For the cover story of The Grid’s March 27 edition, we looked at the premeditated, accelerated gentrification effort happening along the East Danforth. Now, we venture to an area on the other side of the city where change is coming at a far slower, more difficult pace. But for residents of the notoriously beleaguered Mount Dennis, it’s a relief that it’s coming at all.
Weston Road gets pretty desolate north of Eglinton Avenue. Mixed in among the hairdressers and barbers are a handful of Caribbean and African fast food spots, discount shops, storefront churches, and the inevitable Coffee Time. There are lots of abandoned businesses, too, but even the ones with goods on the shelves don’t keep anything like regular hours. This is Mount Dennis; it’s where I grew up, and it’s supposed to be the worst neighbourhood in the city.
My family moved to Mount Dennis around World War One, just before Kodak—a tech giant of its day, producing film, paper, and cameras for the world—opened its factory east of where Eglinton, then a dirt road, crossed Weston and its trolley line. A railway ran through it and industry grew around it: Kodak and CCM, Dominion Bridge, Ferranti-Packard and Pepsi-Cola. Except for the big Irving Tissue plant near Jane Street and Weston, they are all gone now.
Kodak was the last, closing in 2005. Then a string of homicides earned Mount Dennis the title Toronto’s murder capital. Police routinely stopped locals to ask them for ID. The neighbourhood had some of the lowest house values in the city. By the end of the decade, the area developed dubious hipster cred thanks to Building 9, the last remnant of the Kodak plant, now a magnet for “ruin porn” photography and illegal parties. In 2013, Toronto Life put Mount Dennis at the very bottom of its survey ranking 140 Toronto neighbourhoods, below famous urban trouble zones like Regent Park and North St. James Town.
However, the neighbourhood might be on the brink of revival. It was announced not long ago that the area will become a major transit hub: The western terminus of the Eglinton LRT line will be located on the far side of Black Creek on the former Kodak lands, where the TTC plans to build a yard for their new rolling stock along with a junction for the LRT, the GO train line, and the upcoming Pearson Express line. Something is happening in Mount Dennis, and for once it doesn’t involve a newspaper headline that reads: “Youth shot dead.” Many residents are hoping that the transit extension, along with other upgrades like a new community centre and a freshly renovated library, will bring life and commerce back to Mount Dennis. Meanwhile, Refocus Kodak, a grassroots community project, is surveying locals to find out their ideas for the redeveloped Kodak site.
Down at City Hall, Frances Nunziata is trying to manage the change. The longtime councillor for Ward 11 and the last mayor of the City of York before amalgamation, Nunziata wants to rally the community to deal with whatever comes next. “We have in place with the LRT and the station and the community centre being completed. I think once that happens you’ll see everything coming together. I have been speaking to landlords on Weston Road and they’re asking questions. They’re asking what the city would allow them to do. I think it’s started. I think they just need to see things getting done.”
When Kodak opened in Mount Dennis, the neighbourhood existed far beyond the city’s borders. It was surrounded by woodlots, market gardens, and gravel pits, in an area urban historians call an “unplanned suburb”—dirt roads and roughly surveyed lots, ready for anyone willing to build a house with the vague promise that the city would one day put in paving and sewers and maybe even a school.
By the time I was a boy, the roads were paved and the sewers were dug and men like my grandfather had built up the empty lots into neat streets of small, tidy houses. Two wide strips of green remained, running along Black Creek as it cut around Mount Dennis to the east and south, and down at the Eglinton Flats, where the market gardens gave way to tennis courts and soccer fields, cricket pitches, a golf course, and a park where spring water collected in a ditch. For the worst neighbourhood in Toronto, Mount Dennis has green space that most of the best areas on Toronto Life’s list would envy.
This is where Dave Watkins feels at home. Dave was born in Mount Dennis, worked at Kodak till just before it closed, and moved back to his family home to take care of his ailing mother after his marriage went south. Tattoos of little green frogs peek out from his shirtsleeve as he tells me about his volunteer work for Parks Canada, the Toronto Zoo, and the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority. He’s the groundskeeper for the community garden and monitors the population of turtles, frogs, and other small wildlife living in Topham Pond—the onetime ditch, now the centerpiece of the park.
The population of Mount Dennis is roughly 20,000. People there hail from Trinidad, Jamaica, Vietnam, the Philippines, Somalia, Korea, and China. But many are, like Watkins and his mom, white, working-class longstanding residents who remember when Weston was a thriving high street. He knows things are about to change, but he doesn’t think he’ll be around to see it happen. “This is the problem,” he tells me over coffee. “It’s not coming fast enough for me. I’m 63. I would like to wait and stay here to see what happens, but I can’t guarantee that now.”
He may not have to wait that long. Last year, the Mount Dennis library reopened to rave reviews after a major renovation, with a bright and airy new space with sunlit benches looking out picture windows onto Weston. Down where Eglinton crosses Black Creek they’re working on the community centre, an architectural showpiece that Nunziata has been lobbying to get built for almost two decades. Up and down Weston, there are rumours that properties are trading hands to new owners waiting for the transit hub to open.
