seven years ago i moved down town. I let my North York upbringing slip under a thin, smoggy veneer of downtown snobbery. Like so many Torontonians, I started to actually believe that the suburbs are white, wealthy, reactionary places bereft of warmth and community. I should know better. As we pull up to the Flemingdon Park Resource Centre in Don Mills, I see a group of black men chatting in one neighbour's front yard. Three old women, apparently of South Asian, Caribbean and East European extraction respectively, sit side by side outside a seniors' home adjacent to the community centre. Downstairs in the centre, kids and teenagers mill around, clamouring for the attention of a single grown-up sports coach. Upstairs, a small room quickly fills up for the town hall meeting I've come to attend.
Increasingly, suburbs are areas of rich community spirit, intensely multicultural and struggling with many typically urban problems. In Flemingdon Park, traditionally a first home for new Canadians, some 20,000 people who speak over 80 languages are crammed into high-rise apartments west of the DVP.
City of Toronto statistics show the largest ethnic group in the area to be East Indian, at 16.2 per cent; 28.5 per cent of residents self-identify as being of multiple origin.
For more than 20 years, the Red Cross has operated the only food bank in a large catchment area that includes Flemingdon Park, neighbouring Thorncliffe Park and part of East York. Now, it's decided to cut corners, moving food bank programs and staff to low-rent digs at Leslie and York Mills.
"It's always a difficult decision. It's not something we take lightly," says Pam Davie, director of public affairs for the Red Cross in Ontario. "We were finding it very hard to carry the rent on this program." The organization spent $200,000 yearly running the food bank, $45,000 of which was rent. At Leslie and York Mills, the feds have sold the Red Cross a low-cost building.
It's a frightening development for this community, where some 800 to 1,000 families depend on the food bank to help them get by after paying rent.
Time is short. The Red Cross will be out by February at the latest. If Flemingdon residents can't muster financial and other resources for a new, community-run food bank, adults and children will be going hungry come winter.
The meeting tonight is sponsored by the Flemingdon Park Inter-Agency Council, an ad-hoc group of 40 local agencies. The Daily Bread Food Bank is offering its expertise and training help. Politicians even show up, promising to look for rent-free space and government dollars. Despite all this, locals know they're fundamentally on their own.
The meeting room is almost clichéd in its evocation of multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-faith harmony. The 50-odd people of all colours, a wide range of ages, a variety of head coverings and varying levels of fluency in English don't waste time on their differences.
Sandra, a Flemingdon Park resident who has been a volunteer at the food bank and uses it to support her five children, is among the first to stand up and volunteer to help spearhead the transition to a community-run centre. But she warns of a drain on resources. "We're sad to see you guys go. It seems as if most agencies now are throwing it back on the communities themselves," she says.
Ron Phillips, a 20-year resident of the area, says seniors need the food bank to get by. "We're retired, we're living without income. We need help more than ever," he tells me. Then he segues into a speech about David Tsubouchi, who told the poor to haggle with supermarket cashiers for a discount on dented cans of tuna. "I'd love to shove that can down his throat."
In fact, residents, agency reps and food bank users keep coming back to the policies that have caused the number of food bank users in the area to more than double in the past decade. Provincial cuts to welfare in 1995 and removal of rent control in 1998, along with stagnant incomes, hit the neighbourhood hard.
According to Toronto's Pay the Rent and Feed the Kids Coalition, a single-parent, one-child family receives less on welfare than the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment. Much of the area is public housing - around 700 subsidized units - and many residents receive some form of social assistance. Eighteen per cent of households in Ward 26, which includes Flemingdon Park, are headed by a single parent. Twenty-three per cent of households in this ward have a total income of $20,000 or less.
This isn't the first time an organization has packed up and left the Flemingdon area. Past town hall meetings, also reportedly well-attended, have dealt with a move by the CIBC to pull out, leaving only a bank machine, and with a similar move by Dominion.
Jane Pitfield, municipal councillor for the area, notes that the Red Cross has been reducing its presence in other low-income neighbourhoods.
"They got out of Jane and Finch. Then they got out of Scarborough," she says. Pitfield promises to work with Toronto Community Housing to look for space on municipal land that could be used for a new, rent-free food bank. "I believe there is still a chance to step in in a major way at an executive level," she says.
Susan Cox, executive director of the Daily Bread Food Bank, tells me it's easy for organizations to abandon low-income communities.
"They're less able to make a fuss. This is a community of immigrants," she says after the meeting. She motions around the room, but the folks I see don't look powerless. They are crowding around volunteer sign-up sheets at the back, greeting neighbours and chatting up Pitfield, federal MP John Godfrey and the media.
The love they feel for their community is almost palpable. Nearly every Red Cross client I speak to here is also a volunteer, and people are determined to organize to create a new, community-run food bank.
"I have seen hunger in all shapes and colours," says Shem Sabherwal. "We want this to improve and not to deteriorate. This community is so loved by people who live here."
Sabherwal, a resident for 12 years and a volunteer at the Red Cross, ends his rather proper address with a call for demonstrations and agitations - where appropriate.
"I'm willing to do my part, get a team together," says Lavern Boyd, a single parent who has used the food bank.
This, my friends, is the true face of the suburbs. As Dip Habib, a community worker who immigrated to Flemingdon from Bangladesh four years ago, puts it: "It's a needy community, but it's a very nice community."
I head back downtown, inspired.