Yorkdale Shopping Centre and the Downsview Park Merchant’s Market may peddle different visions of Toronto-style striving, but if you’re looking for the future of the city, it’s on offer at both.
The Saturday before Christmas, my wife realized she needed to go to Yorkdale Shopping Centre to buy a specific maternity swimsuit for a beach vacation. My immediate reaction was to groan like a wounded lion. At any given time there are few places I wish to avoid as badly as Yorkdale, but to enter that mall during the busiest shopping weekend of the year is my idea of hell on earth.
Yorkdale and I have a long history. When I was little, my mother wheeled me around Simpsons and Eaton’s in a stroller, shopping for OshKosh B’Gosh overalls, and later held my hand in PJ’s Pets as I selected Freddie and Eddie, a pair of ill-fated goldfish destined for the toilet. I saw the first Batman movie in the long-gone Famous Players multiplex there, and at 13, flush with bar mitzvah gift certificates for HMV and The It Store, I endured a brief mallrat phase with friends, which involved more than one New York Fries food fight.
Soon after I entered high school, my relationship with Yorkdale soured. Each time I visited the mall, I developed a crippling headache, brought on by the stale tang of recycled air, a loop of cheap perfume, and blaring pop music. By then, I’d started to venture downtown, checking out record stores and shoe shops on Queen and Yonge, where there was the promise of danger and cheap street hot dogs. I began to enthusiastically avoid Yorkdale. Each time I’d drive by the place, I’d proudly note the years I’d avoided stepping inside its walls, like an AA member ticking off his time sober.
That Saturday, as I pulled into the long line of cars waiting to enter Yorkdale’s new valet parking area, I saw a mother and daughter, dressed in identical Ugg boots, Lululemon tights, and Canada Goose jackets, step into their car with matching Louis Vuitton bags, and I heard my soul whimper. “I’m sorry,” I said, turning to my wife as she got out of the car. “I can’t do this. Call me when you’re done and I’ll pick you up.”
I had heard there was a flea market in Downsview Park that had a decent international food court. Since it was nearby, and I hadn’t eaten lunch, I decided to check it out. I figured it would be something small and quaint, but when I finally found the entrance to the Downsview Park Merchant’s Market, I was blown away.
There were Peruvian restaurants next to hubcap vendors, Christian gifts next to Korans, nuts and fruit being sold in bulk, piles of cheap underwear and Bob Marley wrap dresses. I ate a garlicky sandwich of Romanian mititei sausages, loaded with onions, and struggled to absorb the entirety of this glorious casbah, which seemed more of a kind with the bazaars of Istanbul, or the street markets of Brazil, than the manicured shopping space I’d escaped on the other side of the 401—let alone the city I’d grown up in. The Downsview Merchant’s Market offered a vision of Toronto at its rawest, as much a part of this city’s worldly aspirations as those women getting into their Mercedes SUV at Yorkdale.
Click through the photo gallery above to compare and contrast
Yorkdale Shopping Centre and The Downsview Merchant’s Market
As a city that’s always struggled to define itself in terms of greatness, one of the things Toronto can proudly celebrate is our flair for commerce. Montreal may have the cool and Vancouver the nature, but Toronto is the country’s undisputed champion of buying and selling things. Whether it’s real estate or retail goods, restaurant meals or cars, we measure our evolution in dollars, erecting forests of luxury condos and gleaming new shops as totems of our success, as though we’re an insecure North American take on Dubai.
Yorkdale, which when it opened in 1964, was the world’s largest mall, has always been the embodiment of that attitude: our “world class” shopping centre. It is now owned and managed by the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) pension fund and Oxford Properties. Last November, Yorkdale unveiled its latest expansion, a $220-million, 145,000-square-foot wing that features a new food court, a Louis Vuitton boutique, a giant Apple store, and the country’s first Tesla Motors dealership, where customers peruse premium electric cars. From a retail-design standpoint, the new wing is striking—the surfaces gleam with polished marble and stone, natural light floods in from above, and elaborate storefronts rise three storeys high, covered in rich wood, shiny glass, and bright marquees, like the entrances to wondrous temples guarded by young, beautiful creatures. In an average week, the mall draws around 400,000 people. Even on a freezing Tuesday night at 8 p.m., it is packed.
