The bluffs and Rouge Park give Scarborough majesty, but its the burb’s diversity that will shape Toronto’s future. Photo: Toronto Archives
This summer's gun violence again brought our former inner suburbs into the news as the alleged source of urban troubles. Once again, Scarborough got special mention.
But Scarborough, which represents a third of Toronto's land mass, is a fascinating place and could, with a bit of help, become the most dynamic part of the city.
Not only is it the most diverse part of the most diverse metropolis in the world - two-thirds of its population is foreign-born - but it's also expanding, amazingly, at twice the speed of the downtown core.
Today's Scarborough is predominately the creation of its history: the last half-century of policies accentuated by recent population growth, aging neighbourhoods without sufficient reinvestment, and big reductions in programs because of budget cuts.
The region received its name courtesy of Elizabeth Simcoe, the wife of lieutenant governor John Graves Simcoe, in the late 18th century. It reminded her of the town of Scarborough in North Yorkshire, and the bluffs made her think of the cliffs near her home.
For much of the next 150 years, Scarborough likely resembled its namesake in both its ethnic makeup and its composition - a group of small, rural hamlets serving area farms.
You can still see glimpses of the old Scarborough, but you have to look carefully. Check out the Scarborough Historical Museum in Thomson Memorial Park, named for the family granted the land in 1798, whose descendants donated it to the city. It depicts life in the 1800s and Scarborough's "rural roots, and two centuries of immigration."
The Scarborough Archives at 6282 Kingston Road occupy the site of the recently restored W.J. Morrish General Store, constructed in 1891, which remarkably served the residents of Highland Creek until 1967.
The surge of immigration in the mid-1960s fired the rapid growth of what would become Toronto's inner suburbs. That decade also saw the construction of large rental housing buildings, often in empty fields.
By the late 60s, new factories and the Don Valley Parkway connection to the 401 meant that Scarborough not only had good jobs but also a commuter car link to the downtown. Along Kingston Road just north of Eglinton, a mid-century retail strip seeming frozen in time typifies postwar Scarborough.
Starting in the 1970s, the provincial and federal governments funded new public housing projects. Whereas former waves of immigrants early in the century had settled in Toronto's core, in the 70s and 80s large numbers of new Canadians moved into the inner suburbs. But the borough, later the city of Scarborough, was slow to react to its growing population, as were other areas, and fell behind in needed social infrastructure like libraries and community centres. These weren't built with the same dedication as they had been in the city's core to serve earlier waves of immigrants.
Similarly, while the TTC implemented major bus expansion in the area in 1972, Scarborough's urban planners encouraged a traditional suburban form: strip malls and car reliance. The pattern established after the war - large isolated towers in relatively low-density locations - was allowed to continue.
Scarborough, the Metro government and the province failed to agree on a transit plan until the 80s, when the SRT was built, albeit in a much more limited form than the original plan had envisioned - an LRT-like system running over a wide area.
In the 90s these problems were exacerbated by the Harris Conservatives' cutbacks, and the chaos that followed amalgamation in 1998 crippled municipal government for years.
Today's Scarborough is changing rapidly and has a proud identity. New libraries, services and condo developments are urbanizing the burb. Its individual neighbourhoods, from Malvern to Guildwood, are unique, and there's a lot to attract visitors, from history to good food and some of the best nature within easy reach.
Sheppard East and the Arab supermarkets on Lawrence East offer shopping and restaurants influenced by the ethnocultural mix of the area: Caribbean, Tamil, Pakistani and Filippino. Scarborough is also a hub for the GTA's Chinese community.
The beautiful Rouge River Valley's forests and marshland are among the few areas left in south-central Ontario that have been virtually untouched by development since the arrival of Europeans. And it's reachable by public transit.
Toronto has to help Scarborough lose its negative reputation, because with better services and decent transit links, it wouldn't be surprising if it became one of the city's leading cultural forces.