Scarlem: a controversial representation of Toronto’s eastern end
But what is it really like to live and work in the suburb?
Scarborough is home to green landscapes, multicultural crowds, the Toronto Zoo and the Bluffs. Still, the image of this eastern borough in Toronto is one of crime and violence, giving the area the nickname Scarlem to link it with danger that exists in Harlem, New York.
“I love Scarborough. A lot of people have a lot of bad opinions about the area I grew up in but I think it’s all been blown up by the media,” says Jajeevan Ratnasingham, an immigrant that lived in Scarborough for many years. “We had Paul Bernardo, the Scarborough rapist, but when you also look at areas like downtown, there are for example, enough kidnappings yet when people think about downtown, that’s not what comes to mind. Instead, they think of shopping.”
Ratnasingham, 26, an IT Service Delivery at IBM, arrived in Toronto with his family in 1985 from Montreal when he was four years old. They stayed with friends in a small apartment in Tuxedo Court, in Scarborough. After moving around the area, his parents bought a house at Morningside Road and Old Finch Avenue.
His father, Veeragathy Ratnasingham, remembers Scarborough fondly.
“When we first arrived in Toronto, we only knew that area, so we settled down there and we got used to it, so we decided to live there. Scarborough was never any different from the rest of the city when my children were growing up.”
He never experienced any dangerous situations in all the years he has been living in Scarborough, said Veeragathy, 64, an accountant. He enjoys the suburb because it is multicultural, with plenty of restaurants offering different cultural cuisines and supermarkets catering to residents’ needs.
Ratnasingham said that when minor crimes take place in Scarborough, the media creates a sense of fear among citizens because they go into statistics and talk about past crimes that occurred within a short radius of the event. The media does not treat other parts of the city the same way, he said.
“It’s easier to make a story sound good if you could make it more intense by making a certain area appear much worse than it really is,” Ratnasingham said.
The notion that the media has a major role in the way Scarborough is shown is also supported by Michael Thompson, a city councillor for Scarborough since 2003.
“It is a perception that has evolved over the years, which has gone unchallenged for the most part largely because those people who have not really spent any time in Scarborough have gotten their particular understanding about Scarborough from the media and the misinformation,” Thompson said.
Similarly, Superintendent Robert Clarke of 42 Division, pointed out the majority of the media is situated in downtown and whenever crime does take place, it doesn’t matter at which end of Scarborough it happens. It is still generalized as an event that took place in Scarborough. The media should be specific by using street names instead, he said.
Clarke has been a police officer for 35 years and he has gained experience working in various divisions throughout Toronto. He has been working in 42 Division since March 2007. This division oversees the area north of Hwy 401 and east of Victoria Park Avenue.
When the media does not use street names, this gives the impression that all of Scarborough experiences crime, “so if something happened at Eglinton and Warden, they would just say ‘in Scarborough, a man got shot today’,” Thompson said.
Why is Scarborough continuously portrayed in a negative light if the actual rate of crime is not accurately presented in the news? Most of those working in the media just do not know enough about Scarborough, Thompson explained. Some journalists have never even been inside the suburb. If anything, they have received most of their information about the area from friends or the news as well.
Looking back, Ratnasingham remembered only one time when he truly felt fear of danger. He was 18 years old. It was an evening in October when he decided to walk to a convenient store, located at the north side of Malvern Mall, to purchase a few items. He hadn’t realized it at the time but a young male had watched Ratnasingham taking out a large sum of cash from an ATM machine. On the way home, the man approached Ratnasingham and ask him for a cigarette. As Ratnasingham reached into his pocket, the man attacked him with a sharp piece of metal. The two men fought for less than five minutes but as Ratnasingham said, it had caught him off-guard and startled him.
“I consider that one incident isolated. I don’t see it as something that I would encounter again. I don’t see that as a representation of what Scarborough is,” he said as he shook his head.
Out of all 17 police divisions in Toronto, 42 Division has the lowest recorded crime based on population. “So there goes the myth,” Clarke said. “We are, out of 17 divisions, the safest in all of Toronto.
The media, he continued, needs to take its time when covering an event and it needs to put more effort into explaining exactly where something has taken place. Clarke said it frustrates him when the media does not do this because he knows that the information is false. If anything, he said, it becomes a good topic of conversation when he is speaking to communities in Malvern and sometimes even residents in the area are surprised to discover that 42 Division does indeed have such a low crime rate.
Also, there tends to be attention centered on big crimes like murder and gun violence, even though there are fewer of those occurring in Scarborough, Clarke said. When they do report any crimes that take place in the suburb, they cover the stories that make good headlines. This causes Scarborough to be identified as an area full of gangs and shootings but “in comparison to the rest of the city, we’re by far not in that position whatsoever,” Clarke said.
