A new generation is laying down roots and bringing change to the sprawling cultural and culinary hub
Scarborough politicians hope the LRT extension will bring new development.
Scarborough is having a moment — and not just because the Weeknd headlined the Super Bowl. The cultural and culinary hot spot has also become a real estate destination in an overpriced Toronto market.
On one hand, Scarborough has some of the most affordable neighbourhoods in the city. On the other, those neighbourhoods are seeing prices go up faster than most areas. Malvern, for instance, had the lowest average home prices in Toronto, but also the highest condo appreciation rates in 2020.
That means buyers, custom home builders and developers all have their eyes on Toronto’s largest and most diverse borough, home to the Scarborough Bluffs and Rouge Park – the largest urban park in North America, where bike trails take you through wildlife and ravines.
Condo and townhome developments are popping up on Kingston Road in front of Birch Cliff bungalows teasing scenic views of the bluffs. In West Hill, the Weeknd’s old hood, sprawling wooded properties are becoming sites for large custom homes that sell proximity to the Rouge and the Guild. In Malvern, a townhouse development is sprouting in the small patch of grass near Lester B. Pearson Collegiate. And basically every corner that holds promise for a Scarborough subway stop could potentially turn into Yonge and Eglinton.
“Scarborough is seeing prices and bidding wars like never before,” says Odeen Eccleston, a broker at WE Realty and a Malvern native. She notes that the new residents include a younger generation that grew up in Scarborough along with others drawn into the area’s sexy new branding as a cultural hotspot that features emerging artists and a coveted, dynamic food scene. Meanwhile older generations have been moving out to the 905, in search of even larger properties at more affordable prices.
Eccleston is one of the many voices from Scarborough – including artists and writers Anique Jordan, Huda Hassan and Suresh Doss – who spoke with NOW about the east end’s appeal, ongoing real estate developments and promises that a Scarborough subway is at the end of the rainbow. They also weigh in on what the recent migration to the city’s final real estate frontier means for a borough with its own distinct cultures.
Condo developments and bidding wars are increasingly common in Scarborough.
“The soul and the essence of who we are is just a mosaic of authentic culture,” says Eccleston, explaining why Scarborough is appealing to residents new and old from all sorts of backgrounds. There’s a pride in the individual cultures that sprawl over Scarborough’s geographic diversity, from Birch Cliff to Dean Park. Mediterranean cultures set up shop near Wexford, while Asians dominate Agincourt. Malvern and Cedarbrae’s largely Black population mingle with the strong South Asian presence in Woburn.
“You can feel comfortable no matter what country you come from.”
Scarborough is massive. It used to be its own city. The geography of Birch Cliff, which now looks like an extension of the Beach, looks nothing like Bendale, which is keeping its quiet suburban charm despite the bustle of city centre traffic just along Markham, McCowan and Brimley roads.
“If you talk to people who are really full of pride about Scarborough, they will break it up into like five different regions,” says Suresh Doss, the food columnist who has been giving culinary tours through the east end to chefs and foreign media for the last 14 years. Scarborough has long been tagged a global food destination, because the ethnic diversity of the population breeds what Doss calls the “A to Z” of authentic international cuisine in a 10-kilometre radius.
Doss points out how restaurants are usually just a calling card for an ethnic hub. Take Lawrence East. You don’t just find the best shawarma on Lawrence. You find the halal butcher shop and the Middle Eastern grocery store around the corner. You find the makeup of the community that grew to nurture the best shawarma.
“It’s an old adage that if you want to find a community that has a cultural context, look for the convenience store or the baker or the butcher shop,” says Doss, who adds that such a food scene is a by-product of a broken transit system.
Doss explains how ethnic grocery stores and restaurants rose up from the city’s disconnect to serve immigrant populations living in nearby apartment blocks who don’t have access to cars.
“They may not necessarily want to take two bus rides to get their meat, groceries or their preferred food,” says Doss, explaining how remedying such inconveniences strengthened Scarborough’s food scene. “The worst transit system in North America has allowed us to have these micro neighbourhoods that are independent from each other.”
“I’m very intentional about travelling to the rest of the city,” says culture writer and critic Huda Hassan, explaining it’s a two-hour TTC trek from Malvern to other parts of the city. “Is this thing I need downtown specific, or can I get this in Scarborough too?”
Hassan is actually moving back to Malvern after living downtown for school. She’s tired of the homogeneity in the core, which keeps setting her up for a shock whenever she rides the TTC back to Malvern and sees so many Black people on the 131 bus.
“I’m deprived,” says Hassan.
She’s also been paying attention to this Scarborough moment, where so many of the kids from Malvern or Cedarbrae are making waves in Toronto’s art scene.
“I just started to book how many Black artists are contributing to so much right now,” says Hassan.
