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In Karail, on a swampy lake on the edge of the wealthiest neighbourhood in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, a village-born boy plays while his parents build. (Munem Wasif for The Globe and Mail)
In Karail, on a swampy lake on the edge of the wealthiest neighbourhood in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, a village-born boy plays while his parents build. (Munem Wasif for The Globe and Mail)

Doug Saunders

How slums can save the world Add to ...

The scene inside Iqbal's market might be mistaken for the main street of a prosperous rural village in the Indian subcontinent.

Beneath sparse, fluorescent-tube lighting are big sacks of rice and grain and racks of raw spices; men chew betel and women cover their heads in all manner of fabrics; the air rings with Dari, Urdu, Hindi and Bengali, peppered with tokens of the now-universal English argot of arrival: mortgage, visa, university.

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Most people here on the unseen concrete fringe of Toronto's core started as Asian villagers. But theirs is not a village culture, nor is it yet fully urban.

It is a culture of transition – a culture both entrepreneurial and conservative that can be found on the edges of cities around the world, in the slums of Dhaka and Sao Paulo and in the migrant neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Paris and Amsterdam.

Here, it's Thorncliffe Park, a cluster of apartment buildings and one-storey plazas built around the oval of a former racetrack in a lost, central-east corner of the city.

What kind of neighbourhood is Thorncliffe Park? It certainly is one of the poorest in Toronto: Family incomes average $20,000 and the poverty rate is estimated at 44 per cent.

It is also ethnically concentrated, with as much as 51 per cent of its population speaking an Asian language at home and only a small minority of pink-skinned Euro-Canadians in its buildings.

It could be described as an impoverished ethnic ghetto. Yet Thorncliffe Park is not seen that way – not by its residents, by the agencies and businesses within it, by the scholars who have studied it, nor by the city beyond it.

It's a popular place with vacancy rates close to zero despite unusually high rents; in fact, there are long waiting lists for apartments.

The ex-villagers here have an amazingly consistent record of entering the middle-class, urban mainstream within a generation. They launch small shops and other businesses and send their children into postsecondary education.

The area's poverty is not a sign of failure: It means that Thorncliffe Park, like many such neighbourhoods, is functioning as a highly successful engine of economic and social integration, churning people out as fast as it takes them in, constantly renewing itself with fresh arrivals.

This is one paradox of such places: The higher their apparent poverty rate, the more successful they are.

For much of the past century, Canada has been built on successful arrival cities – more by luck than by intent. But increasingly few are like Thorncliffe Park: There are too many like the isolated, violence-plagued Flemingdon Park in Toronto, or the destitute high-rise voids of Richmond and Surrey around Vancouver, or Peel Region adjoining Toronto.

In those neglected neighbourhoods, people are poor because they are trapped. In a thriving arrival city like Thorncliffe Park, they are moving onward.

The trick is to look not at the wealth of the residents but at their trajectories.

“Everyone in Thorncliffe, all are beginners, all are struggling,” says Seema Khatri, 42, who recently moved out of the neighbourhood to buy a house in suburban Don Mills.

She came from a village in Haryana in northern India. She spent several years in Thorncliffe, working at rudimentary jobs in a cosmetics factory and struggling to get her Indian educational credentials recognized.

The neighbourhood's networks of arrivals, she says, helped her make her way.

“In Thorncliffe, when you go out, you meet with people who are also struggling. You talk to your neighbours at the deli. They exchange information.”

This is how it works in the arrival city.

DOUBLE TIES THAT BIND: OVERSEAS AND DOWNTOWN

The arrival city can be distinguished readily from other urban neighbourhoods, not only by its rural-immigrant population, improvised appearance and ever-changing nature, but also by the constant linkages it makes, in two directions, from every street, house and workplace.

It is linked in a lasting, intensive way to its far-off, originating villages, constantly sending people, money and knowledge back and forth. It finances improvements in the village, the care of older generations and the education of younger ones, while also making possible the next wave of migrations.

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