The latest wrinkle in Toronto's city building cycle is how our vaunted diversity has been on the move
The Toronto Star
August 10, 2008
Six lanes of Lawrence Ave. stretch eastward from Victoria Park Ave., a broad, cracked ribbon of blacktop unfurling as far as the smog-smudged horizon. The sky is big here, unimposed-upon by the one-and-two-storey strip malls that line Lawrence almost as far as the eye can see. The sidewalks are all but abandoned, oddly incongruous-seeming as Lawrence Ave. rumbles with the thrum of traffic: Cars, trucks, buses.
At first glance, it seems a quiet cruise through a well-worn cliché. The suburbs: bland stretches of white-washed, non-human-scale sameness, made worse, in this case, by the ravages of age. After all, in the '50s, when the suburbs were born, new was the main attraction here: a tranquil refuge from the crumbling, over-stuffed, poverty-laced decrepitude most inner cities – including our own.
To a casual observer, the bloom here would seem long since off the rose. But look closer. Just past Victoria Park, a bright red sign heralds a space occupied by Royal Kerala Foods, in Hindi and English. Arabic lettering dominates the thin strips of signage running along the tops of the squat strip malls: Al Waleed Salon, Al-Quresh Foods, Samara Roasted Nuts. Signs advertising Halal meats – those prepared according to Islamic law – abound. As do Chinese groceries, Caribbean restaurants. There's a Tamil optician. On Markham Road, an array of Afghani options – bakeries, restaurants, a department store – sit across from a Vietnamese superstore.
So much for the sameness. On Lawrence E., a strip-mall cosmopolitanism isn't emerging, it's here: Every storefront is occupied in a dizzying array of difference.
A recent term would describe what's happening here in Scarborough, and in parallel along the broad commercial boulevards of Etobicoke, North York and beyond, as "demographic inversion." More simply put, these are the hallmarks of a city turning itself inside out.
Downtown, here as in many other cities, condos climb higher, Victorians get renovated and restored, real estate rockets ever-upward as the moneyed class recolonizes the core. Meanwhile the inner city of old has relocated to the fringes, as vibrantly multi-ethnic as ever.
A current exhibition at the Design Exchange, curated by Ian Chodikoff, explores the hope and potential for this new suburban reality in some detail (the title, Fringe Benefits, offers some clue as to the spin; it's hopeful, not ambivalent, without being boosterish).
But some find this a worrying circumstance, among them David Hulchanski, the director of the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the Universiry of Toronto. Hulchanski released a much-discussed preliminary report in December, based on 2006 census data, that detailed the rapid growth of the income gap in Toronto. Hulchanski showed that, since 1970, while income had increased significantly in the central city, there were more impoverished areas of the city than ever before – much of it concentrated in those inner suburbs.
More to the point, the central city's role as a reception area for new immigrants was all but over. "Immigrants are confronting an increasingly expensive city," Hulchanski says. "And all they're left with are the parts of the city that nobody else wants."
Hulchanski himself called the results "startling," though allowed that a fuller picture will emerge later this month, when his team gets through the most salient data about income and ethnicity.
Not everyone shares his pessimism. Rafael Gomez is the director and founder of ThinkTank Toronto, a hip iteration of a community group in Scarborough. He grew up there, but left for London in 1999 to do his Ph.D. in economics (he's also a professor of economics at Glendon College at York University). He came back in 2004 to a complete surprise. "I just thought, `this is fantastic,' " Gomez said. "It was truly and authentically multicultural. And it was alive."
In eras past, the "parts of the city nobody else wants" were downtown, where now the threat of an ethnic enclave of whiteness seems to be the most feared consequence. Older neighbourhoods became a haven for layer after layer of immigrant groups, and spawned a diverse interaction, not to mention the broader community we now claim is the most diverse – by the numbers, anyway – in the world.
"The main thing is, we want to be where out families are, where our community is," says Mohammed Amin, an Afghani immigrant who operates the Afghan Market south of Lawrence on Markham Road. It's branded as a Hasty Market, with the sign written in both English and Dari. Inside, a selection of Afghani breads are on display, next to Kellogg's cereals and candy bars. Amin has just rented the next bay in the strip mall, and plans to expand, opening a halal butcher shop.
Writer Pico Iyer, in his book Global Soul, devoted a chapter to Toronto called "The Multiculture"; but the Toronto Iyer idealizes is more likely to be found in Scarborough than the Little Italy of St. Clair W., Greektown on the Danforth, or even Kensington Market, long the city's hub of immigrant reception. Hulchanski's data shows that, in the centre, Toronto's much-vaunted 50-plus per cent visible minority dwindles to 28 per cent in some areas in the core; it spikes to over 70 per cent in some suburbs, like those along Lawrence E.
Along Lawrence just east of Warden sits the Wexford Heights Plaza. It's a relic of its era: a long, low-slung box of conjoined storefronts with a couple of acres of battered asphalt parking pushing it back from the street.
