Scarborough Cannot Be Boxed In

Essay by Shawn Micallef

On Tuesday, June 30, 1959, Queen Elizabeth II, having left Prince Philip downtown to preside over a Canadian Medical Association meeting at the Royal York Hotel, made her way through the city via meandering motorcade, eventually arriving in Scarborough. That name was certainly familiar to her, as what was then a township on the eastern edge of Toronto was named after an English town in North Yorkshire on the North Sea. The Scarborough the Queen saw that day looked much different though—it was not a holiday town like its namesake. It was, however, located atop bluffs that had reminded Elizabeth Simcoe, the wife of Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor, John Graves Simcoe, of the English Scarborough, and she referred to the area as such in a 1793 diary entry. The name stuck, but the story unfolded in a radically different way: it was the beginning of a most complicated, confounding, and endlessly interesting place that somehow has a reputation that denies all of that.

Naming things after places in the British Isles was already an Ontario tradition, but in 1959 the Queen did not bother stopping at the bluffs or any of the vestiges of early colonial settlement here. Instead, her motorcade made its way east along Eglinton Avenue, travelling at a royal thirty miles per hour, until it reached the Golden Mile Plaza, where she climbed onto a platform in the parking lot and opened a new Loblaws supermarket. The Queen opening a strip mall in a provincial outpost of her once-mighty empire is many things: a big deal (there’s a plaque there today marking the occasion), a late-colonial transition from empire to commonwealth, but also a high-camp affair. The juxtaposition of modern suburban life, complete with quotidian strip mall, and the world’s most famous monarch is a wonderful absurdity.

On the platform next to the Queen was the formidable presence of Frederick “Big Daddy” Gardiner, another figure of great period camp of a particular political kind, and the man who presided over the then-five-year-old Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, the upper tier of government that brought largely rural Scarborough into the family of municipalities that today are simply known as Toronto. Under Gardiner, freeways were built, sewers extended out into farmland, and subways dug, setting the stage for the expansive Toronto of today. The speed at which postwar Scarborough went from rural to urban during the period just before the Queen’s visit and the decades after is staggering. A glance at the earliest available aerial photographs in the City of Toronto Archives shows a patchwork landscape of cultivated farmland. The fields are relatively small, suggesting individual farmsteads. Modern development is visible only in a few places, creeping in from East York between Dawes Road and Victoria Park, and along Kingston Road, the main route in and out of Toronto until Highway 401 was opened. Often the new subdivisions are only partially constructed, with lots that look freshly bulldozed in preparation for building. Flipping quickly through the photos that span various years is like watching Scarborough being invented.

In the early photos, the villages scattered across the farmland have names like West Hill, Agincourt, Wexford, and Bendale, names that live on today as neighbourhoods. Some were not much more than small clusters of houses and a post office at a dusty intersection. The patches of development leapfrogged over each other, sometimes leaving farm fields in between the new subdivisions whose roads often ended abruptly at the edges, anticipating future connections as if a puzzle would eventually come together. All of it moved in a general northeast direction. Passing through Scarborough today in either of those general directions, one observes the changing topography of housing, and a keen eye can roughly date when the area was developed. The first wave of subdivision-style houses near Victoria Park Avenue and Birchmount Road include wartime housing built for returning veterans, funded by the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and neighbourhoods of worker-built houses in a variety of styles that have undergone decades of adaptations and idiosyncratic additions. These streets alternate between uniformity and wild variation.

Farther east they give way to sharper mid-century styles with carports, expressive rooflines, and Brady Bunch optimism in central Scarborough. North of the 401 and east toward the Rouge River, the last waves of housing built in the 1980s, 1990s, and even the new millennium took on traditional styles again, some with a more deft postmodern touch than others, and some even embracing a return to urban values with a “new urbanism” design. Scattered throughout are rental-apartment towers, most built between the late 1950s and the 1980s. Though the market for such things may not be here just yet, one day there will be historic tours of these postwar styles similar to the tours of Victorian and Edwardian neighbourhoods that are popular now. Tourism requires things either be very new (the Queen was perhaps the Golden Mile’s first tourist) or old enough to acquire some retro panache. In the 1950s, when Toronto was tearing down Victorian buildings because they were finicky, old, and out of style, few would have thought they would be so beloved today. Fashion is fickle, but with architecture it’s at least a predictable pattern.

When the Queen rode along Eglinton in 1959, it was a brand-new, wide, paved suburban arterial road that had not too long before been a dirt concession road. Those concessions formed a grid across Scarborough (and Southern Ontario as well) that all subsequent development had to contend with. It’s the grid’s right angles that can give the impression of uniformity to those who don’t venture any deeper than a quick drive-by, generating a sense that it’s just an endless Scarberia of nowhereness, or that’s it’s boring. “Subdivisions,” the 1982 hit by Toronto rock band Rush, captured this view of suburbia with lyrics like “conform or be cast out” and “but the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.” The video, shot on Scarborough streets and at L’Amoreaux Collegiate Institute near the intersection of Warden and Finch Avenues, depicts a high school with a then largely white demographic: the first wave of modern Scarborough settlers. However, matching the velocity with which Scarborough went from rural to urban, the school’s demographics have radically changed over three and a half decades, and today embody the multiculturalism Toronto is famous for. If Rush wrote the song today, could they film the same video in the same place or would the school’s heterogeneous nature defy the lyrics?

