The Divided City: Rexdale isn’t perfect, but I prefer it to the hypocrisy of downtown
In Punjabi, “pind” literally means “village.” The word has intense evocations: a pind is your hometown, the seedbed from which you sprang, the environment that shaped you as much as your family did. When meeting a fellow Punjabi speaker, rarely are you asked “What do you do?” Rather, the invariable question is “What’s your pind?”
For me, the factual answer to the question is Dadyal, an obscure speck in Punjab. Yet I have few memories of Dadyal—I left at the age of five. And the more accurate answer is Rexdale. I grew up in Rexdale, where virtually the entire able-bodied population of Dadyal moved in the 1970s and 1980s.
I now live part of the year in Regina, where my wife teaches, and part of the year in Rexdale. My mother, brother and innumerable cousins, uncles and aunts are Rexdalers. Like my family, most of the people I know in Rexdale are working-class immigrants who moved here in recent decades: Somalis, Italians, Jamaicans. There is a strange irony in the fact that one of the main streets in Rexdale is Kipling, an imperialist bard commemorated in a post-colonial district.
Rexdale is of course now internationally famous as the district where Rob Ford smoked crack in one of his drunken stupors. The wolf pack of accused criminals who hang around Ford as if he’s their den master are either Rexdale natives or from other Etobicoke neighbourhoods. And, like Etobicoke in general, Rexdale is Ford’s political base, the original home of Ford Nation. After news of the crack video first broke, I heard more than a few Rexdalers defend Ford as a native son being attacked by “them”—the people from downtown. If Rexdale is my ’hood, then inevitably Rob Ford is my homie.
Because of Ford’s antics, Rexdale has become a major journalistic stomping ground. Although newspapers like the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail have done a top-notch job of exposing Ford’s many nefarious deeds and habitual mendacity, I’m appalled by the way they’ve depicted Ford’s milieu. Journalistic accounts of Rexdale are written in the same tone of anxious amazement as Victorian explorers’ reports from Africa. The National Post once described Rexdale as “blighted and violence-plagued,” and on another occasion alluded to “the wilds of Islamic Rexdale.” The Globe’s publisher has said his newspaper is only interested in readers who make more than $100,000 a year, which by implication means his paper isn’t for the cab drivers and factory workers who live in Rexdale.
Despite his buffoonery, Rob Ford’s political prowess should never be underestimated. He doesn’t reflexively look down on Rexdale. He knows his way around it all too well. Ford once promised to make “Rexdale the new Rosedale.” This typical Fordian flourish earned him many a snide laugh in downtown Toronto yet endeared him to his core constituency. He might be promising the stars, but at least he takes Rexdale seriously. Ford’s right-wing populism derives its power from understanding the aspirations of Rexdalers for projects like the expansion of Woodbine Racetrack into a shopping and casino complex. Although the billion-dollar project fell apart, Ford’s efforts on its behalf earned him street cred. What do Ford’s opponents have to offer Rexdale, aside from austerity and condescension?
Multiculturalism is often a vacant word; if it has any substantial meaning, it involves people not just preserving their cultural traditions but also sharing them with their neighbours. In my experience, genuine multiculturalism occurs more in Rexdale than in downtown Toronto. Rexdale is where I hear impassioned conversations about the prospects of the Toronto Maple Leafs conducted in Punjabi. Rexdale is the home of a magnificent Hindu temple, brought over piece by piece from India. Rexdale is the place to find Punjabi pizza, a sumptuous curry-inflected dish that my Bulgarian-born partner prefers to the Italian version. Rexdale is where my mother, who worked for decades laundering hospital bedsheets, acquired conversational skills in Italian and Tagalog from her co-workers. Although she would be uncomfortable around the publisher of the Globe, my mother is at ease with the microcosm of the world she’s found in Rexdale.
Cultural mixing always runs the risk of generating strife as well as affectionate familiarity. Growing up in Rexdale, I sometimes heard the words “Paki” and “nigger” from the mouths of working-class white kids. I’ve also heard racist anti-black comments from Punjabi elders. As terrible as this racism is, it comes from people who are more comfortable with other ethnic groups than those who live in the sheltered enclaves of expensive downtown condos. Ford exemplifies the paradox. He often says dunderheaded, racist things, but few white politicians are more visibly at home at a multi-racial social event.
Sooner or later, Rob Ford will disappear from public life. But Fordism will endure beyond its dishevelled and oversized avatar. To defeat it, politicians will have to let go of their urbanite snobbery and learn to listen to Rexdale.