She’s not just talking about global breakthroughs like the Weeknd or If Beale Street Could Talk actor Stephan James. She’s talking about local artists repping Scarborough, like rapper Just John and surrealist Lego artist Ekow Nimako, whose Afrofuturist work has graced NOW’s cover. Hassan name drops installation artist Noor Khan, video editor Jordan Hayles, Brother author David Chariandy, composer Jahmal Padmore, artist and curator Anique Jordan, among others.
“Just like how Oakwood Collegiate seems to be producing all these dope artists, there’s a lot of people I’m clocking from Markham Road.”
The ME development at Markham and Ellesmere is underway.
The corner of Markham and Ellesmere is familiar to most who grew up in deep Scarborough neighbourhoods like Woburn, Malvern or Cedarbrae. This was the location of our Red Lobster. Greasy burger joint the Real McCoy is in the next plaza, near where the distinctive light brown cylindrical apartment buildings off Brimorton use to be. McCoy is the last of these landmarks still standing. In their place will be five to eight condo towers.
According to Urban Toronto, Arya Corporation has recently submitted a rezoning application to build three condo towers housing 1,040 residential units over the south east corner strip plaza. It would be tucked in between the 1,200-unit ME development by Lash Group of Companies that’s underway.
Lash Group president Larry Blankenstein tells NOW the area’s revitalization was planned alongside former city councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker.
“Nothing new has been built there since the 60s or early 70s,” says Blankenstein, relaying conversations with De Baeremaeker from a dozen years ago that fuelled the Markham and Ellesmere revitalization plan. Blankenstein’s company owned a couple of low-rise apartment buildings, which they built in the late 50s and have now been replaced with a new rental tower that is also part of the ME development.
Both the rental tower and the first condo tower at ME are already occupied. The second, ME2, is under construction and sold out. The third, called Tricycle, is 95 per cent sold out. Two more condos will come to market in the fall. The development will also have an outdoor skating rink and a $1.8 million park Lash is building for the city.
Blankenstein says many buyers are the younger generation who grew up in Scarborough and are choosing to buy close to home.
Eccleston brought clients to the ME condos herself, adding that the pre-construction sales from five years ago drew lineups around the corner. She points out that condo and townhome developers are also breaking ground in areas like Birch Cliff, Agincourt and Malvern because the demand for Scarborough is real.
“Certainly we’ve seen more people moving to Scarborough during the pandemic,” says Scarborough-Rouge Park councillor Jennifer McKelvie.
She’s noticed the uptick in development, particularly along the desirable parts of Kingston Road. She’s also noticed new neighbours looking for more green space and bigger homes to accommodate home offices. Scarborough is benefitting from the urban exodus that is also seeing prices jump up in Durham and Peel.
“A lot of people are moving out there because the prices in the areas surrounding it are ridiculous,” say RE/MAX Hallmark realty broker Meray Mansour. “You’re getting more bang for your buck there.”
Mansour adds that Scarborough values are jumping more than ever. Bungalows and side splits in Bendale and West Hill are listed between $799,000 and $1.2 million, with most hovering around $900,000. Properties in highly coveted lakeside areas like Guildwood are up about 20 per cent, which is more aggressive than ever for Scarborough. And she’s noticed custom builders are scooping up detached homes in Bendale, Birch Cliff, West Hill and Agincourt.
“You’re getting a lot of builders who see that potential and they’re buying the little bungalows on a good sized lot, putting up a monster Forest Hill type house and selling it for over $2 million now.”
The development will only become more intense if construction on the Scarborough subway ever gets off the ground.
Birch Cliff is highly sought after by young professionals with families.
The Scarborough subway has been a conversation since the late 60s. Artist and curator Anique Jordan found references to it in planning documents for Malvern, where she grew up. Those documents, which Jordan used as research for her projects, suggested that if the community became largely populated, the subway could extend out to reach it.
More than 50 years later, there’s no Scarborough subway, nor are there plans for any subway to reach Malvern. However, current proposals do incorporate ways to integrate Toronto’s northeast corner into a more efficient transit system.
Toronto has committed $1.2 billion towards the extension of the Eglinton Crosstown — the light rail transit system (LRT) that has torn up Eglinton Avenue for the last decade — so that it will continue through Scarborough. The LRT would continue down Eglinton East to Kingston Road, then north on Morningside, west on Sheppard East, and north on Nielson to Malvern.
“We’re in active discussions with both the provincial and federal government for matching funds,” says McKelvie, who adds that there is research being done to close the loop, connecting a possible extension of the LRT along Sheppard with a potential extension of the Sheppard subway line. Both would also connect with the Scarborough subway, which in its current rendering with funding from the provincial and federal government will run from Kennedy to Scarborough Town Centre to Sheppard.
“I’m hopeful that other levels of government will step up to make this great project a reality,” says McKelvie. “The main goal is to serve our existing community, which desperately needs transit, and the priority neighborhoods that are along that corridor.”
McKelvie also says the LRT is likely to draw development along the Kingston, Eglinton and Sheppard corridors.
