Scarborough neighbourhood’s everything multicultural Toronto thinks it is and ultimately will be

Toronto’s official motto is “Diversity Our Strength.” And nearly every declaration of our world-classness includes some mention of the famous (and untrue, see sidebar) declaration of Toronto as the most multicultural city in the world by the United Nations. Clearly, this is a city obsessed with its own multi-ethnic mosaic and the cosmopolitan credibility it signifies.

Funny thing, though: when theorists and policy geeks attempt to illustrate what makes Toronto great, they skip away from generalizations of immigrant harmony and put the microscope on the Annex as the prototype of Toronto’s village-within-a-megacity genius. Too bad our biggest bragging point isn’t embodied in our most-cited place to brag about. According to the 2001 census, only one in five Annex residents belongs to a visible minority group and nine of the top 10 ethnic groups in the area are European. Nor are our poster ethnic neighbourhoods diverse: Chinatown is monocultural, as are Little India and Corso Italia. The Riverdale/Danforth area is multi-ethnic, but just as ultimately whitebread as the Annex (with a notable Chinese enclave in the middle of it). If you’re looking for a neighbourhood to illustrate diversity, you’ll want to look elsewhere.

And depending on your level of patience with long waits at bus stops, you’ll want to search by car: it’ll take three vehicles and more than an hour to travel by TTC from downtown to Malvern in northeast Scarborough, a neighbourhood we hear little about during discussions of how our city works.

It’s in Scarborough, and in Malvern in particular, that the reality of multicultural Toronto is on display. Have a look at suburban Malvern’s census stats: more than four of five residents is a visible minority, 62 per cent are immigrants, 44 per cent speak a language other than English at home, six of the nine most-represented ethnic groups are non-European and the average family income is only slightly over half of the Annex’s, at $56,046.

These are numbers that bear out our loud and proud claims to diversity. And given the city’s official plan to double its population through immigration over the next 20 years, Malvern could be a valuable place to study our cultural future — the South Asian, Caribbean and Chinese immigrants who make up a large part of Malvern’s population represent the largest-growing areas of Canadian immigration. And it’s Toronto’s future in another way, too: Malvern has the highest population of children and youth in the city.

But Malvern is a long way from City Hall, and neither the champagne socialists currently driving city policy nor the pierced anarchists who fight for the underprivileged nor the suits who lead big-money discussions have much occasion to find themselves in Malvern unless they’re passing through on their way to the zoo with their kids.

The community, located north of Sheppard around Markham Road, holds little appeal to downtown sensibilities. It’s unfriendly to the urban pedestrian, made up of subdivisions that face away from major thoroughfares, dotted with plain-box mid-rise apartment buildings and cleaved in several places by winding strips of single-storey industrial warehouse complexes surrounded by parking lots. It has no nightclubs, no theatres and no restaurants you’ll read about in Toronto Life.

Yet if Malvern is inhospitable, it is that way largely by design. Prior to the 1970s, the community was mostly farmland, until the provincial government expropriated the land to build a model community of affordable homes from scratch. The bungalows at the heart of today’s Malvern were sold off to low-income families in a lottery.

The rap on Malvern recently is that it is gangland, an impression underscored by half a dozen gang-related shootings in the first four months of 2004. But that wave of violence launched a police crackdown that led to 81 arrests of alleged members of the warring Malvern Crew and Galloway Boys. Since then, police report a remarkable decline in violence. One policeman told the Toronto Star this month that Malvern’s is “the biggest improvement I’ve seen in 28 years as an officer.” Weapons offences are down 44 per cent, assaults down 7 per cent, robberies down 20 per cent.

Moreover, the wave of shootings brought out a display of grassroots community action that put the lie to the impression of the neighbourhood as an isolationist wasteland. In March, on the heels of the shootings, over 100 residents showed up at a community barbecue on a rainy day to show solidarity against the gangs. And the city subsequently chipped in to try to address some of the challenges Malvern faces as a low-income neighbourhood that’s had little infrastructure and limited access to public services.

Working with local residents, Mayor Miller has introduced the Community Safety Plan and the Neighbourhood Action plan to help lift the community out of its troubles (St. Jamestown and Jane-Finch are being targeted by similar plans). Already, several youth initiatives have been rolled out that allow Malvern high schoolers to study and report on safety issues in the neighbourhood. The Community Use of Schools project now sees Lester B. Pearson Collegiate at Tapscott Road and Neilson open late for those wanting to play basketball or hang out. In November, a new playground was opened at Tapscott and Sheppard, with funds supplied by then-Raptor Vince Carter. In December, the Scott Westney Youth Resource Centre opened at Tapscott and McLevin Avenue, offering employment assistance to local youth, and just this week an expanded Malvern Library reopened to great fanfare. Encouragingly, the city has made it clear that these are only introductory efforts, and that long-term projects to improve the community’s physical and service infrastructure are in the works.

All of this is in addition to an already impressive community support network centred around a busy, largely volunteer-staffed Family Resource Centre, a well-used recreation centre and several vibrant sports leagues.

In fact, the more one looks beyond the initial impressions of suburban wasteland, the more one can see a community repurposing planning mistakes much the way the residents of Bendale have with strip malls (see “Scarborough Fair,” City, Dec. 16). A swath of drainage-ditch land between backyards in a subdivision east of Markham Road, for instance, has become used as parkland where, in the summer, people play soccer and Frisbee.

Perhaps the best example of the community’s encouragingly urban (or even village) culture is at the mall. Malvern Town Centre is the commercial heart of the neighbourhood, and it declares the community’s working-class nature in its anchor tenants, No Frills at one end and Zellers at the other. But between those two chain stores, there are few businesses in the Centre that are not independently owned. There’s Sam’s Java Café where you expect to see a Second Cup, Rizvi Electronics where you expect a Radio Shack, a place called Riz Shoes competing with Payless. Many more of the businesses reflect Malvern’s cultures: Afro Beauty Supplies, which offers weaves and hair dryers; Rubini West Indian Grocers; Mischief, which sells bootylicious clubwear; and a place called City Fashions where a man in a turban deals in puffy coats and baggy sweatshirts. At a table in the centre of a mall thoroughfare, a psychic tells fortunes.

The food court looks out through an entire windowed wall onto a grove of trees that was apparently planted specifically to provide a view. Sitting there, watching the brown and yellow and black faces of Malvern residents both young and old socializing in the unlikely heart of the neighbourhood, it’s possible to finally see Malvern as belonging to a tradition extending from pre-gentrification Kensington Market and Little Italy, pre-ethnic-themepark Chinatown and Danforth. Malvern is a community of working-class, first-generation immigrants settling into Toronto in an area they can afford. It’s a vibrant community, even if its light is often hidden under a bushel of bad planning. Given our immigration targets, Toronto’s going to be looking more and more like Malvern in the decades to come. We should pay attention.

Originally published in Eye Weekly January 27, 2005.