Sub/urban/altern Cosmopolitanism: Unsettling Scarborough’s Cartographic Imaginary

Essay by Ranu Basu

Our experience of open cities or cities of refuge then will not only be that which cannot wait, but something which calls for an urgent response, a just response, more just in any case than the existing law. An immediate response to crime, to violence, and to persecution... If it has (indeed) arrived...then, one has perhaps not yet recognised it.
—Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, p. 23

In her seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), one of the fundamental challenges that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak raises is on the question of representing the subaltern. She argues that the colonized subaltern subject is irretrievably heterogeneous. A closely related query would link to its potential spatial expression: the spaces and places involved in the production of colonial and postcolonial discourses, identities, and relations of power. For instance, what would constitute the “City of Refuge” that Derrida alludes to? To the elusiveness of subaltern cosmopolitan cities—that in their form, function, and everyday practice defy all logics of conformity? What is its epistemological basis? Who defines it, who experiences it, who lives it, and how is it enacted? The emergence of an active and creative “subaltern cosmopolitanism” (Gidwani, 2006) and the corresponding spaces that are claimed and negotiated in a neo-liberal city are often very complex, dynamic, and ephemeral in their various forms and practices (Basu et al., 2013). In previous work I have argued that understanding how these spaces work in order to host increasing numbers of migrants is important, given the scale of displacement and geopolitical strife across the globe. However, this process is in constant flux as the city is made and remade within the discursive logics of neo-liberal urbanism—where hierarchies of space are entangled closely with the hierarchies of racialized, exiled, and class divides—and hence any city-building movement needs a contested mode of analysis.

This text briefly reflects (over a period of time I was both resident and researcher) on how place-making practices, of sub/urban/altern cosmopolitanism—an alternative concept that recentres the alienated—have evolved slowly in the fringes of the postwar industrial suburban landscape of Scarborough, Ontario, that constantly work in tension, disrupting and challenging the more normative neo-liberal-cosmopolitan ideations of the city. The paradoxical relation between dystopian representations and planning anxieties work alongside the lived sub/urban/altern cosmopolitan realities. These are often evident through the cultural landscapes of resistance in Scarborough and its various metaphorical expressions that lay bare in the process what Jenny Robinson (2003) defines as any “politics of erasure.”

I use sub/urban/altern cosmopolitanism to critically and conceptually combine interdependencies of suburbanity with the subaltern. In other words, the particular political subjectivities that emerge through subaltern-cosmopolitanism highlight emergent counter-spatialities. Sub/urban/altern cosmopolitanism further alludes to a transgressive form of heterogeneity and resistance that is spatially produced within the subaltern cultural and political relations of exclusion. It constitutes both a passive resistance, where the mundane, lived materialities of everyday spaces are claimed with pride and creativity, as well as a more fluid and active resistance, where social relations are transformed by plurality and dissent. This stands in sharp contrast to the normative and static understandings of cosmopolitanism defined as more upwardly mobile, international, and neo-liberal in origin.

In this brief and reflexive essay, I argue that the power of sub/urban/altern cosmopolitanism, as is evident in many parts of Scarborough—a particular ontological space—through the common ground of its collective humiliation and pain, memories and energy, stubbornly and persistently strives for and is often able to map out its own city of joy. I posit that the rhythms of its everyday life also exist independent of (or parallel to) prevailing and populist knowledge within a heterogeneous community of coexistence, codependence, respect, and dignity.

The following section explores the two representational realities that are evident in Scarborough. First, a Dystopian Scarborough, as often portrayed in the media through popularized maps and discourse of planning anxieties linked to the project of modernity. Discourses accompanied by narratives and images that become normalized and that make certain power relations and spatial hierarchies seem inevitable—hence, depicting spaces that need to be “fixed and rationalized.” Second, and in sharp contrast, the lived and imaginary realities of sub/urban/altern cosmopolitan spaces are presented, drawing on a previous study as well as ethnographic reflections based on my own residency there for over two decades (Basu et al., 2015). This latter vision explores the various metaphorical expressions of the migrant residents themselves—an emancipatory spatial expression that is often unnoticed, overlooked, or simply not deemed useful enough in understanding how cities provide deep insight into the heterogeneity of civil society. The conclusion summarizes these counter-visions of the city.

