In the living rooms of Tehran, Richmond Hill is considered a big city. Though the town north of Toronto doesn't even crack the top-20 list of the country's most-populous municipalities, it's a household name in many parts of Iran.
"When [my friends] go back home, the people say 'Oh, you live in Richmond Hill?' like they know," said Mahnaz Salout, an Iranian immigrant who came to Canada in 1988 and settled in Richmond Hill in 2001.
A handful of Iranian-Canadian TV stations based in Canada (including one in Richmond Hill) are beamed over to Iran by satellite, which has given exposure to some of the Persian businesses and realtors who advertise on those channels in a country nearly 10,000 kilometres away.
In a matter of a few years, Richmond Hill has become a magnet for Iranian immigrants, many of them concentrated along the Yonge Street corridor.
The intersection of Yonge and 16th is ground zero for this change: Construction has begun on The Beverly Hills, a 24-storey, 945-unit condominium complex by Great Lands Corporation, led by Iranian immigrant Sam Sadr. Plazas at the intersection are populated with Persian businesses: a rug store, a salon, a bakery, a butcher shop and several restaurants.
While Toronto's Willowdale neighbourhood still remains the main hub for Iranian businesses, the population has been lured to Richmond Hill by more land and newer houses.
"Based on what I'm seeing, it's the extension of Yonge and Sheppard north," said Godwin Chan, a town councillor who represents the area. "The 'ethnic makeup' of the business groups, just like the population, is evolving and changing."
"Yonge Street provides much more opportunity – it's the central street in Toronto," said Reza Moridi, the Iranian-Canadian MPP for Richmond Hill. "Being business-minded people, they have to be on Yonge Street or Highway 7."
While those of Chinese origin are the town's largest minority group, the Persian-speaking population has proven to be far and away the fastest-growing demographic in Richmond Hill. From 2006, the population who identified their mother tongue as Persian (Farsi) increased by 44 per cent: from 10,865 to 15,690.
"Fifteen years ago I thought I knew all the Iranians," Ms. Salout said. "But now I don't know none of them. Mostly they're new."
Kako Kabab, a three-year-old Persian restaurant in a strip mall, is a symbol of the so-called "new Richmond Hill." It's the late lunch rush at the restaurant and Iranian men file in, cupping their hands over their mouths to breathe warm air on to their numb fingers. Almost all of them order the koobideh kabob, a no-nonsense plate of two kabobs made of beef, onions and spices served with rice, a grilled piece of tomato and a small packet of butter. Faranak Shayan, one of the restaurant's partners, pulls 12-hour shifts most days: every evening, she and her partner marinate the meat, cook the rice and prepare stew for the next day (on this day, it's ghormeh sabzi, made of sauteed herbs).
Ms. Shayan expected working in the service industry would dramatically improve her English skills after she immigrated here from Iran in 2009. Not so. She estimates nine out of 10 of the people who come to her restaurant are Iranian, so she takes their orders in Farsi and speaks little English throughout the day. "I think I'm losing my knowledge," she said.
From a seat at the table along the window at Kako Kabab, one can see the rows of cars parked neatly on the diagonal in front of Richmond Hill Italian Community Club: one of the few relics of the old Yonge and 16th. While signs in Farsi and easy access to Persian Barbari bread now dominate this corner, its identity was tied to the Italian community just a decade ago.
They were the first sizable immigrant group to settle in this area, back when most homes were modest bungalows built on double lots with lots of land "to grow tomatoes," says Fernando Diruscio, 62, who moved here from Bathurst and Wilson in Toronto in the early 1980s. At its height, in the 1990s, the community club, a converted fire hall, sold about 300 family memberships. Now it's down to 110, and most members are older men who gather daily to chat, play pool, pray and have a glass of wine.
"Our kids cannot afford to buy around here unless they buy an apartment. Any house out here is worth a million dollars," says Gianfranco Berlingeri, 68, who also moved to the town in the early 1980s. Back then, he bought his house at Yonge and Highway 7 for $150,000 – recently, he sold it for $2-million. He believes the changeover in ethnic demographics has run parallel to a change in class, too.
In the South Richvale and Langstaff neighbourhoods of Richmond Hill, which are just south of the Yonge and 16th intersection, the median price of the detached homes sold last quarter was $1.3-million, according to the Toronto Real Estate Board.
"It's become an enclave of wealthy people," said Rosemary Warren, who bought a house on Carrville Road (the extension of 16th Avenue west of Yonge Street) with her husband 36 years ago, when she was 24.
There was a time when the kids on Carrville Road could play hockey on the street: one side of the road was houses on large lots and the other side was farmland. It was home to many young families. Now, there are fewer kids down the street and the modest bungalows have been replaced by massive new homes. It can take Ms. Warren 10 minutes to back out of her driveway on to Carrville, which has become a major route. Earlier this year, the city was considering removing the boulevard and making it a six-lane road.
Yonge and 16th is a key development area, as identified by the town's official plan, and with a potential Yonge Street subway extension, the city plans to bring further density to the neighbourhood that will ideally draw a greater mix of incomes.
Mr. Berlingeri, who has seen the dramatic evolution of the intersection and the people and businesses who have clustered around it, is at peace with further change.
"It's Yonge Street – it's bound to happen," he said. "We don't see it as a bad thing."