Although the rate is low, the most common crime that does take place, according to 42 Division, are break-and-enters – but that may be due to Malvern having a very large residential population, not a large number of criminals.
Another problem is that people believe that government housing is bad, and because Scarborough has its share of it, it gives them the false impression that it results in crime, Thompson said.
Although the goal of the Toronto police is to serve and protect, sometimes even they view Scarborough residents differently, said Ratnasingham. Good police men and women do exist but there are some who are prejudiced, he said.
“They will judge you on your appearance, they’ll question you for longer, they’ll search your car for no reason, they’ll bother you for no reason,” he said.
He remembers a time in high school, when he and three of his friends were driving in Pickering and Durham police suddenly signalled for them to pull over. Confused, the four young men followed the officer’s instructions when they were told to step out of the vehicle and to present identification. All along, the officer refused to explain his reason for stopping them, Ratnasingham recalled.
“He told us to go back to Scarborough and to not come back into his city. He followed us all the way to the 401 and we did end up going back to Scarborough because no one wanted to be harassed by an officer,” Ratnasingham said, shrugging his shoulders and throwing his hands up in the air.
Clarke, speaking on behalf of 42 Division, said that younger individuals, usually between the ages of 14 and 24, are watched more closely than others only because they tend to commit most crimes. Young people in Scarborough do not get any more attention just because they live in the area.
After sharing his story about the police, Ratnasingham slouched back into his chair and said that nonetheless, there are many great things about Scarborough that people in other parts of the city don’t realize sometimes.
“It has friendly neighbours, great parks, there are good places to shop and there is a lot of culture in Scarborough. We’re still a part of Toronto, we may be on the outskirts but Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world and Scarborough takes part in that.”
He explained how the suburb has multicultural festivals and picnics. He listed a variety that he has attended such as, Tamil, Korean and Caribbean picnics in which they had great music and great food.
Ratnasingham’s sister, Sujitha Ratnasingham, similarly enjoyed living in Scarborough.
“I actually really liked growing up in Scarborough and I never knew it had a bad reputation until I started doing a co-op downtown during high school,” Sujitha said.
Sujitha, 29, is an epidemiologist, working for the Toronto public health department, studying the health status of Toronto’s residents.
She spoke about the advantages Scarborough offered with pride, explaining that the area she was raised in helped her academic life positively in the earlier years.
“I went to Woburn Collegiate Institute, which was one of the top high schools in the province. We consistently had the student with the highest GPA in Ontario and won several science and math competitions. We also had a great gifted and enriched program,” Sujitha said smiling.
Although she no longer lives in Scarborough, she does not recall ever experiencing anything out of the ordinary in all the years she did live there. Scarborough, she said, is much like areas like Etobicoke and North York. It is very suburban and there are many families. It has its “good” neighborhoods and its “bad” ones, much like the rest of Toronto. She explained that the only reason she would not live in Scarborough in the future is because she finds it difficult to get around using their public transportation system and she admits that she enjoys the excitement that is always around her while living on Yonge street.
Thompson stated that he always referred to Scarborough as the jewel of Toronto because depending on where a person lives, they are only about half an hour away from downtown, the area offers the best park systems and the strip malls are beneficial to new immigrants because they have the opportunity to own a store without paying high costs for rent. People have a chance at a great start when they’re new to the city.
Speaking about her fondest memory of Scarborough, Sujitha said, “I think it was playing with kids in the neighborhood on the street during March break when I was really young. Also hanging out with the people I life guarded with at the local pub.”
“I think the perception changes every five to 10 years. When I was younger, it was North York and areas like Jane and Finch that were considered the ‘hood’. Interestingly, in Grade 9, my friend’s parents moved from downtown to Scarborough to keep her out of trouble. It worked for her, she went to university and is doing quite well now,” Sujitha said.
Although Scarborough has challenges and there are some locations within the borough that require particular focus, it is still a safe place compared to other areas, said Clarke.
“The residents of Scarborough are very proud. We’re proud of the place where we live and call home. We’re proud of our parks, we’re proud of our restaurants, we’re proud of our ethnic diversity. We are proud people here. We don’t sit back and hope that people will like us because somehow that is going to be significant for us. We are not trying to prove anything to anyone else. Scarborough has all the ingredients for success. I think that others are, to a large extent, perhaps jealous. Scarborough today reflects the future of Toronto,” Thompson said.
There isn’t any other city in Canada that Ratnasingham would have liked to be raised in or in other area in Toronto, he said. He will always call Scarborough home – a home that taught him the acceptance of different cultures and offered him valuable lessons that will always guide him throughout his life Ratnasingham stated.
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