The plaza is both a throwback and a leap forward. Peter Kiriakou's family owns it and an anchor business, the Wexford Restaurant, a diner serving eggs, sandwiches, and burgers (not to mention souvlaki). "Twenty, thirty years ago, you could come to Scarborough and see 30 or 40 Wexford Restaurants," Kiriakou says. "Not anymore."
At Wexford, the commercial mix reflects the shift. At one end, the Al Isra Islamic Superstore, a grand name for a small shop selling middle eastern textiles, clothing and houkas. At the opposite end, SKT Jewellers, a Muslim-focused business that moved in after a bank moved out. Across the street, Uncle Seth's African Caribbean Foods sits next to a hockey store, down the row from Frank's Smoke Shop.
Kiriakou's grandfather came to Canada in 1949, from Greece, and opened the restarant in 1958. He's the third generation to run it. "My parents, they catered to all the Smiths, the Joneses, the Johnsons," says Kiriakou, 44. "Those people are a fraction of the business now. You have to adapt."
Rafael Gomez, the ThinkTankToronto founder, himself grew up in Scarborough in the 1970s, the child of Spanish immigrants, not far from Wexford Plaza. He lived through his neighbourhood's worst moments.
"In the early 90s, a lot of stores around here were closing, infrastructure got creaky," says Gomez. "And then the recession hit, so it was really bottoming out."
Even then, though, in this desolate part of the city that nobody wanted, as Hulchanski would say, there were telltale signs of life. "You'd see a Halal meat store open in one of the vacant storefronts, or a falafel stand," Gomez recalls. "Things were starting to change, but you couldn't really see it." In 1999, he decamped for London and earned his Ph.D. "When I came back (six years later) I just thought `this is really interesting,'" says Gomez. "It wasn't a mono-ethnic community at all. It was so mixed – Somalis mixing with Lebanese mixing with older communities like Italians, mixing with the old Scots that were still around. There was this gap, this transition. And it opened the door for new groups to settle in. It was kind of incredible."
Gomez experienced what he thought impossible – a sudden rush of affection for Scarborough. With this unexpected swell of civic boosterism, He founded ThinkTank Toronto with the modest goal of producing a coffee table book portraying Scarborough's surprisingly rich, multi-ethnic strip malls.
But ThinkTank quickly morphed into a community-based support organization. 54East Studio, in Wexford Plaza, is Gomez's baby – a gallery/drop-in centre that holds concerts, art shows, and exhibitions that draw on the area's current vibrancy.
It's probably fair to say that the current state of Scarborough – "Canada's first suburb" is its somewhat dubious claim to fame in this urban-friendly era – is exactly what it was meant not to be. In the post war-era, suburbs all over North America were designed as an escape from the congestion and decay seen as plaguing central areas of cities all over North America.
There were overtones of race and class in this perceived need for refuge, even in Toronto the Good. The city south of Bloor St. and Danforth Ave. was left to The Other – waves of immigrants, most of them European at the time, who got the city no one else wanted.
They clustered in enclaves: Italians along St. Clair West and on College street, Greeks on the Danforth, the Portuguese in Kensington Market, just as Eastern European Jews, by this time established, were pulling up stakes and moving along their own immigrant corridor, north along Bathurst as far as Lawrence.
Other groups followed suit: Portuguese to Mississauga, Italians to Vaughan, the second generation wanting nothing to do with the city their families landed in by necessity, not choice. "Go to the Danforth, it's not Greek anymore," Kiriakou says. "Thirty years ago, no one in the suburbs in their right mind would set foot in Kensington Market. Now every yuppie in Toronto is there. So things change."
Gomez is sitting on a bench in Dorset Park, where ThinkTank Toronto is holding an outdoor movie night for the locals. Despite a few clouds and the flash of some faraway lightning, the night is forgivingly dry, after a week of rain.
Dorset Park, it should be noted, is in the centre of Hulchanksi's impoverished inner ring. But the families that flood the park this evening hardly appear to be suffering. It is a culture mosaic of storybook proportions: Indian women in Saris, Muslim women in head scarves, a mullet-headed hoser with four fold-out Toronto Maple Leaf chairs; Jamaican and Indian and Arab children taking turns on the slide; all of them waiting to see Back to the Future, an 80s blockbuster starring Michael J. Fox, on an inflatable screen.
"Look around. This is remarkable," says Gomez, as night falls on the park. The joyful squeals of children playing echo all around. "This is not the monoculture, whatever it was designed to be."
Gomez notes that places like Scarborough were designed to keep the organic chaos of the old central city at bay. But just like the old city, decay created the ultimate paradox: a suburb that develops organically, as the city once did. That now may embody the ultimate paradox: suburbs, like Scarborough, that have morphed into the most authentic urban places we now have.
Thanks to Halal Focus for reprinting this article.
The Toronto Star
WIRED Magazine, "Roads Gone Wild" article.