Lotherton Heights: An urban village on the path to change
Driving north on Caledonia Rd. from Glencairn or south from Lawrence Ave., you wouldn’t know that a small village-like community is hidden amongst the industrial buildings. It sits tucked between North-South Caledonia and the GO Train tracks to the west.
Turning off of Caledonia you enter this world unto itself, called “the village” by residents. In village-like Lotherton Pathway people know and care about each other, and their offspring too; here the axiom “It takes a village to raise a child” applies. “It’s a very very beautiful community,” said Nadine Brown in a polished Caribbean accent. The 54-year-old mother of five has lived on Lotherton Pathway for 15 years, and many of the kids call her mom as they pass her on the rutted road that winds through the neighbourhood. “You have to come and observe the community to see what it’s all about,” she added.
There are 4,500 people living in the semicircle of 88 townhouses and four apartment buildings. The largest segment of the population is Indo Guyanese from Guyana, followed by Chinese, Vietnamese, Tamil and then a smaller contingent of other ethnicities.
It’s quiet for most of the day on Lotherton Pathway except for the sounds of cars and the occasional screeching of the GO train. But as afternoon wanes, the children at the daycare come out to play in a fenced-in yard, and older kids arrive home from school. A bit later grown-ups go about their evening rituals, which include a small cookout on the chill autumn evening. A group of 20- and 30-somethings add food to a large blackened pot bubbling over a small fire on a patch outside the basketball courts.
Lotherton Heights is part of United Way Toronto’s Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC) initiative, which helps develop strong communities in neighbourhoods that need it most.
Working with the initiative and his community has made Nazeem Ali, 44, more connected to the city and to Canada, he says. He was invited by ANC staff to volunteer in 2004, when the program began. “It gives me a lot of hope,” he said about his involvement. “I feel a sense of belonging. I feel a little bit more confident about myself being in Canada, within this community.”
Ali quickly became a leader in the neighbourhood, and now sits on a board that helps decide how United Way Resident Action Grants are distributed. The grants are pools of money that support resident-led projects that address community concerns. Residents submit proposals and, if approved, their projects are funded for one year with up to $10,000. Lotherton residents have started a community kitchen, movie nights and a student-run project called Dreamsville, a multimedia and recording studio set up in one of the three rooms at the Action for Neighbourhood Change office behind a convenience store and security office. Some of the kids participating in the Dreamsville project have created a video about the 13 neighbourhoods in the city where the initiative’s programs are run.
As the light fades, the community seems to come to life. Young girls sit on the steps to one of the apartment buildings, huddled close and whispering. Children play at the park, watched-over by Brown and others, as their parents remain inside. Cars of all makes and models pull in and out of the circular driveway, and there’s a lightness to the atmosphere as residents greet each other with a smile, a big laugh, and a fair amount of teasing.
People pop into the Action for Neighbourhood Change office after work, to check up on projects and find out what’s new in the neighbourhood. The latest topic was the community garden.
Over the weekend a large number of residents came out to the green space behind the buildings, granted to the ANC by the condo board, to plant fruit trees. Families adopted one or two trees each, and will water and watch over them for the next few years. It gives them access to green space and fresh food.
Lotherton, surrounded by factories and houses, sits in the centre of a food desert — an area without handy supermarkets. Residents must walk half-an-hour either east or west to get to a grocery store. There’s a Metro one kilometre west, and a Fortinos a little further, to the east. Both are upmarket stores with glossy fruit piled high in neat pyramids — far from affordable for someone on a tight budget.
The area’s community gardens — which include the fruit trees — are “amazing,” but “they don’t provide enough food for the entire community,” said Tara Bootan, who works at the ANC on Lotherton Pathway.
Access to food, transit and basic resources like a community centre are common challenges for people who live here. Everyone knows the timing of the GO trains, because some cross the tracks on foot to reach a nearby plaza on Keele St. The short cut is dangerous, but cuts off half an hour of walking, so even the seniors and mothers with baby carriages do it.
The community faces challenges beyond the poverty that made it eligible for attention from United Way. The revitalization coming to the area’s Toronto community housing will not affect the peeling paint and rusting balconies in the mostly privately owned homes in the neighbourhood.
Yet aesthetics are not top of mind for those involved with the ANC; building a strong sustainable community that is able to attend to its own needs is the priority. Ali helped start an informal residents association that plans the direction of the neighbourhood and programs. He hopes to make the effort permanent, and says the Action for Neighbourhood Change initiative has helped develop the capacity, among community members, to do that through grant applications and encouraging community involvement.
“So (that) when the ANC is gone, residents are able to continue to do these things, like apply for grants and (get) out into the community,” said Bootan.
This has already begun to happen.
Every summer since 2007 residents have put on a festival in the park between the buildings. There’s a barbecue and games, and people come to hang out. The next project on the Lotherton agenda is an initiative to refurbish the basketball court, with its uneven pavement, drooping net, and torn fencing. The residents now use it as a makeshift cricket pitch. On this evening, a faded yellow wooden paddle sits abandoned in the centre of the court, in the dark. But around the sad-looking space are people laughing, enjoying their community, and trying to fix what isn’t working.
“Overall it’s a place where our residents take pride in living here and in fact are able to contribute to that,” explained Bootan.
Story by Chantaie Allick, Staff Reporter. Published October 14, 2011; courtesy of The Toronto Star.