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Urban Experience

Lost in Scarberia

Can a former municipality find the path to respect?

By Stefan Dubowski

It’s easy to get lost in Scarborough. The suburban streets in this, Toronto’s eastern-most former municipality -- amalgamated alongside five others in 1998 to become part of Hogtown -- snake, turn and twist. They can leave people new to the urb thoroughly befuddled as to their location.

Take Mandarin Road, for instance, east off Brimley Road running north of Kingston Road. It goes straight for a few hundred metres before terminating at Willamere Drive. Turn left at Willamere. It ends at Fermoy Road. Turn right on Fermoy – the only option. Fermoy meets the other end of Willamere, and stops at St. Clair Avenue East.

By the end of this trip the driver may well wonder which way is up.

The route is frustrating, but it’s also an apt metaphor for Scarborough itself. The place seems lost, at odds with the image its residents want to project, and the image often portrayed of a suburban wasteland littered with same-faced houses, a cultureless society of people who just don’t care, and a backwards town where children break windows for fun. People call Scarborough “Scarberia.”

But a group of residents are out to set the record straight – to present the area as culturally vibrant, as a town people can believe in. They converged for the first “Scarborough Summit” in September to lay out the problems and present solutions to unveil the true nature of their home.

“I am sure we are all proud to live in Scarborough,” said Alimamy Bangura of the Muslim Educational Network. He was one of the Summit’s speakers. “But there are also things we have to talk about to make Scarborough better.”

Scarborough’s problems range wide. Young representatives of the East Scarborough Storefront – a reference centre for people seeking community services – said the locality lacks support for low-income families and misses out on funding for road maintenance. People think of Scarborough as a place for “crimes, gangs, guns and shootings,” Priya Khemchandra said.

Likwa Nkala, representing East Metro Youth Services, said Toronto’s television stations and newspapers are partly to blame. He was at Vibrations, an afternoon event in August that attracted 2,000 youngsters for hip-hop dancing and a basketball tournament. Despite being invited, the media didn’t show.

Vibrations went smoothly, Nkala said, until a handful of teenagers, maybe 20, “caused a ruckus” in neighbouring Scarborough Town Centre mall at the end of the day. That’s when the media appeared.

“Nobody came to cover the event,” Nkala said. “But on the news every five minutes, I’m seeing the mall had to be closed.”

Other Scarborough problems include a lack of affordable housing, accessibility issues for community centres – they’re too expensive for local groups to rent – and lack of control. Bill Guthrie, vice-president of Toronto Civic Employees’ Union, Local 416, said Scarborough used to have its own economic development department to attract businesses. After amalgamation “we don’t have that anymore.” Instead Scarborough competes with the likes of East York and Etobicoke for attention from Toronto’s development arm.

What to do? The Summit’s participants came up with suggestions.

· Scarborough should take a more hands-on role in encouraging housing for low-income families.

· It should press higher levels of government to allow people with foreign credentials, such as doctors, to work here.

· The area should impose strict rules governing the appearance of shops and storefronts.

· It should encourage expanding public transportation.

· It should hold more events like the Summit, so people can take part in the debate surrounding the urb’s potential.

· It should create a Scarborough Youth Council, so youngsters can get involved in the process. “To make sure we are heard, we have to make sure we are at least seen,” said Patrick Tobias, one of the Summit’s teenaged participants.

People also seemed to agree it’s time for Scarborough to celebrate its accomplishments. Here’s an area of Toronto rich in cultural diversity. Alimamy said Scarborough is home to people from Guyana, Bangladesh, the Caribbean and countless other places.

And despite the high cost of access, Scarborough has many community centres where neighbours can meet and take advantage exercise programs, debating societies, et cetera.

Margaret Hefferon of The Caring Alliance said Habitat For Humanity built a number of units in Scarborough to give low-income families places to live. She said another development on Sewells Road represents the first example of socially-funded housing in the area for years.

As for spreading the gospel of Scarborough’s good points and goals, Sean Meagher, a representative of Public Interest – an advocacy group -- suggested putting together a report that outlines the Summit’s recommendations, and sending it to municipal, provincial and federal politicians.

Despite some concern that the politicos might simply ignore the report, many of the Summit’s participants seemed to agree it’s a primary step to straightening the curves on Scarborough’s path to respect. “If we are silent, our councillors, our MPs and our MPPs assume we do not care,” Hefferon said.