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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Scarborough coming together

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The threat of rain notwithstanding, Nayla Rahman is all aglow — and not just because she is dressed in lavender from her headscarf to her toes. Her warm cherubic face beams as she waves hello to people who have come to enjoy the second annual Scarborough Village summer festival, which will draw nearly 3,000 people over the course of the day. As a member of the newly formed Scarborough Village Neighbourhood Association (SVNA), Rahman was one of many volunteers who helped plan the day's events, which included a barbeque, musical performances, children's activities, and, perhaps most importantly, the opportunity for the neighbourhood's diverse residents to get to know one another.

When Rahman and her family first moved here from Bangladesh via Saudi Arabia over five years ago, festivals like this were few and far between in Scarborough Village. One of Toronto's oft-repeated mottos may be "Diversity Our Strength," but here — in what is known as one of the city's "immigration gateway communities," where newcomers make up over 50 percent of the population, over 26 languages are spoken, and many of the families and individuals who make this their first home in Canada don't stay long — forging relationships among neighbours has been a challenge.

A scarcity of services and unfortunate urban design hasn't helped matters. When Rahman, her husband, and their three children first arrived, the neighbourhood's sole community centre catered only to seniors; there was no library, and there were few social service providers offering support such as subsidized daycare, English as a Second Language classes, or settlement aid. The neighbourhood, which centres around Markham Road and a bustling Eglinton Avenue East, favours cars over feet. Single-family homes fan out from clusters of high rises that are home to approximately 18,000 people. Local shopping consists of the strip malls and big-box stores lining the parking lots west of Markham Road.

"When I came here, I thought I was coming to a G8 country, but I saw a gap," Rahman says. "I found a real lack of integration." Together with others in her community, Rahman is working to change this as a member of Scarborough Village's new neighbourhood association. Now in its third year, the SVNA, with support from the United Way through its Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC) program, has worked to bring together a variety of people within the community, including disconnected social service organizations. Creating social clubs and a youth council, seeking out new spaces to meet, and securing funding to do things like build a new playground, install park benches, and buy cricket equipment, has brought the community together in ways that were not possible before. The result: people can more easily discuss the changes they'd like to see in their neighbourhood, resources are more easily shared, and a unified voice has begun to form that will be more difficult for those at City Hall and Queen's Park to ignore.

"[The SVNA] is a very important organization in the neighbourhood in terms of representing residents," explains Wosen Beyene, who, as ANC's manager for Scarborough Village, works with the people in the community, such as Rahman, to help assess needs and obtain funding for new projects. "The role of the ANC is to support [the community]," says Beyene. "The residents own the process."

ANC was first launched as a pilot project in Scarborough Village in the summer of 2005. Its success here led to similar initiatives being started in four other Toronto neighbourhoods a year later (see Mount Dennis article, page 43). The goal is to launch citizen-driven projects in each of the city's 13 priority neighbourhoods — those that the United Way's Strong Neighbourhood Task Force identified as facing the greatest need across the city — all of which exist in Toronto's inner suburbs.

It's easy to point out the differences between Scarborough Village and other neighbourhoods in Toronto when it comes to community organizing. Take, for example, the media-savvy West Queen West neighbourhood, which started its own neighbourhood association, Active 18, the same year ANC helped get the SVNA underway. When residents in this neck of the woods decided to hold their first community meeting to discuss a slew of new developments planned for their area, finding space wasn't an issue: Christina Zeidler, owner of the Gladstone Hotel, volunteered the well-known building's Ball Room. The meeting's attendees included vocal former mayor John Sewell, CBC radio personality Jane Farrow, popular local MC Misha Glouberman (host of Trampoline Hall and other popular downtown events), as well as lawyers, artists, socialites, and business owners — people who local councillor Adam Giambrone would have a hard time ignoring.