On the adjacent streets, Mount Dennis is no longer a loser in the city’s real estate boom. Two years ago, the detached, three bedroom house across the street from where I grew up sold for $375,000; it had gone on the market ten months before for $314,000, and was sold again with no renovations or improvements. Another house down the street recently went for $440,000 after an impressive reno. Houses are being torn down and built to the edges of their lots, while developers are assembling adjacent plots for townhomes.
On Weston, south of Eglinton, business at Caplan’s Appliances has long been booming. It’s an impressive showroom fronted in stone and frosted glass, where people drive in from all over the city to buy high-end fridges and stoves. On the day I talk to Robert Caplan, the grandson of the store’s founder, there’s a Porsche parked outside, probably the only Porsche you’ll find in Mount Dennis. Caplan says the location is the key to the company’s success—even if the adjacent stretch of Weston still looks like a Depression-era newsreel, he has parking and low property taxes and convenient access to Eglinton, Jane, and nearby Black Creek Drive as it feeds off the 401.
He tells me that nearby properties are being bought up and the absentee landlords are either disappearing or waiting to cash in. For his part, he’d love to see a few decent shops that would appeal to his customers, even if they aren’t a draw for locals, and maybe a nice place to eat. He says he’s had investors knock on his door asking if he’d like in on redevelopment deals nearby. “I tell them I already own enough real estate.”
For some parts of Mount Dennis, however, revitalization remains tenuous. In an old warehouse just off Weston, Marlene McKintosh runs UrbanArts, a community centre targeted at local youth. She tries to lure local kids, mostly Caribbean, Somali, and South Asian, away from gangs and crime with the promise of cooking and dance classes, a music studio and courses to learn coding and website building.
She knows that the streets outside are neither attractive nor friendly, and she’s doubtful about the heavy-handed profiling that results in kids being stopped to fill out “field information reports” by police, the “carding” that puts you in a police database, whether you’re innocent or guilty.
“Even if they don’t have a criminal record, they have a police record because they’re in the police database as having ‘interacted’ with the police,” she says. “It hinders their progress, and when we work with young people to get to a certain point and they have an interaction—and sometimes not a positive one—with the police, it sets them back, and it’s like starting all over again.”
Jeffery Edwards is 16 and a musician. He works after school at UrbanArts, and says that every newspaper story that calls his neighbourhood a “high crime area” just makes it worse. “I feel like there’s so much talent and dedication and hungry people in the neighbourhood, but because it’s called a ‘bad area,’ they feel they’re limited.”
I tell him about what Weston was like when I was a kid: It had a drug store and a hardware store, a travel agent, a bakery, dress shops, a tailor and even a pet shop. “It sounds like fun,” he says. He’s looking forward to the transit hub connecting the area with the rest of the city, but he’d love to see more community centres and events, and maybe a weekend flea market, some place for locals to sell and trade and get to know each other better. He doesn’t mind if relatively cheap housing pulls a bunch of new people into the area. “If people don’t know about the area, don’t know it’s supposed to be bad, it’s a good thing. As long as they don’t judge.”
Everyone in Mount Dennis, it seems, is waiting, looking as Nunziata put it, “to see things getting done.” Harry Vandekamp, whose family has been running Golden Crisp Fish & Chips for over 50 years, points to the homes on either side of Weston, very nice, but only a block deep before they meet the railway tracks on one side or the long drop down to the Eglinton Flats on the other. He wants more density, as part of the city’s official plan to build up blocks near major intersections, but just a few storeys worth—no tower blocks. “Quality homes,” he says, “even rentals, but where people have some sense of ownership.”
Mount Dennis, the unplanned suburb, was always a victim of history. Just as industrial jobs fled the city and new technology turned factories into relics, the way we shopped bled the life out of high streets like Weston Road. First came the malls, like Jane Park Plaza out on the edge of the neighbourhood, which in turn declined as we got in cars and traveled further, to shopping centres and big box stores. Growing up in Mount Dennis, I was ignorant of these trends, but I saw the stores closing and since I didn’t have anything like Jeffery Edwards’ pride in my neighbourhood when I was his age, I left.
Planners might have finally shifted their gaze on the area, but Mount Dennis will still resist their intentions. Gentrification, if it happens, won’t look anything like Leslieville or the Junction, and will have to adapt to the neighbourhood’s difficult geography and location, not to mention the locals, with their frustrated needs and deep roots. The community’s transformation will probably look more like Parkdale: a long, slow, challenging evolution.
The future of Weston Road probably won’t involve a chic maternity boutique, an organic charcuterie, or an indie coffeehouse, but everyone knows that rising house prices and the transit hub will bring new people. The ultimate configuration of those people and this place remains unclear. But plans have never meant much in this unplanned suburb and any change, after all, looks good when you’re looking up from the bottom. So the residents here all sit and wait, just a little longer.