The wide expanses and lack of familiar landmarks often disorient me: I’m here often but I’m not from here. I wait, only to unintentionally hop on a bus going the wrong way and by the time I realize this I am somewhere else, somewhere I’ve not been before.
This is Scarborough: a place where the only ‘pop-ups’ are churches in strip malls, appearing only to disappear weeks or months later. A place where coconut husks lay abandoned, cracked open and left to rot in the corner of parking lots. Where the used car lot sits beside the mosque which is beside the Jamaican patty place, which is next to the halal pizza joint, which is across from the nail salon, which is down the street from the Filipino grocer, which is kitty corner to the ‘Cash for Gold’ exchange. Here, unassuming strip malls stripe their ways down concrete avenues bright with the signs that help you differentiate this from that.
It’s where ravines and rivers and forests meet up with the thick cut grassy swaths of the hydro corridors and golf courses. Everything is bigger in Scarborough.
Everything is spread out and most people have to drive to each of their destinations, or you are stuck walking until your feet are sore, or waiting exorbitantly long times for transit that is always overcrowded when it gets there. All the while, you bake in the heat emanating off the concrete. Or marinate in the slush and salt of winter until the chill works its way from the holes in your boots up to your chest.
Here, Drake shimmies from the tinny speakers in the grocery stores while you browse for whole jackfruit or cassava or beef livers. Here, grocery stores carry six varieties of freekeh all imported from the Middle East, a dozen varieties of olives all from different countries, and any ingredient necessary to cook that favorite dish from home can be found. Here, within one city block I can sit down to eat Sudanese, Vietnamese, Trinidadian, or Lebanese.
It gets called a wasteland, a ghetto, Scarberia, crime riddled, dangerous. But most of the people who preach these things as truths they heard on the news, rarely (or ever) step a foot east of Victoria Park. I Google ‘Scarborough’ and the top news stories today involve the police and violence, two things that often go hand in hand in various ways here. ‘Knife attack’, ‘caught in violence’, ‘traumatized’ the headlines tell us.
Walking down cracked sidewalks, I pass a man walking to mosque; a birthday celebration of young people in saris and bright, holiday clothes who are laughing and snapping selfies; and school kids bantering loudly on the way to the corner store. I pass the auntie gardening in the space where a front lawn often exists, where row after row of post-war brick bungalows meet-up with brusque, brutalist apartment blocks. I pass old folks sitting on the porches, silently smoking, to escape the heat of the summer night.
At City Hall, Scarborough is often neglected until it is time to pander to them in hopes they’ll support the “populist” right-wing agenda that is so often peddled in Toronto. More buses, fewer taxes, cheaper beer they say. Social service cuts, fewer full time jobs, increased hydro bills they mean. Subway lines are promised and never built. But Scarborough goes on, much the same as it ever did, fighting for the ‘better’ they deserve but are rarely accorded.
This is where the university students I’ve taught are passionate about football, Black liberation, representation in the media, and getting jobs that value them and their skills. This is where they bus themselves downtown to join protests against police violence, precarious labor, and ongoing Israeli apartheid in Palestine. This is where the Bengali man who has the garden space next to mine in the community garden, shares his red amaranth with me and tells me how to cook it, as well as how to grow better tomatoes. This is where friends from Mexico hold BBQs in their backyard, cooking and debating the dishes they recreated from home, drinking cheap beers late into the night.
Scarborough is one of the most diverse places in the world, a place where many new immigrants to Canada find themselves creating a second or third or fourth home in. For some, they find this diversity and movement ‘dizzying’ and even ‘dangerous’. Some campaign to erase the diversity in favor of ‘commonality’ or ‘integration’, disavowing the strengths of difference for paper-thin myths of ‘shared values’.
For others, Scarborough inspires. They want to “tell that bigger story of life and vitality that you don’t always see in headlines.” These are the writers who bring Scarborough to life. They love Scarborough and the experience of eating Jamaican patties or Filipino lechón in Warden Station, always on the move. They know, here in Scarborough, there are “real people cooking real food from a certain place and time… This is where the Tamil cooks and Filipino nannies live and eat.” Scarborough always keeps it real.
I get off of the bus, look around and spot, tucked into a strip mall, a bright sign advertising Somali food. I don’t know that I’ve ever had Somali food before. I check my watch, realize I’ve got the time, and walk in for some lunch.