A Sense of Place in Toronto’s Inner Suburban Strip Mall

By Sunjay Mathuria

A strip mall in the Albion & Islington area in Rexdale, Toronto, 2014.

 

As a landing pad for newcomers, the City of Toronto touts its diversity, which is most visible in Toronto’s inner suburbs.  In 2016, 51.5 percent of Torontonians identified as a visible minority, with many neighbourhoods in the inner suburbs (Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke) exceeding 70 percent visible minorities.

Suburbs are often imagined as stretches of big box stores with miles of parking, endless cul-de-sacs lined with similar single-detached homes, wide arterial roads and whiteness. Yet, over the past several decades, as white suburbanites have returned to and gentrified the inner city, people of color and new immigrants have been settling in the inner suburbs.

Located at the center of the suburban experience is the strip mall. As people of color continue to populate the suburbs, strip malls have taken on new life, becoming places for community building and class and cultural expression. It is time that we re-evaluate the narratives that inform discussions of “urbanism”, which define cities as vibrant and diverse and suburbs as bland and lifeless.  A closer examination of Toronto’s inner suburbs gives us a look at the community life that often is hidden in strip malls.

TORONTO’S SUBURBAN HISTORY

The current shape of Toronto’s suburbs stems from post-WWII development – a “suburban apartment boom” that produced affordable places for lower income families at the fringes of the city. The development of suburban apartment neighbourhoods is also linked to the creation of suburban industrial zones. The largest employment areas in the City are found in Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York. Their landscapes are dotted with low-slung factories that are key employers for local residents. As Toronto’s suburbia developed into a hodgepodge of various housing—apartment towers, townhomes, and single detached houses—the strip mall also emerged, each with its own setback, its own messy parking lot, its own mix of retail, residential and offices.

Strip malls undeniably have an auto-centric history. Traditionally, they housed pharmacies and laundromats and were designed as sites of convenience. People could quickly park, pick up their goods and then leave. However, they have gradually morphed into places of deeper interaction. Underneath seemingly non-descript brick and signage, community life pulsates.

STRIP MALLS AS PLACES

In the context of modern cities, ethnic spaces are often expected to “perform” and be easily accessible to whiteness and the multicultural fabric of urban life (e.g., Chinatown, Little Jamaica, Little India). This by no means undermines the business owners and tenants in these spaces and does not challenge their historic significance. It is, however, more a symptom of who now has more access to walkable, vibrant downtown spaces and the ongoing displacement of lower income and people of color from the inner city through gentrification.

Strip malls enact a form of spatial resistance. Geographically distant from gentrifying downtown, strip malls refuse the white gaze. Their purpose intentionally is tied to the communities they serve and while strip malls are clearly visible from arterial roads and occupy space, their function is often known only through community and history. For the outsider, the built form is unapologetically difficult to navigate and signage in multiple scripts and languages speaks directly to its users, not to the outsider. While many suburbs now have central shopping centres (e.g., indoor malls or big box stores), strip malls act as neighbourhood-level cornerstones for communities. These “third places” become a part of everyday routines and rituals of nearby residents.

In “Beyond Aesthetics: Assessing the Value of the Strip Mall in Toronto,” Orly Linovski argues the City of Toronto’s focus on built form and aesthetic undermines the social and community performance of strip malls, as well as the importance of these sites for small businesses:

The retail space in strip malls is available to tenants who might otherwise not be able to find space elsewhere in the city, either because of high rents associated with other types of retail space or due to specific barriers faced by small businesses that attempt to locate in newly constructed buildings.

In the same way manufacturing space has disappeared from the inner city, strip malls and retail are often targeted in residential redevelopment, especially along suburban arterials. In 2017, Mississauga City Council approved a proposal for a residential development in the working class community of Malton, which is predominately South Asian and Black Caribbean. The development would replace a strip plaza that councillors viewed as “dying” and an “eyesore.” However, local residents see it differently: for them, the strip plaza, which is home to a church, a community health centre and family-run restaurants is an important community space. As a compromise, the development will include a mixed-use component and affordable housing, but it is likely that the current tenants will have to relocate.

Michael Noble similarly addresses misconceptions that suburbs lack community life and a sense of place. In “Lovely Spaces in Unknown Places: Creative City Building in Toronto’s Inner Suburbs,” he notes that places like strip malls provide opportunities for community connections and city building. In his case study of Dorset Park in Scarborough, Noble discovers a popular Filipino bakery in a small strip mall that has strong relationships with local Filipino community organizations, as well as a church in a former storage unit that also operates as performing arts school for local youth. In “Creating Third Places: Ethnic Retailing and Place-making in Metropolitan Toronto,” Zhixi Cecilia Zhuang examines how cultural identity is expressed through places like suburban strip malls and plazas. Although the Great Punjab Business Centre in Mississauga is primarily retail, restaurants and offices, Zhuang notes the presence of the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada, as an important feature of this strip plaza. The museum staff actively engages the community through exhibitions and events, which allow a space for intercultural interactions that goes beyond providing the traditional commercial needs that a strip plaza offers. This function of a strip mall or plaza can often be overlooked by those who may not interact with the space directly such as planners and developers. As Noble asserts, practitioners should make an effort to acknowledge suburban strip malls and plazas as important community spaces and also note their potential heritage value as unique mid-20th century built form.

