The Scarborough Curse

The Scarborough Curse
How did white-bread Scarberia become a mess of street gangs, firebombings and stabbings?

How did boring, white-bread Scarberia become Scarlem—a mess of street gangs, firebombings and stabbings? Portrait of Toronto’s unluckiest suburb

The Scarborough Curse
How did white-bread Scarberia become a mess of street gangs, firebombings and stabbings?

You could describe a statistical Scarborough that glimmers like a perfect mirage of the Canadian myth. It is the greenest of Toronto’s suburbs, with a network of ravines moving through its 187 square kilometres like fault lines. The eastern border is the lush and extensive Rouge River Valley, which contains the 287-hectare Toronto Zoo. It is the youngest suburb, rapidly growing, and the city’s—as well as one of the country’s—most forceful exercise in multiculturalism (54 per cent of its residents are foreign-born, compared to the Canadian average of 19 per cent).

Yet Scarborough remains a symbol of a certain kind of alienation. When it was a homogeneous suburb in the 1960s and ’70s, it symbolized drab conformity, a largely white unhipness that was sneered at. Now it’s diverse and a symbol of a different kind of alienation, one that carries a hint of menace rather than com­placency. The spectre of ethnic gangs, of sectarian tension, floats through it. Like the old cliché of Scarberia (a term that was coined in the 1960s, connoted exile and has now gone out of use, it seems), this new Scarborough (whose occasional appellatives Scarlem and Scartown imply race or violence and haven’t been adopted with any widespread enthusiasm) is a combination of truth and caricature.

This past September, Dineshkumar Murugiah, a 16-year-old student at Scarborough’s Winston Churchill Collegiate, was stabbed to death in what appeared to be a targeted attack. The murder, the city’s 57th of the year, didn’t resonate in the media. It didn’t have the narrative that the death of 15-year-old Jane Creba had in 2005, when she was hit by gang gunfire near the Eaton Centre on Boxing Day, a shooting Citytv called “the most notorious crime in recent Toronto history.” The theme in that story was the notion of innocence, and how an alien (and largely suburban) threat had come to the core and taken the life of an innocent bystander. With Dinesh, the notion of innocence was compromised, as the murder appeared, on the surface, to be retributive, and both the crime and the narrative were contained within Scarborough, rendering it tragic but somehow familiar.

Dinesh, the papers suggested, may have been embroiled in “Tamil reprisals” that had followed him from a previous school (he had attended two other high schools in the past two years). But both Detective Sergeant Gary Grinton of the homicide squad and Pastor David Loganathan of the Miracle Family Temple said Dinesh had no known gang ties. And then this comment to a reporter, from a student at Winston Churchill, a girl who was undisturbed by the event that had occurred an hour earlier, and who stood with an equally giddy friend: “We can pretend to be upset for you.” Presumably, she had seen tearful teenagers on the news gathered outside American high schools as police investigated a shooting death. She knew what was expected of her. If the actual emotion wasn’t there, the sense of what the media, of what life, demanded from such an event hadn’t entirely fled. She was floating through this landscape, untethered, but she was prepared to do another take.

If the feud that took Dinesh’s life was unclear, the one that prompted the hurling of a Molotov cocktail through the living room window of a house on Gilroy Drive last April was very clear. Pream Anandararajah, an 18-year-old student at Stephen Leacock Collegiate, had said to a friend the day before that he was worried that the boys who were bullying him at school would come after his family. Pream’s mother and sister were asleep in the living room when the bottle came crashing through. In the resulting fire, his mother suffered burns to 30 per cent of her body. His sister suffered non–life threatening burns. Nine young men were arrested in connection with the firebombing and other assaults.

