Urban Inversion

The latest wrinkle in Toronto’s city building cycle is how our vaunted diversity has been on the move

August 10, 2008

Staff Reporter

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.

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.

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

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.