This kind of nonconformity to Scarborough’s reputation manifests in a multiplicity of ways. This is a complicated place, with topography, both corporeal and not, that can reveal considerable dimensions for those who care to look. Indeed, inside that colonial grid that so much of Ontario is built upon, Scarborough provides much variety. As postwar development began, residential streets generally followed the grid, with straight lines and right angles. However, as the decades progressed and ideas of urban planning evolved, the streets inside each concession box formed by the grid went decidedly off-grid. Curves, cul-de-sacs, and crescents all conspire to throw off one’s sense of direction when traversing them, much like a medieval city with its sinuously bewildering streets. In hindsight, this has led to an urban form that requires cars for getting around, and with low densities spread into hard-to-reach corners—providing frequent public transit close to where people live is difficult. Still, there is whimsy to be found, especially in an area known as the “Ben Jungle.” Part of the Bendale neighbourhood and near the Lawrence Avenue and McCowan Road intersection, the Jungle is a series of streets with names like Benroyal, Benleigh, Benorama, Benhur, and Benfrisco.

Running diagonally along the northern of edge of the Ben Jungle is the Gatineau Hydro Corridor, an open swath of land where high-tension power lines run. In aerial views, it looks as if somebody took an eraser and dragged it across Scarborough, clearing away houses and buildings. Within Scarborough, the corridor stretches from the Golden Mile, past the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, and continues into Rouge Park. At times it’s a wild place with tall grass and even a butterfly meadow near Victoria Park Road. In other places it contains playgrounds, sports fields, utility yards, and, along much of it, a paved multi-use path that looks like the bike superhighways common in Europe. While the corridor defies the grid with its diagonal direction, travelling on it reveals the Don River, Highland Creek, and Rouge River watersheds. North of Highway 401, the Finch Hydro Corridor provides a similar, revealing view of the topography across the top of much of the city. These waterways and their tributaries ramble across Scarborough, paying no heed to the grid, creating open spaces and allowing for dense forests that are sometimes vast, other times narrow, in between the subdivisions and industrial areas. Rouge Park is even Canada’s first “urban national park” and the defining element of the eastern end of Scarborough.

The hydro corridors were not levelled by bulldozers the way subdivisions were in preparation for development, so the land’s topography is visible, though it still was a manipulated agricultural landscape in a previous life. Here, as in much of Toronto, even places that seem “wild” or “original” are regrowth, and traces of agricultural land management can still be seen: old, rusting wire fences with decaying posts; a straight line of trees side by side in a forest, possibly indicating an old farm lane; a half-century-old rusted-out truck deep in the Rouge Valley near the back of the zoo in a patch of trees too thick to admit a large vehicle today. Though the tracks have long since been removed, it’s also possible to trace the course of the former Canadian Northern Railway line from just south of the Golden Mile as it curved northeast through Scarborough and headed deeper into Ontario, north of the Toronto Zoo. It left its mark so indelibly on Scarborough that subdivisions and other developments were shaped by its presence, as if it were a natural landform or fault line. Even deep in the ravines near those creeks, when it’s possible to be seduced into the idea that this is what it was like before human intervention, utility covers and concrete foundations are visible, an indication of trunk sewers installed below during Big Daddy Gardiner’s era or later. The very landscape here is untrustworthy: is it natural or altered by humans? With 13,000 years of human history here, chances are the latter is more likely.

Despite those many thousands of years of pre-settler activity, and a sizable Indigenous population residing in Scarborough today, their presence and history isn’t immediately visible, eclipsed by both colonial development and mythology. However, perhaps the most conspicuous site of the long Indigenous history here in all of Toronto is near the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Bellamy Road in Scarborough, where Taber Hill rises above bungalows in the Bendale neighbourhood. As Scarborough’s development marched on in the mid-1950s, a bulldozer disturbed the hill, revealing that it was an ossuary, with the remains of over five hundred people buried here. Today a plaque at the top of the mound tells the story, though there are other sites in Scarborough, some along the creek and river valleys, with ossuaries; they are unmarked, both out of neglect and to preserve them from grave robbers who would disturb the remains for nefarious reasons.

The built form of Scarborough also hides some of the growing inequity that Toronto at large has been able to ignore because it’s been hidden inside that grid at the end of a cul-de-sac or in an apartment tower on the side of a ravine. As the University of Toronto’s J. David Hulchanski has shown in his revealing report, “The Three Cities Within Toronto: Income Polarization among Toronto’s Neighbourhoods, 1970–2005,” the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing, while the middle class—the very people Scarborough was created for—is shrinking. The report’s maps show much of Scarborough has had declining income, correlating almost directly with where support for populist mayor Rob Ford was found. Regardless of whether or not he had the solutions to these problems, Ford’s message that the people in Scarborough had been left out resonated in 2010, and a similar message could again, as income trends have not reversed.

And yet Scarborough is rich with culture. It’s along the concessional grid itself where the multicultural nature of the district is on full view. While the Golden Mile the Queen opened has transformed to a largely big-box area of chain stores, other strip malls of slightly later vintage in Scarborough have remained intact, with parking lots out front and shops with one or two floors of apartments above. What has changed since the Queen’s visit is those shops themselves: though some would be familiar to a time traveller from 1959, so many others represent the population they serve today. As well, save for a few chain coffee shops, banks, payday lenders, and the like, most of the stores are of the independent, mom-and-pop variety. Because the retail rent is lower than downtown, it’s possible to start a business with less overhead here, so the independent nature of the businesses thrive, and walking from one mall to another is an utterly urban experience—if you ignore the parking lots—as each presents unexpected surprises. There’s a sense of Scarborough’s deep layers here.

The vitality of the strip malls today inadvertently embodies the promise of Scarborough that the Queen christened with her presence in 1959, and the malls represent the rich cultural place Scarborough has become. There’s little quotidian about this place, but the unsettling trouble is the unchecked inequity that continues to grow in Scarborough and elsewhere in Toronto, threatening to overwhelm the widespread prosperity the Queen and Big Daddy thought they were welcoming.