The feud was between Sri Lankans who had recently arrived (FOBs, for “fresh off the boat”) and those who had been in Canada for some time, the group Pream was aligned with. It wasn’t a revival of religious and political battles in Sri Lanka—most of those involved are Hindu Tamils—but the distancing of new arrivals by those who were established. Sometimes, the boys admitted, it was because the FOBs, with their broken English, different clothes and alien haircuts, reminded them of themselves when they arrived, the version they had since cast off. This pattern existed in other groups: with Jamaicans in the 1980s, where new immigrants were called Freshies, and it has been seen in the Sikh community (where new arrivals are called Gurus) and Chinese community (pitting the CBCs—Canadian-born Chinese—against Chinese FOBs).

In the ephemeral world of Scar­borough gangs, there is violence within ethnic groups and between ethnic groups. But Dinesh’s murder raises the issue of what constitutes a gang, and more obliquely, of what constitutes Scarborough. The suburb has operated as a foil to Toronto for years, the unsophisticated past that Toronto feels it has sloughed off, Jersey to its Manhattan. Now it is the multicultural canary in the coal mine, a glimpse of the future.

The Scarborough Curse
Scarborough has operated as a foil to Toronto for years, the unsophisticated Jersey to its Manhattan

It was in 1793 that Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of John Graves Simcoe, first viewed the Scarborough bluffs, which reminded her of the limestone cliffs at Scarborough in England: “The shore is extremely bold, and has the appearance of chalk cliffs, but I believe they are only white sand. They appeared so well that we talked of building a summer residence there and calling it Scarborough.” In the end, the Simcoes built their summer residence overlooking the Don Valley, the first of many slights.

Scarborough was incorporated as a township in 1850 with a population of 3,821, and it grew modestly until the post-war boom, when it began to take its current shape. The mid-century version of Scarborough was largely the dream of Oliver Crockford, a former Baptist minister turned politician who was reeve of Scarborough from 1948 to 1955. In 1948, Crockford and the town council bought 250 acres of land that had been occupied by a munitions manufacturer on Eglinton between Birchmount and Pharmacy. It was designated as industrial because Crockford felt that residential taxes alone wouldn’t finance new growth in Scarborough. At the time, there were roughly 50,000 residents. The resulting industry was a monument to the suburban zeitgeist: Thermos was there making Thermoses, Frigidaire made ice-free refrigerators, Inglis manufactured washers and dryers. Candies, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, the staples of modern life, were all made there in the 1950s. The stretch along Eglinton became known as the Golden Mile of Industry, and factories in other parts of the city relocated to share its cachet.

In 1954, Scarborough officially became a suburb of Toronto, and 10,000 homes were built near the Golden Mile. Eglinton Square Shopping Centre was constructed that year. Here was the post-war model for success: workers who earned a living wage, lived close to the industry that employed them, and made things that they then bought at the nearby shopping centre. This was the symbiotic dream. By now, the population had doubled to 100,000.

Crockford called himself Mr. Scarborough and worked both sides of the street—champion of the people and the developers (one of whom sold Crockford a Cadillac for such a low price it was deemed a bribe). Crockford allowed the highest density of single-family units per acre in the city, maximizing profits for the developers and giving working people a chance to own their own home. It was where the largely white working class lived when it existed.

The Golden Mile Plaza soon appeared on Eglinton, a strip mall so luminous it was visited by Queen Elizabeth in 1959. In 1962, the “Lady on the Swing” billboard was erected by Willison Chrysler, joining the 50-foot “Golden Mile Chevrolet” sign, a testament to the anchor of Scarborough life, the single, unsustainable idea it was built around: the automobile. This was Canadian life at its most ordered and optimistic, the Wayne’s World version that Mike Myers re­created with such success, a benign, uneventful land of adolescent ennui. Jim Carrey also spent time in Scarborough, a fine breeding ground for chameleonic comics who can inhabit a dozen different identities with eerie precision.

