Graham Meindok and Jen Groves looked at about 60 houses across the city before buying what he calls their dream home in their dream neighbourhood on Strathmore Boulevard near Danforth and Coxwell.
"This would blow away anything in Leaside," Mr. Meindok, 33, says of their new place, which they got for $60,000 under the asking price. "People have stopped in the middle of jogging down the street to say hi and welcome us to the neighbourhood. We had a 10-year-old brother and sister come over with homemade cupcakes on our first day to welcome us."
Two weeks later, however, the couple got another knock on the door. This time, it was the police, with a composite sketch of a man they were looking for in connection with the sexual assault of a 15-year-old, a block away. On Aug. 13, exactly a week after they moved in, a 17-year-old girl was sexually assaulted a few blocks west, at Donlands.
The area that some have begun calling Danforth East -- roughly bounded by Danforth Avenue to the south, Cosburn to the north and bracketed by Pape and Coxwell -- would seem, to many, an ideal mix of suburban calm and urban convenience at relatively low prices.
Kids play ball hockey on the streets and set up skateboarding ramps. Dog-walkers wave at porch-sitters. If you look for them, you'll even spot a few lawn gnomes. Meanwhile, Riverdale and its bustling restaurants, bakeries and boutiques are only blocks away. But a summer of violent crime that has included sexual assaults, stabbings and shootings has left many residents wondering just which way the neighbourhood is headed.
On July 20, police launched a murder investigation into the death of a man in an apartment on Strathmore at Coxwell. A few days earlier, a woman had been found stabbed in the neck in an alleyway directly across from the Greenwood subway station, half a block south of Strathmore. And in May, Mahmood Bhatti, a taxi driver, was stabbed and killed in his cab on Coxwell, once again just north of Danforth.
"The sleepy old borough of East York has heated up a little bit," says Staff Sergeant Barry LeGear, head of the community-response unit of the police's 54 Division. Though Sgt. LeGear says he would live there "in a heartbeat," he points to several factors that have contributed to a greater-than-average convergence of violent crime over the past couple of years in an otherwise quickly gentrifying patch of city.
"If I'm not mistaken, there's one of those government-funded, free, drug-assistance places right there," he says, referring to the Salvation Army Harbour Light that recently opened at the corner of Danforth and Greenwood.
He also mentions the Touchstone Youth Centre on Pape just north of Cosburn at Torrens, which, he says, "draws some bad kids into the area," and Heyworth House, one of the city's biggest homeless shelters, a little farther east at Main and Danforth. Finally, many former residents of Regent Park, which is currently being torn down and rebuilt, are moving north into Danforth East. "This is going to increase your crime a little, reshuffling people," Sgt. LeGear says.
Add to that the seven schools within a two-kilometre perimeter -- a sign of a burgeoning population, but also a flag to police for the concentration of youth and the rivalries that result -- and Sgt. LeGear says you've got the makings of a real hot zone.
Residents' concerns about the increasing violence prompted city councillor Case Ootes to call a community meeting, after two shootings in June in the Pape and Cosburn area. After 150 people showed up for the two-hour meeting, the police and Councillor Ootes, who calls the situation "disconcerting," were persuaded to take specific action.
A 24-hour Coffee Time that had been identified as a trouble hub was convinced to remove its payphone and close at 11 p.m., and a McDonald's, similarly pegged, agreed to install video surveillance and train its staff to handle potentially criminal situations.
Some in the area aren't mollified. "It's deteriorating," says Wayne Hendry, who has worked at the Hollywood Canteen movie memorabilia shop near Danforth and Coxwell for five years and lived in the neighbourhood for a decade. "Jesus, nothing but stabbings, shootings, B and Es.
"A couple came in, thinking about moving into the area, and asked me what I thought. I said, 'Don't.' "
But with housing prices being what they are across much of the city, that may not be practical advice.
Mike Clarke, a real-estate agent who has been selling houses in the area for 19 years, says the neighbourhood is simply a great deal.
"Younger families have been moving in," he says. "There are good schools, great convenience to the downtown core, and it's one of the most affordable areas." He estimates a $50,000-to-$100,000 difference in prices between houses in Danforth East and equivalent neighbourhoods in the west end.
Which could be just the thing to keep this neighbourhood on the brink from tipping over.
Gail Hawkins is betting her career on it. Two years ago, she bought 1364 Danforth Ave. This June, after the old tenant, a convenience store, moved out, she turned the bottom floor into the Niche Café, a distinctly upscale espresso bar.
But it's less the price of the coffee and the sorts of people who buy it that hints at better things to come than the community spirit and sense of responsibility Ms. Hawkins and some of her neighbours are evincing. She and a few other like-minded merchants have set up a makeshift business association to help boost the area's profile and fortunes.
"There are a lot of businesses working here, mine included, to improve things," says Ms. Hawkins, who lived in the neighbourhood for 15 years before buying her building. "Everything from planting flowers out front, to make it seem more welcoming, to drawing people onto the street. Because the more people, the safer it is."
To this latter end, the businesses immediately surrounding Niche are planning to have what they're billing as a "family day" on Sunday, Sept. 17. Promoted during Taste of the Danforth this month with flyers inviting the public to "experience Danforth East," the event will feature discounts, sidewalk sales, live music and activities for kids. Quite something for a block that, until just a couple of weeks ago, had a suspected crack house in one of the upper-floor apartments.
"You'd see people passing stuff on the street, and it was just a revolving door," Ms. Hawkins says. "Suspicious people going in and coming out 15 minutes later, people standing watch."
The landlord finally managed to clear out the offending tenants, but the police believe there are still several crack houses on the blocks just east and west of Coxwell.
Still, Ms. Hawkins says she is "extremely optimistic.
"What's impressed me the most," she adds, "is that just in two months we're starting to get busy. I'm ahead of schedule on my business plan."
And for his part, Mr. Meindok has no regrets about moving into the neighbourhood. "We're at the rougher end of the Danforth, there's no doubt," he says. "But we love it."
He and his wife have a simple strategy for keeping out of trouble.
"There are seedy bars, but we just don't go there."