By Adwoa Afful
My family and I have lived at Flemingdon Park for almost two decades. When I was very young, I thought living across the street from the Science Centre gave my neighbourhood some cache, and I used to brag about it to my friends. The Science Centre is at the corner of Don Mills and Eglinton, an intersection most well-known for an obscenely high number of car crashes. For me, that intersection represented the part of the GTA that straddled downtown (which for me began at Pape station) and the true suburbs, Scarborough, where I had gone to school and where most of my friends lived.
My mother, who had raised us on her own, rarely let us go outside unaccompanied, and because she worked so much that meant we rarely went outside. And so for the first few years of our lives there, Flemindgon Park remained a mystery to me. I was mostly fine with this, at first because I had no idea what else was out there and later because I did not care to find out. When I started high school, which was ensconced in a leafy midtown neighbourhood lined with large homes, my neighbourhood, which was never all that great to look at, looked so much shabbier in comparison. But, it was also during this time that my neighbourhood began to change -- rapidly.
The first stabs at gentrification seemed a little haphazard. To the east of us, there was an empty lot that had been left vacant for years, and then a year or two before I began high school construction crews arrived and broke ground for the rows of modest middle class town and semi-detached homes that now fill it. Then a few years later, a large Mormon Church was built beside them, and then an old office building was converted into a condo with loft suites. But before all of that, Loblaws had built an enormous supermarket right on the corner of Don Mill and Eglinton, and quickly gave the Ontario Science Centre competition for the most remarkable building in the area.
This whole time, the block of town houses I lived in remained untouched, looking more and more out of step with the area that was quickly changing around it. Quickly there seemed to be a demarcation forming between the old neighbourhood and the new one, one, if I am being honest, I was excited to see.
One of my first jobs was working part-time at a kitchen wares store on Orfus road. There was one evening where my shift had ran past 10pm and a manager had offered me a ride, when I gave him my address at first he did not recognize the intersection, and so I , as I had done so many times before, mentioned that I lived across the street from the Science Centre.
When I told him he rescinded his offer. He had heard stories about a friend’s car being pelted with rocks in the area and was worried for his safety, and so I took the blue night bus home. Until then, I was mostly embarrassed about my neighbourhood, because I thought it was ugly, but I had never once felt unsafe. The people who lived in the houses around me were families, and so there were a lot of kids and some elderly folks. Many of the units there were Toronto Community Housing units, and the management was at best neglectful and so many of the units were left derelict , but I, despite my own snobbery, knew it wasn’t a bad place to live.
During my second year of university, my family moved into the converted office condo. It was by far the nicest place we had ever lived in. Around this time the Don Mills shopping centre, which had fallen on hard times, was torn down and replaced with an upscale strip mall, with an outdoor skating rink, concerts, and gourmet grocery store owned by celebrity chef Mark McEwan.
Across the street from the Don Mills shopping center are the senior residences that became emblematic of the once aging neighbourhood, and on Saturday mornings at the old Don Mills shopping centre, a group of seniors would gather and tour the area in jogging suits for exercise and to socialize. I’m not sure if that still happens, but I hope so.
When the mall reopened after the renovations, I was excited, for the first time in a very long time, I felt I was living in a place that other people wanted to be – I felt like I was living in a place where I wanted to be. I felt ashamed for feeling this way, but by this time I had learned what “priority neighbourhood” meant, and that I had grown up in one. The Science Centre signalled something entirely different than what I had experienced growing up and it hurt to find out what that was. A co-worker at my first full time job out of university once described my neighbourhood as a place where he could “get weed and hooker in less than ten minutes.” To me it was a neighbourhood where, as a kid, a lovely stranger had taken me into her home and gave me cookies after I had lost my house key.
For a while, If I wanted a reminder of what the neighbourhood once was, all I needed to do was walk west of Don Mills to the Flemingdon Park Plaza. It was in that plaza that my sister took piano lessons and I guitar. The plaza is packed with restaurants and employed mostly locals. The kinds of restaurants there seemed to represent the demographic diversity of my hood. There are Pakistani, Vietnamese, Caribbean, Afghani and Chinese food joints and a Polish deli.
On its own island in the parking lot there is a McDonalds, which would often serve as community hangout, and would be packed with kids, parents and grandparents in the weekend. While most of the restaurants remain, the plaza is undergoing a major facelift, and so is everything in it. Now the Plaza is mostly unrecognizable to me.
Last year my family moved again, and I was surprised at how nostalgic I was beginning to feel about Flemingdon Park. My mother and sister moved to St. Clair and Yonge and I to the Annex. Since my teens, downtown represented progress, a shift from working to middle class, and a shift that would allow me to admit to myself that I had grown up working class and sometimes below that. But I found myself not entirely excited to make this move.
My neighbourhood had changed quicker than I had, and I now wanted to be part of it in a way I had never wanted to before and in a way I know I would not had if it had stayed the same. I do not know how to make sense of these feelings and why I have them, but what I do know is that before I had gotten the chance to know it, Fleming Park had moved on without me, and only Science Centre has stayed behind.