Scarborough and Representational Realities

Scarborough embodies the typical postwar suburb of post-industrial cities. With a present-day population of over 630,000, Scarborough and five other municipalities were amalgamated into the City of Toronto in 1998. The population also grew from 2001 to 2006 by 2.4 percent compared to 0.8 percent for the rest of the city (City of Toronto, 20091). In 2006–11 it grew by another 3 percent.2 In 2006, 33 percent of Scarborough dwellings were high-rise apartments and 39 percent were single detached homes, while 66 percent of dwellings were owned and 34 percent rented. By 2011, 33 percent of households lived in high-rise apartments while 51 percent lived in houses. Located in the eastern fringes of the city, dispersed in patches of high-density pockets, Scarborough serves as home to many in the underpaid and marginal subaltern working class. In 2006, 57 percent of the total population were immigrants and 12 percent were recent immigrants who had arrived in Canada in the previous five years. In 2011, 7.2 percent of the population had no knowledge of either English or French compared to 5.3 percent for the City of Toronto. Two-thirds of the population are classified as visible minorities, compared to 40 percent for the rest of the city—the racialized distinctiveness is well-embedded in its identity. The top three languages aside from English include Chinese (6.4 percent), Cantonese (6.3 percent), and Tamil (5.9 percent). In 2007, there were 186,300 jobs in Scarborough, 14 percent of the city’s total employment (City of Toronto, 2009). According to a social planning discussion, 30,000 newcomer families may be among the hidden homeless in Toronto, many of them living in this part of the city (Basu et al., 2013).

Dystopian Scarborough: Media, Cartographic, and Planning Anxieties

Similar to the French banlieues, Scarborough is characterized by high unemployment levels, inadequate social service provision, and poor housing, and is home to a predominantly multi-ethnic, racialized, refugee, and working-class population that has often catered to a representation that lends itself to a particular kind of alienation. This is evident through the “designation of names, categorizations, definitions, designations and mappings”—a representation that allows for particular kinds of spatial ordering and articulation to consolidate neo-liberal urban policy interventions (Dikeç, 2007, p. 21).

Previous work (Basu et al., 2013) noted that a trend emerged in media discourse from 1980 to 1991, as Scarborough over time became a racialized site of discussion and gradually far more attention was paid to incidents of interpersonal violence and criminality. Whereas in the early 1980s, Scarborough was often spoken of as a quiet, mostly uneventful suburb, the increasing frequency of articles naming certain migrant and refugee populations as constitutive of the area’s population coincided with a focus on Scarborough as a place of potential violence and random criminal acts. Descriptions of murder, robbery, domestic violence, and other violent crime went from isolated acts to endemic conditions brought on by the area’s residents. Often represented with an unpalatable reputation and frequently perceived by media commentators as a “distasteful, aesthetically bleak, bland and dangerous landscape,” Scarborough came to be seen as a failure of modernist planning (Toronto Star, 2008, 2009). It is often ridiculed with nicknames such as Scarberia, Scarlem, and ScarBlackistan, and described as a “zit” and an “urban blandness verging on blight” (DiManno, Toronto Life, 2007). A study conducted by a prominent business school and publicized by the media pathologizes the city as a neurotic landscape via mapped discourse, where spaces of “anxiety, depression and vulnerability” appeared most vividly over the spaces in Scarborough (Toronto Star, 2009). Blunt and McEwan (2002) allude to such characterizations as “colonizing geographies” to convey the idea that “geography, empire and post-coloniality work into one another in myriad ways” to the present day. The process of alienation is accentuated through the production of a dystopian reality that needs to be fixed, decriminalized, and politically educated, rather than confronting the underlying infrastructural deficiencies and structural inequities of neoliberal urbanist realities.