It was in pursuit of a specific Scarborough identity, at once geographic, architectural and cultural, that architect Raymond Moriyama was commissioned to design a civic centre in 1968 on a site that was roughly the centre of the borough, near the junction of McCowan and the 401. It was to be a defining space. When the Scarborough Civic Centre (and the nearby Scarborough Town Centre) opened in 1973, it was hoped that these anchors would spur more development, that a downtown core would form around them. But Moriyama’s design was aloof, and the plaza remained slightly bereft over the decades. Further development was slow, in part because the transit system didn’t get there until 1985, and some of the surrounding land was owned by the Eaton empire, which gave it up reluctantly. The other half of the original core—the Scarborough Town Centre—is a mall, itself a symbol of suburban alienation, the enemy of urban cores. The city centre was a decree, one that has been largely ignored, and Scarborough’s remained elusive.

Soon after the civic centre was finished, the Golden Mile began to wither, the industry moving offshore or to cheaper locales. Frigidaire left in 1974, though the building was then used by General Motors to manufacture vans. But in 1993, they too left, despite the organized protest of thousands of employees. Businesses continued to flee, and the Golden Mile devolved into a row of abandoned factories and overgrown vacant lots. The inexpensive houses that Crockford had championed weren’t aging well. Strip malls proliferated at a record-setting pace, all of them unblessed by royalty. Big box stores moved in with their hulking remove. The Lady on the Swing was displaced (250 metres away) by townhouses, and the Golden Mile Chevrolet sign was taken down a few years ago. After being incorporated as a city in 1983, Scarborough was once more a suburb (amalgamated into the new City of Toronto in 1998), losing its separate legal identity.

The Scarborough Curse
The open spaces that once seemed liberating—a relief from the congested city—now look forbidding and oppressive

Where is the heart of Scarborough? The spiritual centre may be the Kennedy subway station, the transportation hub of Scarborough and the portal that separates it from Toronto. Architecturally indistinct, it’s built on four floors, a compact building that opens up on the top level. The yellow and brown tiles give it the look of a high school concourse, a feeling that’s reinforced by the thousands of students who pass through in late afternoon to catch buses and the RT. It’s the third busiest station in the system (next to Bloor-Yonge and St. George), servicing almost 75,000 people a day.

On a Friday afternoon, there are handfuls of teenage boys in the posture of gang members, lounging on the stairways in a feline sprawl, radiating entitlement. The Four Seasons is playing over the PA system, the muted strings of “Autumn” a deliberate attempt by the TTC to drive the young through as quickly as possible, to assault them at the most sacred and visceral level: music. But most of the students are heavily fortified with MP3 players and iPods, dancing or nodding or screeching in syncopation to artists other than Antonio Vivaldi. The music program has been implemented in five stations, three of them in Scarborough: Kennedy, Warden and Victoria Park (the other two are Main and Bathurst).

The next train that arrives, like the last, skews to the young: three heartbreakingly beautiful Filipina girls, dressed brightly as if for a dance, passing a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer around and taking turns scrubbing themselves. There are slouchy Asian teenagers; a pimp-walking trio that’s in a perpetual state of mutual congratulation, slapping and high-fiving its way down the platform; a few families; two Goths, who are pinned and stapled and clad in black, looking orphaned and Dickensian in this hip-hop landscape; and a German shepherd that stops to take a dump on the tiles, its owner staring balefully at the ceiling.

On April 13, 2007, 21-year-old Nick Brown was stabbed at Victoria Park subway station and found dead in the last train that pulled into Kennedy station, his body discovered by a transit worker. Charged with his murder was 26-year-old Scarborough native John Paul Vallon. Five days later, a 16-year-old boy was stabbed twice at Kennedy in a fight that was ostensibly about music. The victim and three friends were in a bus bay when three men came over and told them to turn the music off. They exchanged blows and the boy was stabbed, the knife reportedly still sticking out of his back when para­medics arrived. He survived, and Arun Muthuthevar, 21, Sarangan Ragunath, 18, and Thanaraj Thangarajah, 19, were charged with attempted murder.

Kennedy speaks to certain persistent Scarborough themes: transience, alienation and the uneasy threat of violence. In 2006, crimes against customers on TTC property were up 34 per cent over the preceding five-year average—from 1,194 to 1,601. The roughly four incidents a day across the system are still statistically low considering how many people use it, but the stabbings at Kennedy left indelible fears.

