Arts·Point of View

Sorry, not sorry, Toronto — some of 2017's most intriguing art is from Scarborough

Take a trip to the suburbs. Scarborough inspired books, art and film this year and its moment is long overdue.

Take a trip to the suburbs. Scarborough inspired books, art and film this year and its moment is long overdue

Scene from Wexford Plaza. (levelFILM)

When I immigrated to Canada from London, my mother and I moved into a basement apartment in Scarborough.

We lived in an isolated suburban neighbourhood filled with eerily quiet streets and a public transit schedule that was so irregular it almost felt non-existent.

I rarely think about those early and difficult years, but in recent months I've been reflecting on my time in Scarborough because this east end Toronto suburb has become the unlikely site for some of the most intriguing art and culture this year.

It's inspired literature. David Chariandy's Brother, which won the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, is a novel about two sons of Trinidadian immigrants growing up in a housing complex. And the aptly titled Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez is a beautiful novel about a constellation of characters living in the community.

Joyce Wong's Wexford Plaza brought Scarborough to the screen this fall. Her critically acclaimed feature follows a lonely strip-mall security guard and a charming bartender.

And in art, Alyssa Fearon's No Vacancy was a brilliantly conceived exhibition inspired by the history of a local motel strip. Nuit Blanche will even expand to Scarborough next year. (Fearon is the curator.)

So why has this place suddenly become a muse to so many?

Historically, Scarborough has been an affordable option in the GTA, making it the destination for many newcomers to Canada. Arriving from places such as the Caribbean and Sri Lanka, the Philippines and China, this pocket of the GTA is a perfect snapshot of the diversity Toronto prides itself on.

It's also home to countless stories of the immigrant dream, a topic that's inspired Canadian storytellers including Austin Clarke and Deepa Mehta. Their work, though, focused on the newcomers. In the movies and books and art I've seen this year, it's the next generation that takes centre stage — and they're showing us what Canada looks like through their eyes.

They're people who were raised under the weight of their parents' dreams, growing up in the townhouses, shelters and strip malls of Scarborough.

(Arsenal Pulp Press)

In Chariandy and Hernandez's novels, the parents work low-wage jobs (when they can find employment) with no protection and no benefits. They wake before the sun rises and return after it has gone down. Both authors paint detailed images of the people of colour waiting in cold bus shelters for a public transit system that never prioritized the east end suburbs in its service plans.

For the young characters in both books, their parents' struggle to survive casts a shroud of disillusionment over their personal ambitions. These characters are alienated from their families' home countries, but they are also aware of why Canada has not welcomed their parents with open arms. They have complicated relationships with this country — and they challenge the myths of diversity, plurality and meritocracy that Canada holds dear.

It's something Hernandez talked about in an interview with Toronto's Now magazine this spring.

"People often ask me, 'Why do the characters keep referring to each other as brown or white?' The answer is that there's an honesty about racism here [in Scarborough] that you don't see downtown," she said. "Downtown it's insidious. There's a Canadian politeness that I don't appreciate as a brown person. Here we're clear."

Geography is another prevailing theme in the Scarborough stories I've come across this year. The region is filled with epic natural beauty; The Rouge Valley in Brother and the Scarborough Bluffs in Wexford Plaza are places where the characters escape the confines of their day to day lives.

Chariandy told the Toronto Star that he wanted Brother to highlight the beauty of Scarborough's green space, because it's so rarely associated with the place.

It might be more common to think of Scarborough as a faded suburb. It's filled with buildings that recall an earlier generation's abandoned dreams.

Before the 401 highway was built, for example, Kingston Road was the entryway to the city, and the street was lined with businesses that catered to the traffic. When the highway came, they were no longer needed. Motels were abandoned or repurposed. Some became overflow spaces for the shelter system, a site of refuge for newcomers and/or a place where sex workers conducted business.

In March this year, Fearon's art show No Vacancy explored the memory of these places. Once symbols of progress and possibility, she resurrected them for 2017. The show included archive photos from the strip's glory days alongside art by Sandra Brewster, Nadijah Robinson and Curtia Wright.

From the exhibition, No Vacancy. Image of Motel KIN-TOR, 4532 Kingston Rd., 1954 © Scarborough Historical Society. (Scarborough Historical Society)
Curtia Wright's Paraiso I (male). The painting appeared in No Vacancy. (Collection of David Mitchell Studio)

Wong's movie Wexford Plaza is set at a strip mall. Like the motels on Kingston Road, the place is a ghost of its former self.

In an interview with CBC Toronto last week, Wong talked about how Scarborough's  strip malls have a history that's tied to the entrepreneurial dreams of so many newcomers.

"[Strip malls in Scarborough] have this '60s idealism but also this immigrant multi-layered diverse feel," she said. "There's just a romanticism to them that's getting lost because they're all getting replaced by these big box stores in the suburbs right now."

The artists' interest in old Scarborough motels and plazas is about more than nostalgia, though. It illustrates the gaps and silences that continue to make certain people and communities invisible.

The settings of so many of the Scarborough stories I encountered this year are forgotten spaces, often governed and administered by people in the city who make decisions from a distance: the townhouse complex in Chariandy's Brother, the literacy program in Hernandez's Scarborough, the strip mall in Wexford Plaza and the motel strip in Fearon's No Vacancy.

In each example, you can feel the isolation. The characters are segregated psychologically, socially and geographically from the rest of Toronto — even though they're just a 30-minute drive from the downtown core.

Nailing that feeling was important to Wexford Plaza, as Wong told CBC Toronto: "I really wanted to show the isolation and loneliness of growing up in the working class suburbs. And I haven't really seen a lot of films that talk about spaces like that. If it's suburban it's very like upper-middle class and wealthy, and if it's not that, it's very destitute. So I wanted to show something in the middle."

A scene from Wexford Plaza. (levelFILM)

And yet these are also stories of life and love and community. Hernandez interviewed Chariandy about Brother for Quill & Quire earlier this year, and in their conversation, she reflected on the literary significance of her hometown.

"When people ask me, 'Why write about Scarborough?' I tell them that in this area, people are keepers of stories," she wrote.

In both her novel and Chariandy's book, Brother, there's a persistent sense of the violence their characters endure daily, but that violence is not the sum total of their lives.

As Chariandy told Hernandez in that previously mentioned interview: "The reason I'm so drawn to thinking and writing about Scarborough is because I have always been aware of the other stories of that area: the extraordinary resilience of the working families and individuals, the stories of everyday tenderness between young Black and Brown men, when oftentimes the fictions about Scarborough were about violence and crime. I felt I had to confront those narratives and portray the vitality of the life there."

There is a brilliant authenticity in each of these projects that captures the small moments of joy and delicate balances of intimacy that are also part of everyday life. The mothers in Scarborough and Brother love fiercely, trying in a multitude of ways to prepare their children for a world that seems hell-bent on disinheriting them. Meaningful connection is found in nail shops and libraries. Parking lots and motels become unintended sites of intimacy and care.

The artistic possibility here is rich, and the same goes for places like it. It's about time we saw Scarborough's stories being told.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.


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