Sub/urban/altern Cosmopolitan Imaginaries

Yet the everydayness of the particularly dismissed places in Scarborough—its social, cultural, economic, and emotional spaces—suggests a more complex and unfiltered lived space that is not easily discernible to intermittent and voyeuristic studies or partial views from afar. What is explicitly evident through ethnographic landscape analysis over two decades (and experience as a resident of Scarborough) is that the lived reality is quite different. Scarborough has, over the years, evolved into what Foucault would define as a heterotopic space—”places where things had been put because they had been violently displaced, and then on the contrary places where things found their natural ground and stability.” This inherent heterogeneity is cosmopolitan in its form and practice. However, different from a neo-liberalized understanding of cosmopolitanism as a mobile elite and entrepreneurial creative class possessing an abundance of fluid cultural capital, the sub/ urban/altern cosmopolitan identity is counter-hegemonic in creating a social, cultural, and political base in the affordable margins of the suburbs. In earlier work, I have argued that as a result of such complex spaces of encounter, civic engagement, and grounded experiences, Scarborough is framed by migrants in multiple and metaphorical ways: from a City of Refuge and Peace; City of Memory, Desire, and Imagination; City of Multifariousness; to a City of Civic Engagement and Fluid Resistance (Basu et al., 2013). Each of these is an expression of the city—inhabiting Scarborough through the lived and embodied place-making practices allows a counter-hegemonic experience of the city and contests a normative-based planning discourse and aesthetic. Scarborough, through these heterogeneous place-making practices, forms a City of Integrative Multiplicity (Basu, 2011; Basu and Fiedler, 2017). How and when such voices are co-opted by a hegemonic system poses further challenges.

In view of the significant growth of refugee and asylum seekers during the past decade, the question of how cities foster and create opportunities for migrant groups to settle and “integrate” (itself a contested term) is crucial. Socio-economic integration and the overall well-being of migrant populations rely on a sense of belonging and hubs of support in a “multicultural” and Sanctuary City such as Toronto. Despite the inherited infrastructural limitations resulting from postwar modernist planning of suburbs, the material limitations in Scarborough are countered by other multifarious emancipatory practices. Migrant and racialized working-class communities have formed networks of associational linkages that work in tandem to create sub/urban/altern cosmopolitan cities that stretch afar. For example, temples, mosques, gurudwaras, retail stores, clubs and community centres, cuisine and street markets all blend seamlessly and effortlessly through new imaginative landscapes (see images) to create zones of diverse public spaces. Yet these social and cultural hubs of activity are not devoid of civic and political action. Transnational modes of activism from diasporic linkages alongside local action feed into broader struggles of resistance and broader solidarity movements within and beyond the city region.

To conclude: framing Scarborough through the voices and poetics of displaced migrants themselves and their vision of city-building, a number of alternative variants emerge. As a City of Refuge and Peace, Scarborough has been home to countless asylum seekers, refugees, and working-class migrants who have fled war-torn regions and violence across the world. As a City of Memory, Desire, and Imagination, it has allowed for the flexibility of place-making and the creation of venues replicating homes left behind. The old abandoned factories and warehouses provide the space necessary for new creative endeavours to flourish and for communities to once again thrive, facing minimum contestation of what constitutes normalized aesthetics. The City of Multifariousness provides the intersectional spaces of heterogeneity where transient groups from different parts of the world—but with a similar understanding of oppression and marginalization —share a common language and an ethics of care. Finally, the City of Engagement and Fluid Resistance provides a subaltern mode of resistance and solidarity across groups both locally and transnationally. The counter-hegemonic framing of Scarborough as a city of sub/urban/altern cosmopolitanism provides one novel way for us to envision the city-building process.