The Scarborough demographic shows that Chinese make up 17.73 per cent of the community’s roughly 600,000 people, South Asians 17.76 per cent, blacks 10.09 per cent and Filipinos five per cent, with Afghans and others having less than two per cent each. The residual white population makes up 40 per cent. Immigration is a tautology: Tamils, West Indians, South Asians and Afghans come to Scarborough because there are Tamils, West Indians, South Asians and Afghans here.

A study published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy showed that non-white immigrants to Canada come here with a greater sense of belonging than white immigrants, but that over time, the white immigrant’s sense of belonging grows, while the non-white’s diminishes. A more disturbing finding was that second-generation immigrants feel less attached than their parents to Canada. This is an unexpected result. The natural assumption is that successive generations will feel a greater attachment to the new country, given that they were born here, that the language issues that may have estranged their parents are no longer a significant factor, and that cultural concerns have been mitigated.

The Scarborough Curse
The “lady on the swing” sign is a testament to the unsustainable idea Scarborough was built around: the automobile

Perhaps there isn’t enough that is recognizably Canadian to attach themselves to. For some, Scarborough is Canada; they rarely venture outside the borough. In its cluster of high-rises and ordered bungalows, in its open spaces—the tortured prairie that opens up among the concrete, residue of its farm roots only a few generations ago—in the generic housing projects and malls, they have failed to find a meaningful place to arrive at. The need to attach oneself to something is a powerful force; tribalism is innate. Among the dozens of tribes in Scarborough are gangs that accommodate Afghans, Tamils, Chinese and West Indians.

The West Indian gangs began to form in the 1980s, and other ethnic groups followed. Gangs provide safety and identity (and in the case of organized gangs that were selling drugs, income), filling needs that society isn’t filling. Gang life, however, comes with certain risks. Safety is fleeting (of the 69 homicides in Toronto in 2006, roughly half were gang related). There is a lot of violence between gangs, most of it unreported home invasions where guns or drugs are stolen (or re-stolen). Income is sporadic and inequitably distributed. But identity is a powerful lure.

These days, there is a curious new development among gangs. They began as a natural outgrowth of specific neighbourhoods‚ made up of boys who bonded through shared experience and developed trust and allegiances that often fell along ethnic lines. But both organized gangs and street gangs are now embracing multiculturalism. If you are a talented car thief, have a line on Russian weapons, a drug network or a gift for violence, you may find a home, regardless of ethnicity. The tribalism has been displaced by more concrete things, chiefly money and power.

This is understandable at the level of organized gangs, which are essentially corporate in their world view and have moved into such sophisticated and lucrative crimes as credit card fraud and identity theft. But at the street gang level, it’s a surprise. It suggests they are a geographic and economic construct rather than an ethnic one, a class rather than a race issue. Where ethnic groups do form, they tend to fight one another as much as they fight other different ethnicities, clashing over drugs or turf, or in the case of the Tamil feuds, over who is more Canadian, or at least, who is unacceptably foreign.

Multiculturalism in the gang world comes at a time when the concept—the larger, Trudeauian vision of multiculturalism—is under assault. In 2006, Robert Putnam, a Harvard social scientist, published an extensive study that concluded that diversity has a negative impact on one’s sense of community. “In the presence of [ethnic] diversity, we hunker down,” he wrote. “We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.” In diverse communities, people do less volunteer work, contribute less to charity and vote in smaller numbers. Putnam describes a landscape of distrust, social and political withdrawal and ceaseless hours of television.

