One of several barber shops on the Mount Dennis stretch of Weston Road.
If Toronto, the Greater, is a universe unto itself, then beyond the countless points of light and rapturous, flash-lit starlet nights, there must be, too, some dark matters: specifically, the unchecked growth of neglected living spaces across our metropolis.
Neighbourhood decline begins in small, untended degrees—there is no official process in high orbit to monitor the integrity of Toronto’s interlocking social fabrics. In a rhythm typical of large North American cities, our councillors grind away in the direction of lobbyist spin or on their own personal axes. And the mayor, as super-councillor, has his own agendas that may or may not coincide with individual community needs.
So, unremarkably, over time our city has devolved in some important dimensions: the number of high-poverty neighbourhoods has quadrupled; ghettoization has more than doubled in the last twenty years, with only 56% of Toronto’s poor families living in mixed-income neighbourhoods, down from 83%; the family poverty rate has increased nearly 50% in the last twenty years, to almost one in five; the neighborhood income gap is increasing with the average family income in the bottom 10% of neighbourhoods actually declining about 5.5% between 1981 and 2001, while families in the top 10% saw an average increase of 59%.
This disturbing set of trends began to be addressed in earnest in 2002, at the first Toronto City Summit, a privately funded conference of civic leaders representing the city’s diverse communities. Their mission was to begin an assessment of the region’s strengths and challenges and to establish a framework for action for the next five to ten years. At the following year’s summit, they delivered a report, Enough Talk: An Action Plan for the Toronto Region [PDF], which provided the basic blueprint for the Strong Neighbourhoods Task Force [PDF], formed in 2004. The report from the task force—a key member of which was the United Way of Toronto, led by Frances Lankin (it’s their research above)—identified thirteen at-risk “investment neighbourhoods,” the ones that fared worst against several indicators of vitality. These are neighbourhoods where community services and facilities have not kept pace with demographic changes. Expect to find a high density of newcomers and youth; a lack of community centres and minimal access to public spaces; and significant economic, educational, and health challenges.
It is more than a matter of altruism to focus on investing in the neighbourhoods. Even if you live outside the thirteen neighbourhoods, there are economic reasons for enlightened self-interest. According to the United Way and Canadian Council on Social Development:
Why worry about poor neighbourhoods?…We are concerned about the profound human cost of poverty on individuals and families who struggle not only to survive, but to participate fully as citizens…Neighbourhood poverty has a devastating human cost and also damages the economic and social vitality of an entire region, affecting the quality of life for everyone in Toronto.
TD Bank’s report, The Greater Toronto Area (GTA): Canada’s Primary Economic Locomotive in Need of Repairs, also identified persistent “deep pools of poverty” as one of the five major impediments that threaten the longer-term economic performance and quality of life in the GTA.
Children study on a quiet street in the Mount Dennis neighbourhood.
One such forgotten neighbourhood is Mount Dennis, which Torontoist toured several times over a period of several months. Located in what’s called an “inner suburb,” Mount Dennis came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. It is located on the west side of town in what was known in pre-megacity times as York. Its border has an irregular shape, with the northern boundary starting a few hundred metres south of Denison Road, running between the Humber River on the west and the CN tracks on the east side. The Humber River defines the western limit down to Eglinton Avenue, then extends down Jane Street, just south enough to encompass the southern end of Gladhurst Park (Lambton Road). The CN tracks form the eastern border, just east of and parallel to Weston Road; the main artery of the neighbourhood.
Mount Dennis was mainly rural until Kodak Canada moved its factory complex there during World War I. For decades, that plant served as the backbone of industry in the area, and the affordable housing that sprung up around it helped attract a high percentage of Toronto’s newcomers. It soon became a high-density neighbourhood and today boasts a significant concentration of immigrants from around the world, including the Caribbean, Africa, Portugal, Italy, Korea, and Vietnam.
In the last twenty years, though, a number of large manufacturers uprooted, taking their employment and opportunities for skills training with them. Emblematic of these was Kodak, which finally left in 2005, leaving thousands unemployed. The factory space remains unused. On the other end of the scale, starting in the 1990s, a number of big-box stores landed in the neighbouring vicinities (Weston, in particular), eventually squeezing out scores of long-standing small businesses.
A pleasant curiosity about Mount Dennis is that for all its issues around unemployment and idle, alienated youth, crime is relatively low. And this was a fact well before the implementation of TAVIS. The low rate is partly attributed to the area being something of an isolated pocket, with a market too desolate to support even a drug market.
Top: A woman walks by Tipper Restaurant on Weston Road. Bottom: Tipper, owner of Tipper Restaurant, sits in front of a wall of photos inside.
Early and often, the man called Tipper cracks wide a genuine smile. He bears a contagiously easy, unflappable demeanour. In some twenty-odd years as proprietor of his well-known neighbourhood Caribbean-Canadian take-out restaurant, he’s seen them come and go. Too much has been going for too long.
“When I first came here in 1987,” he says, “it was a strong community then. There used to be a lot of older immigrants, and it used to be a busy business community. But all my old lunch crowd is gone now.”
The rangy sixty-one-year-old proceeds to list a string of substantial companies that have deserted the area for more favourably taxed places like Brampton, Milton, Pickering, Mississauga, Ajax, and even Barrie. It is close to two full minutes of listing before his first pause. While business isn’t what it used to be, he’s not considering a move like so many others before—it would simply cost him too much to restart his small niche business elsewhere. A well-regarded professional cook (he’s developed recipes for the Heart and Stroke Foundation), Tipper is hoping to ease into consulting and perhaps write a cookbook.
Mount Dennis, though, is not stagnant; it’s in transition, slowly awakening and asserting itself. Cutty Duncan, project coordinator for the Mount Dennis branch of Action For Neighbourhood Change (a United Way–funded agency) is spearheading a resident-engagement strategy. Residents are learning to empower themselves and how to voice their concerns to local representatives for the changes they need. “People are being mobilized to understand processes and the agencies available to them,” says Duncan. “It’s about relevant programming for the people, by the people. They know best which supports and infrastructures are missing from their lives.”
Guido Vit and son David apply stucco to a building on Weston Road. Many facades in the area are being resurfaced this way as part of beautification initiatives.
Some longtime residents remain skeptical that real, long-term, sustainable change will come. The infamous 1995 extension of the Eglinton subway line west through Mount Dennis was on the verge of stimulating a powerful revitalization when the project was suddenly cancelled, its tunnels re-filled. Commercial land development and spin-off projects that began on the assumption of the grand project’s completion all came to an indefinite halt. Local cynics have yet to shake the more passive show-me attitude they acquired after that deflating experience.
There are, however, glimpses of brighter days ahead. A three million dollar investment by the McGuinty government, in partnership with the United Way and York Community Services, is supporting construction of a brand new community hub, offering a full range of relevant programs, including family, youth, and settlement services, as well as an employment resource centre. A new community health centre will also be installed at the site (with an estimated arrival date of January, 2010). It’s the right kind of motion, momentum waxing as inertia begins to wane.
All photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.