Cease Fire: Reclaiming our Communities

A community in profile: Weston-Mount Dennis

Our community round table participants, (L-R) Cutty Duncan, Armstrong Boateng, host Matt Galloway, Lekan Olawoye and Shadya Yasin (Morgan Passi/CBC)

Often referred to as the priority neighbourhood that is not a priority any more, the Toronto neighbourhood of Weston-Mount Dennis rarely makes the front pages, and even when it does, it's guns, gangs, poverty and violence that dominate.

Kodak Plant circa 1930 (William James, City of Toronto Archives)

Weston-Mount Dennis started off like many other Toronto outer neighbourhoods.

The suburb was anchored at the turn of the 19th century by a boatyard on the Humber River, while gravel and clay pits, interspersed with orchards, made for a sparsely populated rural setting.

That was until Kodak Canada arrived during World War I.

Industrial development was triggered by the arrival of the photography giant, which set up its factory on Eglinton Avenue and Weston Road, right beside the railway corridor.

The community prospered as almost all employment was pegged to this one factory complex often referred to as Kodak Heights. Workers at Kodak and the nearby stockyards built homes, gradually filling the streets with the current housing stock of cottages and small, fully detached homes. These middle class dwellings became the most affordable housing in Toronto for both new immigrants and first-time homeowners.

Then in 2005 Kodak packed up and left, as did many associated jobs.

Economic Challenges

The neighbourhood is now best known for a string of hair salons and barbershops. (Google)

“The loss of Kodak was a blow to the community and is one of the reasons it is the poorest of the 13 priority neighbourhoods in Toronto,” says Cutty Duncan, project director at the Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC) project in Mount Dennis.

Working out of a single unit in a nameless strip mall on Weston Road, just like many others on that stretch, Duncan’s tiny office has turned into a community hub of sorts.

It is from there that he leads the West End Local Economic Development (WELED) project, which is working with local residents helping them to start small businesses in the community with the help of micro grants.

“The urgent need is to create employment capacity in the community. And with Kodak gone, people lost ownership and pride in their neighbourhood leading to a downward spiral,” says Duncan of ANC.

“At WELED, we are trying to rebrand the neighbourhood from one of need and want to one that can offer something special to those from outside the community. For example, we have so many hair salons and barbershops in the area. Instead of saying there are too many, let us brand Weston-Mount Dennis as a go-to place for black people to do their hair.”

Lekan Olawoye (Morgan Passi/CBC)

Located in the riding of York South-Weston, Weston-Mount Dennis is the landing spot for hundreds of immigrants, making it a microcosm of Toronto's diversity, with dozens of ethnic groups represented - the largest being from the Caribbean and West Africa.

“With this diversity comes incredible challenges,” says Lekan Olawoye, project director at the For Youth Initiative, a charitable organization that aims to boost civic engagement.

“Language barriers, parental disconnect, lowering the bar for kids in priority neighbourhoods have led to Weston-Mount Dennis having the dubious distinction of having the third-highest high school dropout rate in Toronto,” says Olawoye, who also grew up in a similar priority neighborhood in Rexdale.

And with almost 30 per cent of the population under 24 years of age, the neighbourhood faces challenges on more than one front.

Access to prosperity

“Aggressive community policing [part of the Toronto police's anti-violence intervention strategy initiative] is intimidating, and black males in particular feel racially profiled rather than supported," says Shadya Yasin, a Somali-Canadian who works and lives in the neighbourhood.

Shadya Yasin (Morgan Passi/CBC)

"This translates into huge numbers in an area where 23 per cent of the population is black.”

Yasin, who heads the York Youth Coalition (YYC), is leading the charge to obtain a receipt component to police carding.

On Nov. 14 the YYC will be attending the Toronto Police Services Board meeting where police carding will be on the agenda.

Olawoye, meanwhile, wants to hold all stakeholders to account - parents, teachers and the government.

“We need to get our kids back in school for them to be better employed and for that we need to integrate their parents into the work force as well," he said.

"We must give all our citizens equal access to prosperity, which I feel is not happening in this neighbourhood.”

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What do we - Toronto’s residents, neighbours, police and government - still need to accomplish to reclaim our communities? Stay tuned to Metro Morning for in-depth interviews from CBC Toronto's Mary Wiens.

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