The Downsview Merchant’s Market, by contrast, is unabashedly ugly. Spread out in a windowless, 200,000-square-foot former Canadian Armed Forces airplane and munitions factory, its primary aesthetic is raw concrete and dim fluorescent lighting. It opened for business on weekends in 2005, with 300 vendors, and today hosts around 600, depending on the weekend. Around 50,000 people visit the market each week. The space is filled with one big grid of tightly packed makeshift stalls, some simply separated by plastic tarps, arranged in rows with no particular theme or logic. Smells from food sellers mingle together, and the sounds of Bajan dancehall, knockoff video games, and Colombian soap operas fuse together in a wild tumult.
In the centre of this sits the market’s spacious offices, which are decorated with plush leather couches, a fake fireplace, and over a dozen intricate model ships owned by Lily Hinnawi (the market’s founder) and her husband, Ramzi (its CEO). Lily’s father was a vendor at a parking-lot market in Pickering, and the family worked weekends selling everything from CDs and purses to random vintage items her father got his hands on.
“We loved it,” recalls Lily, an attractive 50-year-old woman with blonde highlights. “You had to have a little business sense, because if you didn’t talk and hustle with your customers, you wouldn’t get any.” She went on to enter the wholesale distribution business, and later founded the 747 Flea Market, near Pearson airport, which she sold before opening the Downsview Park Merchant’s Market eight years ago.
A civil engineer by trade, 51-year-old Ramzi, who wears French-cuffed shirts and a large watch, grew up in Amman, Jordan, where he fondly recalls trips to the souk with his mother. “It was a picnic,” he says. “A market is social. At Loblaws, you go and buy what you want and you leave. You don’t interact with anybody. In a market, you get to know the vendors, and they get to know you and your family.”
More than any other force, immigration has transformed Toronto over the past quarter century. Once known as a haven of Anglo-Protestant conservatism, we are now seen as a city driven by risk takers and entrepreneurs from all over the world. The old guard may hold sway in some pockets (it’s still 1971 on many of Bay Street’s corporate boards), but even they realize that Toronto’s future doesn’t lie exclusively in the mansions of Rosedale, Forest Hill, and High Park—it will also be found in the strip malls of Rexdale, the apartments of Parkdale, and the capitalist dreams on offer at places like the Downsview Park Merchant’s Market.
A typical aisle here might have the following vendors in a row: insurance sales (a desk and three chairs), cleaning supplies, sewing machines, sneakers, naturopathic foods from Egypt, Chinese massage, fresh pasta, live fish and reptiles sold as pets, hockey cards and coins, and a watchmaker who specializes in restored cuckoo clocks. It’s random, in the truest sense of the word, and it is filled with unique finds, like the Pita House, a micro-bakery and lunch counter run by Yoav Sahian, a Tel Aviv native and second-generation baker with a Yosemite Sam moustache, who bakes the fluffiest pitas and the flakiest boureka cheese pastry in the city.
“This is the Trudeau vision come to life,” says Sahian, pointing to the diverse array of faces buying and selling during a busy Sunday. “A market needs to be for all the people—for the poor and for the rich. Both of them! That’s a market. Wow!”
Nearby, you’ll find The Original Exotic Knives and Things, where owner Elias Shaikh, dressed in a black shirt and natty wool vest, proudly displays Japanese samurai swords, giant Viking battle axes, and Klingon daggers to his mostly male clientele. “Well, more and more women are getting into this stuff, but that’s because I’m so devastatingly handsome,” says Shaikh, with a wide grin.
He opened here two and a half years ago, after 14 years at Dr. Flea. “This is the biggest flea market in Ontario, and you’ve got a great cross-section that’s truly Toronto,” he says. Economically, the market makes terrific sense to Shaikh. He only pays rent for the two days a week it’s open, and focuses on his wholesale business the rest of the time. That allows him to keep prices lower than downtown knife stores, who sell the same Smith & Wesson tactical blade that Shaikh carries but charge $30 more.
