry is surprised these are the kinds of programs that Ford proposes to cut across the city, "I thought he promised no cuts, but then he does this." 

She adds that these are the kind of programs that made growing up in Alex Park special for her and are an important part of its proposed revitalization. 

Yet the budget process didn't examine the unique characteristics of areas like Alexandra Park and its nooks and crannies. According to Eldardiry, the process should be about social inclusion and integrating communities. 

But the lines on the Ford budget are looked at individually rather than responding to the city's needs with a vision for how it can improve. And so Alexandra Park, the labrynthine microcosm of Toronto's budgeting process, carries on with or without the help of the 2012 budget. 

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