Doss wonders how many restaurants along those corridors would survive considering the kind of construction that this would invite.
“You’re going to lose a good chunk of Sri Lankan businesses that are on McCowan and Eglinton East. You’re going to lose a good chunk of like the old-school diners… There’s no way we’ll be able to preserve my favourite Malaysian place. There’s no way we’ll be able to preserve my favourite place to go for Indian biryani, Silver Spoon. They are all at the mercy of landlords who are now sitting on small strip-mall property that can easily be taken over by a big developer.”
Jordan wonders what will become of all the motels on Kingston. They were built as nap stops for truckers who used to pass through when the strip was a highway. Now they are transitional housing, says Jordan, often providing shelter support for women or refugees with subsidies from Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration.
“That all gets lost,” says Jordan. “There’s just a lot of things to think through.”
A few months ago, Hassan was in the parking lot at Markham Station, a Scarborough staple 24-hour diner at the corner of Markham and Sheppard. There’s a new mixed condo and townhouse development across the street. And Hassan noticed the difference. She was hearing all kinds of music coming from different quarters as if there were younger crowds hosting parties. It felt like a new demographic had taken over an area once synonymous with families and children.
“It felt like a Scarborough version of Liberty Village,” she says. “That’s where it particularly started to feel like the G word was coming through.”
Hassan gets the sense that over the next decade, gentrification “will become a capital-G situation” in Scarborough.
Hassan, Jordan and Doss agree that the very things Scarborough is celebrated for are under threat with gentrification. Scarborough culture breeds artists, but now, Jordan points out, the arts institutions are eyeing Scarborough. Nuit Blanche moved into Scarborough. So did the Contact Photo Festival. Jordan curated their Malvern-focused show, Three-Thirty.
“A lot of different arts events that used to happen downtown are now looking to Scarborough,” says Jordan, noting the role artists and creatives play in gentrification. “Arts and culture is moving in or taking up Scarborough as this new, sexy space.”
“And with that, middle-class families follow,” Hassan adds. “Before you know it, the mom-and-pop shops will be replaced with chain restaurants.”
Jordan has been thinking a lot about Scarborough’s branding as a food destination, especially in the context of a culinary hierarchy, where ethnic food is often written about as cheap eats and removed from its context.
“There are so many roti shops that are like roti/rum shops,” says Jordan, referencing the distinct personality that family-run operations bring to these cuisines. In Scarborough, you can get your roti from the Guyanese bar or your pupusa from the Latin grocer.
“But downtown it’s like, ‘The Roti Man,’” says Jordan, squirming at how ethnic food would be “McDonald-ized” into a fast food for dense, impersonal populations. “Then everyone goes there. As opposed to the roti shop that’s always been around that you may not even know sells roti because they’re really a bar.”
Doss agrees. He goes back to the idea of ethnic hubs, where the grocers, restaurants and communities found equilibrium, creating an ecosystem of supply and demand.
He brings up grocers like Bombay Foods, who serve produce but also have hot prepared snacks like samosas, mutton rolls or roti behind the cash counter.
“That’s usually a sign the owner has partnered with someone from an apartment building across the street who is making and supplying them with roti,” says Doss, explaining how gentrification would disrupt that system. “That’s a unique thing that is similar to Queens and Harlem [in New York City], where bodegas also function as these micro communal pop-ups. We will lose all that if [a big development] goes up. That is the roots of the tree that you can’t see.”
Doss adds another example: Markham and Ellesmere.
A stone’s throw from the aforementioned condo developments is Tuxedo Court, five towers surrounding green space. In the past, Tuxedo Court had a dominant West Indian and Tamil population. Today its largely Bangladeshi and Bengali. Either way, the community is serviced by Panchvati Supermarket, which Doss calls his favourite Indian grocery store.
Panchvati has a location in the plaza that Arya Corporation wants to turn into a residential complex. The complex will have commercial space, though it’s unlikely it would make room for Panchvati. Doss has already heard from South Asian grocers who have been denied commercial spaces in condos because the landlords don’t want to house the aroma in their buildings.
“When a condo building goes up, the food is usually an afterthought,” says Doss. “A condo developer will never say, let’s open our ground floor and allow a newcomer or a small business owner access to the space at an affordable price so they can do their food. That never happens.”
Doss recognizes that in some ways he’s pushing back against the inevitable. Scarborough is coming into its own. A new generation is taking hold. And many of the families that made the east end a diverse foodie destination are already moving away to the furthest stretches of the Greater Toronto Area.
“In five years, the best Sri Lankan food is not going to be in Scarborough,” Doss, admits. “It’s going to be in Stouffville, Ajax and Pickering.”
“We evolve, change and find a way. But sometimes that’s not the point. Sometimes it’s important to see if we can keep what we have because it makes us unique.”
Radheyan Simonpillai, Odeen Eccleston and Stephanie Hinds discuss the changing face of Scarborough on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.