This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2021

The gentrification of Scarberia

This is Scarborough and it isn't yours to own

Renee Ashley


“You’re from Scarborough!?”

Scarborough rolled off his tongue like a bitter taste he was trying to get rid of, almost as soon as the word left his mouth. This is one of my first memories of someone’s reaction to where I lived. It sounded heavy with the weight of negative stereotypes. I didn’t know I should’ve hated living here until someone told me to. When I moved to Canada almost a decade ago, I knew nothing about my soon-to-be neighbourhood. But as the day disappeared in the rearview mirror and we drove further down the highway towards our apartment, I noticed how the sparkly downtown Toronto skyline slowly transformed into Scarborough’s brown mid- and low-rise apartment buildings. Initially, the sparkle wasn’t alluring. But slowly, I started seeing Scarborough through the eyes of others, both the media and Torontonians’ perspectives. To some (like wealthy, white people) it was a dangerous crime-ridden wasteland, home to mainly BIPOC folks who lived in Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) buildings. I started internalizing the negative messaging about my community. But with the 10-year anniversary of my move to Scarborough approaching, I’ve done years of internal work to examine the racist, classist, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant notions that altered my perception over time.

Scarborough is located in the east end of Toronto, home to over 600,000 people as of 2016, people from places such as the Caribbean, the Philippines, Africa, China, and South Asia. Before Scarborough became part of the City of Toronto in 1998, it was its own municipality. Advocates such as the Free Scarborough movement have argued that its amalgamation into the “megacity” hasn’t improved life for local residents. Over the last decade, I’ve slowly seen a shift in portrayals of the neighbourhood.

Mornelle Court is a small, vibrant community in Scarborough, spanning seven apartment buildings—two of which are owned by TCHC. I lived and attended school in the area. Words like “dangerous” and “crime” were often thrown around when people spoke about the neighbourhood. Curious about where the community’s reputation came from, I found a string of mid- to late-2000s news stories focusing on its history of gun violence. A connection is often made between TCHC buildings and crime without recognizing the ways a historically underfunded housing system and lack of resources, including access to non-precarious work in Scarborough, reinforces this cyclical relationship. Poverty is criminalized. The Toronto Public Service’s 2020 data shows Scarborough is no more likely to have crime than other parts of the city. But the stereotypes say otherwise. Despite these negative portrayals, people have been actively working on taking back the community by creating initiatives like homework clubs and after-school programs for children to reclaim the narrative.

Last year, I noticed a sign during one of my neighbourhood walks. “Condo luxury without the commitment,” read the tagline for a newly painted and remodelled building in Mornelle Court, owned by MetCap, a management company that has gained a reputation for their ill treatment of tenants. The juxtaposition of 110 Mornelle Court, one of the TCHC buildings undergoing external and structural repairs, being a few steps away from the newly rebranded “condo luxury” building was laughable and insulting. The developers were cashing in on the labour of community leaders to reclaim the neighbourhood, using it as an opportunity to reinvent their apartment building. Despite the freshly painted exteriors and shiny new glass buildings in the neighbourhood, these changes haven’t improved the quality of life for existing residents. Attempts to usher in new wealthy, white residents with promises of luxury and affordability do nothing to address the longstanding issues Scarborough residents face. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Scarborough is facing its own pandemic with a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 24 percent in April 2021, one of the highest in Ontario, as well as vaccine shortages. The new mirrored apartment buildings will only continue to act as reflectors for the community’s issues.

Witnessing “Scarberia,” or “Scarlem,” undergo a rebranding by developers to become The Borough, appealing to middle-class white people seeking luxurious amenities—is infuriating. “This is Scarborough and it’s Yours to Own,” reads the sign of another new development at Lawrence Avenue and Birchmount Road. East Scarborough has the highest concentration of social housing buildings in Ontario. Residents have poor mobility because of transit deserts. In addition, Scarborough has one of the highest rates of working poor people in Toronto. Homeownership is not accessible for them in this space where they’ve been historically marginalized.

I’ve heard “beautification” and “revitalization” thrown around, which just feels like veiled or coded language. Call it what it is: gentrification. It means creating space for privileged white people to “discover” the value of a neighbourhood I loved before it was trendy or cool. Revitalization is code for gentrification because it never involves the residents who live there. It means fixing up the space, so it meets the standards of new, often white, residents.

Malvern is a northeast Scarborough neighbourhood that is often misrepresented as a crime hotspot, while community members struggle to receive more City of Toronto funding to support the area. Reading articles describing Malvern as a “cultural hotspot”—as one in NOW Magazine did, because the proposed Scarborough LRT (a light rail train that will connect communities in Scarborough to Toronto’s downtown core) will stop there, is baffling. Is this the same Malvern that only a couple of years ago was ranked in the top 10 most dangerous neighbourhoods in the city?

The first year Nuit Blanche, an all-night art festival with installations across the city, came to Scarborough, I overheard a few white people on the Scarborough RT talking about it being their first time in the area. They were “shocked” and “surprised” that the expansive wasteland they thought extended after Kennedy Station was in fact a vibrant and fruitful community. They treated Scarborough like an exotic vacation spot that they “discovered,” or a hidden gem they were uncovering. They ignored how decades before their arrival, Scarborough and its racialized communities deemed it worthy.

There’s an abundance of greenery, like Rouge Park, and beauty beyond the limited possibilities developers see here. Every time I walk into Aunt Elsie’s Caribbean Kitchen, the owners always have a kind word while I check out my box of patties and coco bread.

The cooks at Food Kulture Bistro know my family’s usual Friday night order. The grocery clerks at Food Basics are well acquainted with my shopping habits, often commenting when I’ve gotten a good deal on my produce. This is more than a place to live—I’ve been adopted into a community of people who hold me up. And the more white gentrifiers have access to my safe space, the less safe it feels for me.

Living in Scarborough has truly made me a better person, and I am deeply protective of it. I’ve always loved how I could hear and see home in the faces of people in my neighbourhood. No one did a double take when they heard my accent, or asked me to say certain words like a parrot for their entertainment. It was a place I could just be. I didn’t have to perform my Jamaican identity for anyone. It isn’t uncommon to meet people who are familiar with my hometown in Jamaica, rather than introduced to it through appropriation. In my neighbourhood, there is this unspoken bond where I am my neighbours’ keepers, and they are mine. We are bound by so much more than our postal codes. People whose names I don’t even know look out for me. It is a place I’d like to continue to call home, but with the looming threat of increased rent and invitations extended to outsiders, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to take up space here. Outside of Jamaica, Scarborough is the only place I’ve called home because the community here claimed me. Not because I tried to possess it. Scarborough is not yours to own, gentrifiers.

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