Strip malls certainly embody what Ray Oldenburg terms as a “third place” – an anchor for community gathering and interactions. They are also often a mix of commercial, residential and office spaces. In that sense, they can be “first places” – home and “second places”  workplace – for many first and second generation Canadians, who live in the residential apartment above their commercial unit. Strip malls are where different “ethnoburbs” converge and overlap. Although the Albion-Islington area in Rexdale may be read as a South Asian space, a closer look at the strip mall composition actually reveals a mix of communities. Amongst the South Asian restaurants, clothing stores and jewelers are also thriving West African, Caribbean and Latin American businesses. The shared space within strip malls allows for the possibility of cross-cultural interactions.

STRIP MALLS IN FICTION

Perhaps it is in fiction that we find the most vivid descriptions of the role of strip malls in the community life of the suburbs. Homegrown writers and artists are turning to suburban spaces and asserting their presence into Toronto’s literary repertoire. To write about/in Scarborough or any inner suburb, is to evoke the figure of the strip mall and in fiction, readers encounter the strip mall as a space that helps knit together a community.

In Catherine Hernandez’s novel Scarborough, strip malls are not only marked as ethnic spaces, but also places of the familiar where communities gather and differences interact. Told through multiple perspectives, Hernandez weaves together the stories of a literacy program in the Kingston-Galloway neighbourhood of Scarborough. Hernandez interrupts these narratives with vignettes, moments from everyday Scarborough: her ode to east-end women who “walk in the rhythm to the music from each store in the strip mall”; a scene from Lucky 88 Asian Market at the intersection of Markham and Eglinton where “Brown and Black folks of all sorts take a number and wait for the butcher to cut their choice of meat”; a celebration at a Victoria Park and Danforth strip mall where “Five smiling women are holding certificates/They have completed a program for teaching computer skills to survivors of domestic abuse/They pose for a picture, then hug each other tightly/A new beginning” (Hernandez pp. 7, 35, 77).

Strip malls have morphed into a new kind of Canadian space that refuses to be exclusively “here” nor “there”. In David Chariandy’s novel Brother, the protagonist, Michael, describes his neighbourhood strip malls:

There were grocery shops selling spices and herbs under signs in foreign languages and scripts, vegetables and fruits with vaguely familiar names like ackee and eddo. There were restaurants with an average expiry date of a year, their hand-painted signs promising ice cream with the “back home tastes” of mango and khoya and badam kulfi, a second sign written urgently in red marker promising that they’d also serve, whenever asked, the mystery of ‘Canadian food’.

Although the strip malls here are legible to specific communities, there is an attempt by at least one business owner to perhaps tend to the needs of white customers or second/third generation Canadians who may not want a taste of “home.” Much of Brother takes place at Desirea’s, a barbershop in a strip mall where Michael and his older brother Francis hang out. Desirea’s acts as an informal community gathering space for a group of neighbourhood friends: “Thumping music edging on noise coming from within. There was no sign advertising services provided or wares sold, no spiralling pole set out front.” (Chariandy 76).

Desirea’s also functions as a space where the performance of stereotypes of racialized young men are obscured. At Desirea’s, a group of young men forge a sense of community amidst systemic challenges and support each other without the gaze from the rest of the city:

In Desirea’s, you postured but you also played. You showed up for every one of your dictated roles and fates. [Our parents] worked shit jobs, struggled with rent, were chronically tired, and often pushed just as chronically tired notions about identity and respectability. But in Desirea’s, different styles and kinships were possible. You found new language, you caught the gestures, you kept the meanings close as skin.

A third place for the characters in Brother, Desirea’s takes on different meanings for each of the boys. For example, the barbershop becomes a queer space for Francis’s and Jelly’s relationship, a place where they can quietly share moments of tenderness on their own terms. Michael notes: “There is a thing that sometimes happens between certain neighbourhood boys. It shows itself, this thing, in touched hands, in certain glances and embraces, its truth deep, undeniable, but rarely spoken or explained.” (Chariandy 104). This queering of space is made possible here – away from school and home—the flexibility of the strip mall allows for countless possibilities for building community and identity formation, especially for youth.

STRIP MALLS AS POSSIBILITY

Strip malls have shaped Toronto’s suburban history. Seemingly mundane and unassuming, strip malls give us insight into how people of color and newcomer communities have left their imprint on suburban landscapes. As evidenced in the novels Scarborough and Brother, Toronto’s inner suburbs have also asserted a place in local fiction, where strip malls exist as places of spatial resistance, defying the downtown white gaze and nurturing cross-cultural interactions and community building. Last year, a Scarborough strip mall was the backdrop of Joyce Wong’s film Wexford Plaza. The film follows the encounters between a female security guard and a bartender, and depicts strip mall life after hours. Even in dimly lit, deserted parking lots, strip malls become places that can challenge suburban ennui – they give us the possibilities to explore romance, identity, and community.


Sunjay Mathuria is a city planner living in Regina. He is interested in spatial theory and exploring the intersections of race, class, space and equitable planning practice. Sunjay has a Master of Planning from Ryerson University, and a Bachelor of Journalism and English from the University of King’s College.