In Scarborough Village, the equivalent of the Gladstone Hotel might be the local Tim Hortons at the corner of Markham Road and Eglinton. It has provided a place for people to sit, talk, and mingle, something that was lacking before, Nayla says. "Sometimes we have our meetings there." Unlike many downtown neighbourhoods, Scarborough Village is characterized by a large proportion of recent immigrants. "We're a receiver community," explains Melinda Rooke, one of SVNA's core volunteers, who owns and manages the plaza where ANC's office is located. "Newcomers come here, but they don't stay. We want to make it a place you want to stay instead of moving somewhere else."

Mike McKenzie, SVNA's interim chair, prefers to point out the similarities between his neighbourhood and some of Toronto's better-known communities. "With neighbourhoods like this, there's the sort of perception that folks don't want the same thing as Rosedale," he says. "This is untrue. They want the same thing. It's just that they don't know how to go about it. They haven't really learned the techniques yet."

Nearly a year after Scarborough Village's second summer festival, on one of the first warm days of spring, Raham and McKenzie, an immigrant from Jamaica who has lived in the community for 22 years, take me on a tour of the neighbourhood. Passionate and candid, McKenzie, who lives in one of the apartment buildings that overlook Scarborough Village Park, speaks with the same sense of entitlement you'd expect from a homeowner in the Annex.

"We don't get the same priority," he insists. "I'm not going to say the City doesn't care, but let's put it this way: if you vote and you turn up at the polls, if you have better education and you speak better and everything else, you get more attention. I'm very familiar with Yonge and Eglinton, so I call up City councillors and say, 'You know, this is Eglinton as well, so if you're going to do something at Yonge and Eglinton, why aren't you doing it where Eglinton ends?'"

One of the many things that both Rahman and McKenzie would like to see improved is an alley owned and managed by the apartment building complex behind the well-used plaza west of the Tim Hortons. McKenzie points out the large potholes that women with strollers must navigate in order to circumvent the fence dividing the commercial strip from the towers that house many of the people who frequent it. Rather than walk all the way down the alley and around the fence, residents have cut a hole in the chain link barrier to create a more direct route.

"There's a lot of short cuts because, you know, a lot of immigrants are working and they don't have a car," Rahman explains. "When the city councillor [Brian Ashton] first came, he said he wanted to close [the hole] because it's ugly, but all the women said, 'No, no!'"

"You close this and you kill business," McKenzie insists.

The two say they would like to see an official walkway connect the two properties — one that is shoveled and de-iced during the winter. Although it's a seemingly simple request, and one that would make a big difference to nearby residents, the difficulty lies in the fact that both pieces of property are privately owned.

One of the most positive changes that has come since the founding of the SVNA is the creation of new social clubs. Rahman proudly organizes the Bengali social club, while McKenzie provides martial arts classes for kids. Both, however, are up against one of the biggest needs in the neighbourhood: the need for community space.

"There's a permit process [to use the local school], but [the school's caretakers] are unionized," says Rahman. "After 4:00 we can not use it, and before 4:00 people work. It's a cold country; you cannot [gather] on the pavement."

For McKenzie, finding space, especially for children's programs, is fundamental. "The kids don't have the same issues with the differences," he explains, referring to the ethnic mix of the students who take his martial arts class. "That class is working to build relationships. As for the adults, the lines are drawn in this neighbourhood. I've seen what Toronto is going to be like in the future. The lines are drawn. This utopia of multiculturalism, no, that's not what it is. The kids are different, but that's our problem, we have no space for programs."

Rahman and McKenzie, however, are proof that things can be different. "When I met Nayla, instantly, I gravitated to her way of thinking," McKenzie says. "She has the passion; she really has the passion for the community, you know? Energy."

And underlying all the talk of the challenges that face their community is the belief that they can make a difference.

"In my vision, a two-year-old child now, in another 20 years, should be at a point in his or her life where they can make some better choices. What we're seeing is a pattern where one generation just replaces another generation with education issues, drug issues, dealing issues because no one has really planted a seed to say in another 20 years time there's going to be a transformation," says McKenzie. "And that's what we're trying to do in Scarborough Village."

Dale Duncan was the managing and executive editor of Spacing from 2003 to summer 2008