Personal Essay

What most Canadians don't get about 'bad neighbourhoods' like mine

Rania El Mugammar refuses to see her Toronto neighbourhood, St. James Town, as a prop in someone else’s imagination. Through art and education, she claims the right to tell her own story.

Places like Toronto's St. James Town are best understood from the inside

Rania El Mugammar refuses to see her Toronto neighbourhood, St. James Town, as a prop in someone else’s imagination. Through art and education, she claims the right to tell her own story. (Noor Al Mosawi)

We have a saying back home: "Sudan is made beautiful by its people."

In a nation where poverty and conflict have long taken centre stage, that statement rings both beautifully and painfully true.

The same can be said of St. James Town, a so-called "bad neighbourhood" in Toronto, and the place where I have lived and worked for almost a decade.

Despite the decaying towers, splintering concrete, high population density and dilapidated public spaces — all of which speak to decades of marginalization and neglect — I find my neighbourhood, like my home country, startlingly beautiful.

Interconnected lives

Over 17,000 residents live in St. James Town, 67 per cent of whom are first generation Canadians, each with their own "back home" and stories of migration, flight and exile.

Rania identifies as a "black, immigrant, queer Muslim woman who intentionally makes art about the inner city, from the inside." (Arden Maaliq)

My highrise building is full of interconnected lives. Neighbours help raise each other's children. They check on one another when winter storms hit or on the rare occasion that we hear that loud pop of a maybe-firecracker-maybe-gunshot echoing between the tall structures we call home.

My office is situated in Regent Park, just a few blocks away from St. James Town, but most days I leave for work nearly an hour earlier than necessary.

I do so because this neighbourhood is woven like a diverse and interdependent tapestry.

I will stop many times around my block to connect with my neighbours, shopkeepers, elders, street vendors, friends, community workers and local artists who know both me and my son by name.

As my toddler sits huddled in his stroller, the crossing guard makes her way over to him. He smiles as he is showered with love. She hands him a lollipop as she tells me how he's become "skinny" and needs to eat more.

I laugh because it's exactly the sort of remark my aunties would make while we were growing up.

This type of caregiving, which some may see as intrusive, fills me with a sense of nostalgia and gratitude.

Shared sweetness

I am a black, immigrant, queer Muslim woman who intentionally makes art about the inner city, from the inside. And when I consider my responsibility as an artist, I think deeply about what it means to be first and foremost a historian and storyteller.

St. James Town is often a place that folks tell stories about, rather than a place that tells stories about itself. - Rania El Mugammar

In this community, poverty and chronic exclusion breed a need for an interconnectedness that creates resilience and allows us to stretch our meager resources.

The artist inside me documents what she experiences, imagines a different future and does the radical and necessary work of telling painful and complicated stories.

Rania's neighbourhood is often staged as a "ghetto" in TV shows and films. That's not what she sees. (Noor Al Mosawi)

I choose to tell these stories not only about the margins but also from the margins.

St. James Town is often a place that folks tell stories about, rather than a place that tells stories about itself. It serves as the backdrop to many stories told about Toronto, and is often staged as the site of many "ghetto" and "inner city" scenes for film and television.

The stories I tell complicate the "dangerous" neighbourhood narrative. The truth is I feel protected in my community.

One of my favourite memories of this community took place after a particularly challenging fast in the summer of 2013.

The days stretched as the lunar month of Ramadan overlapped perfectly with the longest days of summer. I found myself in a strange spiritual and emotional state from the intensity of the holy month. I was feeling particularly homesick, and my sense of displacement felt overbearing.

Wearing my traditional regalia, I waited for the elevator. The doors opened to a packed elevator carrying Filipino, Ethiopian, Pakistani and Chinese Muslims wearing their Eid best. An outburst of laughter filled the air as folks squeezed their sequined dresses and Jilbabs together to make room for my son and me.

My son greeted my Filipino neighbours in the stray Tagalog he's picked up from the neighbourhood. We took selfies and commiserated together on the state of our broken-down elevators. We shared no languages, but we communicated with animated gestures and pointed to similar designs in our traditional clothing and laughed.

Then the elevator got stuck — so we passed around sweets.

An older Pakistani uncle handed crisp $10 bills to the kids, Eidiya. Someone smelled like sandalwood, and the soothing scent took me back to my grandmother's house in Khartoum; it filled me with a calming sense of belonging.  

Art born of struggle

To me, this neighbourhood is more than a prop in someone else's imagination; it births and nurtures art, like most spaces that sit at the precarious intersection of poverty, otherness and chronic exclusion.

The inner city has its own sound — slang born in the schoolyard and on the street corner or borrowed from the many tongues of its inhabitants. This unique language seeps beyond the borders of our neighbourhoods and informs Toronto's sound and Canada's cultural landscape.

And much like Sudan, St. James Town builds its sense of community around kitchen tables. Whether we eat with bare hands, chopsticks or spoons, sharing food turns neighbours into chosen family.

I live among Canadians who, despite inhabiting different identities, understand the shared experience of having one foot on each side of the atlas and the importance of mutually assured survival.- Rania El Mugammar

On Thursday nights, I host young artists from Regent Park and St. James Town in my small living room, and they entrust me with their battles, dreams and triumphs over stewed lentils and injera that you can buy from any convenience store on my block.

They also do the radical work of documenting these neighbourhoods through art. Most of them use poetry, hip hop and storytelling as a medium because financial barriers often make writing the most accessible art form.

Their poems, narratives and music tell tales of resilience and survival and paint the diversity that Canada, and particularly Toronto, so proudly proclaims.

These young artists are painfully aware of the colour, class and status lines that divide St. James Town and their lives from the rest of Toronto, and the art that is born here is political and necessary, if only by virtue of its place of birth.

I live among Canadians who, despite inhabiting different identities, understand the shared experience of having one foot on each side of the atlas and the importance of mutually assured survival.

The radical work of making art in and about the inner city allows us to document the block sandwiched between Toronto's Parliament, Sherbourne, Wellesley and Bloor streets.

This, too, is a place made beautiful by its people.

Rania says that art born in St. James Town is "political and necessary, if only by virtue of its place of birth." (Noor Al Mosawi)

Pitch your own personal essay to Canada 2017. Do you have a fascinating first-person story about Canada? Is it a point of view that we don't often hear from? Does it challenge stereotypes about Canada or Canadian identity? Read more about how to pitch your essay to Canada 2017. You don't have to be a professional writer — you just need a strong story.

About the Author

Rania El Mugammar

Rania is a Sudanese-Canadian Artist and Equity, Inclusion an Anti Oppression educator/consultant working in Toronto. Her work addresses themes of inclusion, belonging, identity, Blackness, gender and migration.

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