Little mosque in the basement
Khadem is the heart of Regent Park's Muslim community. But the heart may be cut out permanently, once the buildings come down
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 21, 2009
Dozens of men gather outside of their Regent Park mosque to chat and smoke cigarettes, while four boys toss a pinecone around on a lawn nearby. Most of them sport traditional Muslim dress: Tunics peek out from under their coats and Muslim skullcaps, or topis, sit atop their heads. A construction crane looms over nearby red-brick apartment buildings and you can hear the steady clang of metal from the site where Regent Park is being reborn.
The Khadem mosque is the heart of Regent Park's Muslim community. It is housed free of charge in the basement of a residential complex at 260 Sumach St., which will be demolished in five years. There are no provisions for free space in the remade Regent Park and the Khadem group is starting to talk about how they will survive redevelopment. For its 350 members, the loss of the centre would be a major blow.
More than 2,000 families are being uprooted while their social housing in Regent Park is being demolished in six phases and replaced with new buildings, erected alongside units that will sell at market value. The 380 families that moved out in phase one are gearing up to come back starting in May, almost three years after they first left home.
According to Martin Blake, vice-president of private developer Daniels Corp., the project is expected to be completed around 2021. As the revitalization project crawls forward, members of the Khadem community are starting to think about how they can be integrated into the new Regent Park.
Lancefield Morgan, a Toronto Community Housing Corp. revitalization consultant on the Regent Park project, says the TCHC is committed to social good: Because it owns the land, it is in a position to protect key organizations, he says.
But he points out that it is tough to negotiate with tenant organizations "that lack some of the structure pieces that we could form formal partnerships with." In reference to Khadem, Mr. Morgan says, "They're not an agency, they're not a service provider, they're not accountable for themselves [and] they lack the level of professionalism [of some other groups]. There is no board of directors."
The Khadem community centre is headed by an advisory committee of nine elected members who are voted in every three years. Last month, the board was dissolved and an election for new representatives will take place in early summer, says Khadem's prayer leader, Abdul Mohammed, who currently oversees the functioning of the mosque.
Members of the Khadem centre remain skeptical that they will get help from TCHC. For them, the five-year-old centre is not simply a place to pray. On weekends, more than 60 children come to the centre to learn English, Arabic, math and computer skills or to be mentored by university-aged Muslims about being a good Muslim and getting a good education. "When somebody comes for a prayer, they exchange views, happiness, sorrow. This is a social meeting place as well," says one member, Azizur Rahman.
"It is completely unknown what will happen. I don't think we will be able to get a space."
The existing facility is 3,500 square feet and is divided into several rooms for teaching, praying or doing office work. The low ceilings are lined with exposed pipes. When the group took over the space four years ago, they replaced the garbage that covered the floors with carpeting and painted the walls bright green, purple and blue. There are two prayer rooms for men and one for women, large enough to pack in the hundreds of Muslims that flock to the centre on Friday afternoons to pray.
Mr. Morgan says that TCHC is working with all community agencies to find a replacement space. But it will be tough to find a spot for groups housed for free, he says, and encourages these organizations to consider paying rent. "If you have the ability to raise funds within the community, you should start doing that now," he says. "It's going to be unlikely to see general-purpose space just given away for free."
There will be no "unfinished or unused" basements in the new buildings, says Mr. Morgan. But there will be rooms in each building that can be rented for a fee. The money will be used for community activities.
Renting could be difficult for the Khadem community. "People living in this [area] are low-income and can't afford to buy space," says member Shahan Ahia.
Mr. Mohammed says that about 90 per cent of the Khadem community are Bengali immigrants who make money as taxi drivers, restaurant cooks or school-bus drivers.
Liz Root, the project director of revitalization, says the average income of Regent Park residents is $15,000.
So far, four of 12 groups, including Regent Park Focus, have been guaranteed a spot in the redeveloped neighbourhood. Like the Khadem centre, the agency is tucked away in a basement of an apartment complex. The program offers television, radio, magazine and photography workshops after school for Regent Park's youth.
The director of Focus, Adonis Huggins, says they will move into a new community centre that will be built at 30 Regent St. Focus pays $5,000 annually for rent, but he says the cost will go up, although he does not know by how much. "We don't expect it to be something we cannot manage," he says.
Mr. Huggins is sympathetic to the residents who feel that razing the neighbourhood causes community erosion. "A lot of people would rather it stay the same because of their [social] networks," he says. "Definitely that sense of loss is present."
Mitchell Kosny, director of urban and regional planning at Ryerson University, said that change is inevitable. "Organizational networks, family networks - when you put them back, are they going to be exactly the same? No," he says. "But you have to work with them so when they go back everything can be as close to before as possible."
Ms. Root says the TCHC will continue to work with grassroots organizations to help them find ways to survive. "We think they're important," she says. "We will find a space for them and look for ways to bolster funding."
Meanwhile, members of Khadem, such as Mohammad Hoque, fret about their future. It remains "a very big question mark," he says.