There is more to Scarborough’s malaise than the complications of multiculturalism, though. Driving through the suburb’s pockets of beauty and its desolate, ill-defined tracts, wide unpopulated streets, strip malls and random industry, there’s the physical expression of Putnam’s dystopic view. Scarborough’s most successful era—the 1950s and ’60s—was due to rapid growth, affordable housing, the proximity of reasonably well-paying jobs, and more than anything, the ascendency and dominance of the automobile. But the car is in disfavour now, and rightly so. There are fewer well-paying jobs in Scarborough, and fewer car owners, and those spaces that once seemed liberating—a relief from the congested city—now look forbidding and oppressive. Public transit doesn’t adequately service the area, and, ironically, it’s in those transit stations where the most vital signs of life are seen. In the absence of a streetscape where people meet for both social and practical matters, there are generic malls and the forced intimacy of the subway stations. The problem with Scarborough is that it wasn’t designed for the future, as Oliver Crockford (and almost everyone else) thought in 1954, but for a brief, unsustainable moment in history.

Various urbanists have pointed out that suburbs are poised to be the ghettos of the future. They have all the ingredients: uninviting and unclaimed spaces, housing stock that is neither as durable nor as adaptable to other uses as the sturdy brick buildings of the inner city, a shortage of well-paying jobs, architecture that is disposable and arbitrary, and the need for cars at a time when energy prices are rising and may become prohibitive for many. It has been Scarborough’s bad luck to be a white enclave when that notion was retrograde, when the city was looking to ethnic communities to deliver it from a bland Presbyterian purgatory, and then to become relentlessly multicultural at a time when multi­culturalism itself is under assault.

Gangs have embraced multiculturalism, though the “gang” concept itself is elusive. They, too, suffer from identity issues. They can be formal or undefined, perhaps even unnamed. They may have a purpose or simply be a de facto grouping of the equally nervous. They may exist in the shadows of larger organized gangs who may or may not afford some kind of tacit protection for those within its borders. A third level of ganghood floating through Scarborough neighbourhoods is the allegiance to either Crips (blue) or Bloods (red). There may not be any actual connection to the famous American gangs, and the choice of colours may have been arbitrary. It is a delineation that isn’t underpinned by philosophic or racial differences, but a random alliance with a romanticized, well-publicized ideal. Most have experienced the Crips and Bloods only through film and TV, as a fictional construct, a grittier version of West Side Story’s Sharks and Jets.

In the offices of Breaking the Cycle, a gang exit organization located in a strip mall on Midland Avenue, sitting among the counsellors and mentors was Cory Salmon, a 24-year-old who was graduating from the six-month program. Salmon was wearing oversized hip-hop fatigues and had a lean Snoop Dogg look. He said music has replaced crime for him. He is writing songs that resonate, like those of (the late) Tupac Shakur, (the late) Notorious B.I.G. and (the famously wounded—shot nine times) 50 Cent, songs that will still have relevance 10 years after they were written.

The Scarborough of the past decade was, for Salmon, ephemeral: “For me, reality never really happened. I don’t know how to explain it. It was like nothing was real. I never really took anything seriously.”

This sense of disengagement isn’t novel. Before writing on the dangers of multiculturalism, Robert Putnam wrote about civic disengagement in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. A similar situation exists in Canada, with declining voter turnout (the last Ontario election was a historic low at 52.7 per cent), the decline of social organizations (everything from bowling leagues to Boy Scouts) and increased dependence on social services. In a national survey, the Dominion Institute found 46 per cent of respondents unable to name the country’s first prime minister.

In Scarborough, there is the irony that boys are being killed because they are holding on to vestiges of their country of origin, but the new country remains undefined. Scarborough is not an anomaly but a harbinger. The unreality that Cory Salmon described was shared by the girl at Winston Churchill who had failed to be moved in the way the tearful, hugging cliques of American students are routinely moved. It was shared perhaps by the Malvern Crew, the 2004 takedown of which yielded, among other things, dozens of gangster videos, including The Godfather and Scarface. It is shared to some degree by the 63 per cent of Canadians who can’t recite the first line of the national anthem, and the 22 per cent who believe that “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is Canada’s constitutional slogan. And the unreality is glimpsed in the world that Oliver Crockford created in a spirit of post-war optimism and developer kickbacks, a place intended for war veterans who would leave behind the violence of Europe and return to a world that was egalitarian, green, harmonious and hopeful.


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