He’s also drawn by the challenge of each sale, which unfolds as a duel between skilled bargainers. “My best market was in Oakville,” he says, describing the wealthy, polite suburb. “They stood in line, paid the [marked] price, and I made great money. But I do really enjoy the bargaining when it’s done as an art form.” Like most merchants at Downsview, Shaikh is an entrepreneur to the core. “When I see someone of talent working in a mall, I’ll say, ‘Why the hell are you here and not running your own business?’ Here, it’s owners of businesses who are interested in selling you something you’d be happy with.” Not, he points out, someone working for an hourly wage.
For many years my aunt worked at Yorkdale, selling clothes at a high-end retailer, and she was never really more than an employee to them. When she was finally retired (despite a desire to continue working), she did not set foot in the mall again, feeling as though she’d been cast aside despite more than a decade of service. Yorkdale isn’t entrepreneurial, it’s corporate. It is punch-clocks and hourly wages, company policy on dress codes, and manuals on how to speak to customers. Its efficient, highly controlled culture is the opposite of the striving, open dynamism that immigration has used to transform Toronto into something fantastic.
“If you go to Yorkdale, people don’t talk with each other like we do here,” says Bina Lee, a woman with a beehive hairdo, who runs the Italian lunch counter Le Bistro near the market’s entrance. Few things depress her more than the lonely sight of the beautiful wood and leather benches in the aisles of Yorkdale, where seniors come to sit, side by side, in reserved silence.
“This is all immigrants,” she says about Downsview, noting that she arrived here from South Korea over 40 years ago. “They’re all sort of innocent. They’ll ask for a sample of a chicken wing or bargain for a cup of coffee, and they’re not embarrassed at all. It’s like relatives, a very warm culture. I feel alive here. I’m breathing.”
When it was conceived by Lily and Ramzi, the whole concept of the market was to give the multicultural strength of the city somewhere to flourish commercially. “We want to give a chance to hope and dream,” says Ramzi, once a striving arrival himself. The market’s advertising targets a rotating list of small community papers around the city—the Iranian paper one week, the Russian one the next—ensuring a diverse mix of vendors and customers who come looking for bargains, and maybe a chance to sell (they receive 10 to 15 requests a week from potential merchants). “This place gives them a job, a new start, and then, let’s see where they can go from there.”
“Newcomers want to stand up and do things for themselves,” says Nanthi Begum, who runs the market’s Asha Perfume boutique on weekends, while working at Tim Hortons during the week. She points to the booths abutting hers, to vendors of socks, hardware, belts, toys, antiques, and bubble tea. “I’m from Bangladesh, he’s from India, she’s from Pakistan, he’s from Iran…. We’re all very close, and we’re all going to grow up, money-wise and population-wise. That’s good for Toronto,” she says. “The dream starts here.”
And yet to walk Yorkdale’s new addition and see second-generation Chinese Canadians shopping for $5,000 Louis Vuitton bags, while a Syrian family climbs into a $103,000 Tesla sedan, is to see that same dream realized. During a recent visit to the mall (my wife commented it was like shopping with a “soaking wet wool blanket,” but we survived), I watched a trio of Somali girls in their early 20s, dressed in silk head scarves and designer jeans, giggle as a young Filipino man wearing a fat Rolex tossed out a procession of cheesy pickup lines. These kids, born to families who may have arrived in Toronto poor and striving, were enjoying everything this city had promised: security, wealth, and the freedom to dress, talk, and flirt as they please. Sure, this was the assimilated, integrated, corporatized version of Toronto, as predictable and unthreatening as the burritos at the new food court’s Chipotle, but it was what they came for.
“Think about how special it is to have the privilege to live here,” says Melanie Lintol, who works at Melo’s Kitchen, a tiny Trinidadian restaurant in the Downsview market’s international food court. During the week, Lintol cooks at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, but on weekends she whips up rotis, curries, and a delectable shark and bake sandwich, which places tender chunks of fried shark meat (not fin, don’t worry) on a chewy fried bun, ladled with five homemade chutneys. It’s a taste that’s vibrant and exotic—a comfort food that’s worth the trip to Downsview alone, and a symbol of where our city’s future lies.
“If a lot of Torontonians would come out more and mingle here, it’d give them a lot more insight into what Toronto’s about,” says Lintol, with a giant smile and a laugh. “We specialize in good attitude here.”