Minutes after 3 p.m. on a weekday, hundreds of children pour out of Kingsview Village Junior School into a light June breeze, bouncing basketballs, playing tag and squealing with laughter. Home is a short walk away for most, to one of 18 apartment towers lining a one-kilometre stretch of Dixon Road in the west Toronto suburb of Etobicoke.
There are no houses along this six-lane strip between Islington and Kipling avenues, just high-rises bookended by strip malls and gas stations. Dixon has long been a destination for newcomers to Canada, an affordable place near the airport to settle in for a while, to repair war-torn lives and to build new dreams.
In recent years, however, a pocket of Dixon has transformed into a sanctuary for gangs, guns and drug dealers mere minutes from the upscale enclave of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.
Dixon, or Little Mogadishu as it’s often called nowadays, has found itself engulfed in an unwanted media storm involving Toronto’s most powerful municipal politician. A city-hall source has told The Globe and Mail that one of the mayor’s aides received a tip that the video allegedly showing Mr. Ford smoking crack cocaine from a glass pipe may have once been housed here, on the 17th floor of a rundown condo tower at 320 Dixon Rd.
Residents are exasperated. The video has not surfaced publicly – and Mr. Ford denies that it exists, saying he doesn’t use crack cocaine – but the mayoral scandal that began on May 16 has thrust Dixon into the national spotlight, exposing a community fractured by violence, but one that still believes in hope and redemption. Dixon, after all, is a place for second chances.
At Istar Restaurant at Islington and Dixon, a photo and a certificate from the City of Toronto are proudly affixed to the glass front door. In the picture, business owner Istarlin Mohamed stands between the mayor and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford. She beams as she recalls their surprise visit in February, 2012. The certificate was the mayor’s doing, a congratulatory note to the Canadian-Somali mother for moving her business to a bigger location.
“We wish you much success,” reads the note signed by the Ford brothers. The gesture touched her deeply.
“It was something big for me. Very big,” Ms. Mohamed says over a cup of ginger-spiced tea after the lunch rush. “It lift … my morale, that now I am part of the community. I not only belong to one side.”
Like many of Dixon’s residents, Ms. Mohamed arrived in Canada in the early 1990s, a refugee from Somalia fleeing a bloody civil war in her east African homeland. Dixon was a relatively young neighbourhood then, with the first towers rising in the late 1960s and 70s. Today, about 22,000 residents live in the Dixon high-rises and in the surrounding tidy brick houses in Kingsview Village and the Westway.
Despite bursts of violence, Dixon has been a haven for Ms. Mohamed and many other refugees. The lush green neighbourhood was the first significant gathering point in North America for the Somali diaspora. Six high-rise condos in particular, white-brick towers clustered in groups of three on the north side of Dixon, have become home to several thousand Canadian-Somalis.
Dixon pulses with foreign languages. Urdu, Somali, Italian, Spanish and Korean are all spoken here. It is a diverse community and there have been culture clashes. Tensions are particularly high in a group of three condo towers that fell into disrepair, taken over by a court-appointed administrator from 2006 to mid-2012.
Without stable management or a properly functioning condo board, property prices plummeted and crime flourished at 320 Dixon Rd. and its surrounding towers. Indeed, Toronto’s spike in real-estate prices has mostly bypassed this pocket. Ms. Mohamed paid $120,000 for her three-bedroom apartment at 340 Dixon Rd. in 2001. She doubts it is worth that much today. In her building, two-bedroom units are listed for as little as $59,000. Still, she has no plans to move elsewhere.