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.
“I am happy to be here. It’s my home. That’s where I start my life, raise my kids,” Ms. Mohamed says as her children walk into the family restaurant. “This is where I get [my] living and respect.”
Dozens of children are out playing in the grass courtyard in front of 320 Dixon Rd., running and kicking soccer balls as a handful of mothers sit on paint-chipped benches to keep watch and chat. Another plane flies overhead, roaring through a bright blue sky toward Toronto Pearson International Airport. No one looks up. This is a government-approved flight path.
Inside the 23-storey tower, the 17th floor still bears the marks of a gunfight that erupted in the middle of the night, just after the May long weekend. Bullets nicked the black-painted frame of the door leading to the stairwell. Another shot ripped apart wallpaper and drywall in the hallway by the elevators before piercing the front door of an apartment where an elderly woman in a wheelchair lives.
A man was wounded in the May 21 shooting, his blood staining the hallway’s forest-green carpet. The incident is not connected to the video, Toronto police have told The Globe. But it’s believed the video may have been in an apartment on this floor at some point, according to a tip received by one of the mayor’s aides, a city-hall source says.
The gunfire rattled condo owner Radouane Jaghtite. Mr. Jaghtite, who moved to Canada from Morocco nearly two decades ago, has lived in the Dixon high-rise since 2009, paying $47,000 for a two-bedroom unit whose ceiling was stained brown with marijuana smoke. Mr. Jaghtite, 36, gutted the apartment, installing hardwood floors, a drop ceiling with pot lights, new kitchen cupboards and a Jacuzzi tub.
He says his sister cried when she learned he was moving with his wife to Dixon. She was worried for their safety and their investment.
“You have to start somewhere,” Mr. Jaghtite says, his toddler, Elies, sitting beside him on a black sofa, his wife holding their seven-month-old boy, Yasser, on her lap. The couple are saving for a house near family in Maple, north of Toronto. They don’t want to raise their boys in Dixon.
“You see 13-year-old girls holding a bottle of alcohol,” notes Amina Allaoui, Mr. Jaghtite’s wife. Her husband adds: “In some apartments, you can see 30 people sitting around and they’re smoking marijuana. I’m telling you this is not young people. This is old people. Who is going to look after the kids? The kids look after themselves.”
The state of these condo towers is improving, though. With a condo board in place again and a new property management company on site since January, long-standing problems are slowly being addressed. Burned-out light bulbs have been changed and there are plans for tighter oversight of renters, who fill one-third of the condos. Security guards patrol the area from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., and at least 150 surveillance cameras are slated to be installed. Mr. Jaghtite hopes the cameras will improve safety.
“Now if anything goes wrong, like what happened [the other] week, we’re going to know exactly who does it.”
At the basketball court donated by former Toronto Raptors star Vince Carter, a few young boys shoot hoops before dinner. The red-surfaced court is part of Dixon Park, a wide swath of grass and playgrounds that separate the clusters of white-brick towers.
Basketball and soccer bind many of Dixon’s boys and young men. Anthony Smith played ball here before he was gunned down outside a downtown Toronto nightclub on March 28. A message at centre court is dedicated to him: “R.I.P. Rondo” – the 21-year-old’s nickname.
A photo that purports to show Mr. Smith standing next to Mayor Ford has been plastered on the news for weeks. The photograph was provided to the Toronto Star and Gawker, an American gossip website, by Canadian-Somali drug dealers seeking to sell the crack-cocaine video, the media organizations have said. Neighbours say a nearby beige-brick bungalow served as the backdrop for the photo, The Globe revealed this week.
Twelve-year-old Sharmarke Hassan remembers Mr. Smith. He taught the youngster basketball skills and would often buy Popsicles for the kids. Born in Toronto, Sharmarke spent five years living in Somalia, returning in 2011. He is happy to be back. He says there is less gun violence in Dixon than in Somalia.
Dixon is “a good place,” Sharmarke insists. “We can live here. You can play basketball, and there is no screaming and shooting and stuff.”
Some nights in the neighbourhood are a different story. The recent deaths of several Canadian-Somali men in Toronto have prompted police to set up a two-officer task force focused on improving relations with the community. Canadian-Somali leaders have urged gang members to put down their guns and have called for more after-school programs and recreation. Finishing high school has been a struggle for many Canadian-Somali boys, and unemployment rates are high.
“The parents are the main key for kids,” says Mohamed Elmi, 27, who runs Istar restaurant with his mother, Ms. Mohamed. “I’m thankful to my mom, because if it wasn’t for her keeping me busy, I would be on the same road as the other guys went to.”
West on Dixon Road at a strip mall at Kipling, Mustaf Haile, 36, sits in a Country Style coffee shop filled with about a dozen older men swapping stories.
Mr. Haile was a teenager when he moved to Dixon from Mogadishu with several cousins in 1990, attending high school with Canadian-Somali rapper K’naan. The Canadian-Somali community was much smaller then. It took time for Mr. Haile to adjust to a new language and culture. He feels welcome in Dixon now.
Mr. Haile, who fixes computers for a living, says he sometimes sees Councillor Ford at the coffee shop. The municipal politician will often stop to talk to customers. Mr. Haile believes the Fords have been good for Dixon and the mayor has been good for Toronto. Even if the crack-cocaine video surfaces and proves to be true, Mr. Haile is prepared to forgive.
“We support [the mayor]. This whole area supports him,” Mr. Haile asserts. “People make mistakes. I have made mistakes in my life. There is always forgiveness.”