Ralph is creator of the 54 East Magazine from Think Tank Toronto, and is currently a professor at University of Toronto.
What does Lawrence Avenue East mean to you?
Lawrence Avenue is the way I get home, it’s the way I get to my parents’ home to visit them now, it’s the way I used to get to school. It gets me to the heart of the city and to the outskirts of the city, it’s where I met friends, colleagues, where we host festivals, it’s an important street.
Further west along Lawrence, it’s where I visit my father-in-law, where I used to go to church, where I now go to synagogue. So these are all things that I do, or have done along this one street, which changes and stays the same because it still has things that are common to all streets – lights, bus shelters, sidewalks – but for a person growing up in a particular neighbourhood along Lawrence, that’s where you live and when you are younger, most of your universe is by the main street, whatever it may be.
It’s interesting to ask what a street means to you. If you spend a large part of your life in one spot in the city, there is going to be one place that will mark your existence for quite a few years, a big chunk of your life. Lawrence is like that and not every street is quite like Lawrence – some are quieter, some are more residential. I just happened to grow up beside it and it felt normal, and that’s the thing that changes when you travel and you got see the world. Then you realize that it’s not so normal; it’s actually kind of different. It’s interesting to see spaces transition. You can go to a place that used to be a bingo hall that converts to a supermarket and then it converts into something else. You see the reuse and repurposing of all these buildings over the years and it’s quite remarkable when you see the changes happen.
What’s inside the malls change, the stores change, immigrants from different parts of the world come and set up shop and cater to a whole new buying public. We did a history project based on Lawrence in which we documented the corners of Lawrence. It’s remarkable to look at how different it was – the area was once very rural. When they built suburbs in full force by the 1960s and 1970s, the whole area had transformed and that was a major change.
What was interesting, when we looked at photos of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s was that there was cleanliness and a tidiness to everything because it was all new infrastructure. It’s like going to new parts of Brampton or out in Milton, it all looked really pristine. You can appreciate the character atmosphere that the Lawrence Avenue has developed. Some of the malls are almost 70 years old now, but they have some life in them. It’s energizing to see new places spring up and sad to see places close, but that’s what gives it the life, at least from my perspective, what makes Lawrence unique. The small spaces in the malls allow for people to start up businesses. It can be a fairly economical way to try out an idea. [Lawrence] is not beautiful in a traditional sense but is definitely unique and interesting. Some of the businesses do become quite successful and grow and supply what people need.
What brought you to Lawrence Avenue?
Well, my parents brought me. I was one when they moved there from Kingston Road. I was born in Toronto but it was the first place I lived in and the only place I lived in until I moved out, so being on one corner for that many years obviously makes you rooted in the place, you feel like you know everything about a place, you feel safe. Another thing that makes the neighbourhood unique is that you have all these amenities that you take for granted like schools and parks. They’re quite nice and big and they are part of your life. You don’t know that those things are special until you move to other places in the world where you don’t have those things, those amenities.
My school was a five-minute walk from home. I could play hockey in a 10-minute drive down the street at McGregor Park Arena, I could go to a pool in the summer. Just up the street in a 10-minute walk, there were malls like Parkway and Eglinton Square that I could go to. When you were a young teen or just on the cusp of teenage-hood you go to these places – the food court. Golden Mile used to have two cinemas; it wasn’t until about 1990 that they closed them down and built one of the first supercenters, which is 30 years old. The Golden Mile strip was that whole area down to Warden and was named after a British Golden Mile of Industry.
So those things in your neighbourhood make life interesting growing up and you can reflect on it later in life. You have to take the bus everywhere when you live in Scarborough, but you manage, and when you’re a kid it doesn’t matter – an hour downtown is nothing, it’s fun, it’s part of your journey.
Tell us a story of what happened on Lawrence Avenue.
I remember, it was the early 90s and I was in university. There was a really big recession in Canada in the early 90s – really bad – worse than this recent recession, at least for Canada. It was so bad that it was the first time in my life that there were homeless people in Scarborough; people sleeping in building entrances because it was cold outside. I remember one morning my mom woke up, and said she had a dream that there was someone in the building sleeping and I think it was my dad who woke up to get the newspaper and bring it home on the weekend and almost tripped over this gentleman who had come into our building to sleep. Our building was a condominium, one of the first ones built in Toronto, an older one that had a small entrance and the guy curled up there to sleep. I remember people pan handling and asking for money downtown, but to see it in Scarborough was shocking.
In that same time frame, a lot of stores closed and you would see ‘for rent’ signs everywhere. On Lawrence though, things picked up, new stores opened up really quickly because of a wave of immigration. Immigrants from the Middle East settled and opened business on Lawrence. Many of the businesses catered to the community that had moved here, and looked interesting. There was this meat turning on a stick and people carving it and putting it in pitas. Pitas were new to me then. It all smelled great and I wanted to try it.
On a Friday night, my friend and I went to a spot where it was two-for-one and we went and tried our first shawarma, falafel, shish tawook and hummus. Now it is everywhere, but back then it was novel – these guys made it all by hand and it was like a taste explosion. The flavours we just never had before – chopped up parsley, tabouleh salad. That was that little corner of Scarborough that brought it all to our doorstep.
That little experience of seeing a bigger piece of the world, that I’d never seen before or traveled to, but was in my neighbourhood, was pretty amazing. One thing about Toronto, even though it was a place where people were speaking different languages, it seemed like people knew each other, they welcomed an outsider, it felt neat and interesting to be in a place that was different but they helped you, I didn’t know what I was going to order and he described what the food was, it was helpful.