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The basketball court in the Clarks Corners (Birchmount and Finch) area of Toronto.

Tim Fraser/tim fraser The Globe and Mail

Bad reputations have a way of sticking, whether or not they're deserved. But on four of the city's most notorious corners, community-building efforts and well-meaning social agencies may actually be rewriting the script.

Jane and Finch

What's changed: In 2009, a move by city council to label the area "University Heights" drew derision from locals who wanted more than re-branding. More welcome was this summer's tiny new food market held at Shoreham P.S. on Thursday afternoons, where moms of all ethnicities wait three-deep to buy produce that's both cheaper and of higher quality than at local groceries.

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What hasn't: The main streets are still pedestrian-unfriendly six-lane arterials lined with seventies high rises in need of serious repair. People here are still younger, poorer, and newer to Canada than in the rest of the city.

What the police say: Robbery and stolen-vehicle charges dropped 50 per cent or more in the Black Creek neighbourhood between 2004 and 2008, but drug charges went up 47 per cent. On the police map tracking 2010 gun violence, Jane Street is a flutter of red dots from Lawrence up to Steeles, and one person in Jane-Finch died from a bullet so far this year.

What the locals say: "What's missing is child care," said Andrea Lue, a resident who works at the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre and helped organize the market. People can't go back to school or accept jobs, she says, without someplace safe to leave their kids.

Bloor and Lansdowne

What's changed: Crackheads and pimps: 0; young families: 1. A spot on the subway line made Bloordale worth gentrifying as downtown-ish real-estate prices shot through the stratosphere. The past few years have seen a steady influx of indie clothing stores, cute resto-bars and art galleries, such as the 30-year-old Mercer Union, which moved here in 2008.

What hasn't: The city has an open offer to match up to $12,500 of proprietors' funds in a façade improvement project, but there are still plenty of pawnshops with signs crusted in pigeon poop.

What the police say: Drug charges dropped 31 per cent between 2004 and 2008, while robberies have gone up 12 per cent. Sex sworkers are still here, though not as numerous - their long-time diner hangout, the Dale, has morphed into the brunch crowd's Bloordale Pantry.

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What the locals say: "Five or six years ago, Bloor and Lansdowne was a rough area," says Spiro Koumoudouros, owner of the House of Lancaster strip club since 1982. "Now you see people walking around at 11 o'clock with no fear."

Queen and Sherbourne

What's changed: Here come the condos - the Brad Lamb-led Kormann House tower is going up to the southwest, facing The Modern to the east. Inside the ground floor of one of the stately Victorian buildings on Queen, a trio of appealing shops includes EcoStems organic florist, a vintage spot with excellent shoes and a high-end audio store.

What hasn't: This is still the south end of the Garden District, home to the city's highest concentration of homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Men line the sidewalk, the parkette outside Moss Park Arena, and the dive bars dotted along Queen.

What the police say: Sexual assaults went up 17 per cent between 2004 and 2008, but charges for drugs and robbery dropped. Theft over $5,000 plummeted 47 per cent.

What the locals say: "I think people in Toronto are too conservative to come into this kind of neighbourhood," says Rochelle Jordan. Her gorgeous, high-ceilinged, art-book store Acadia has never been broken into in the 25 years she's been in charge. "It's more a problem of perception than reality."

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Birchmount and Glendower

What's changed: For years, the basketball court nestled between Toronto Community Housing buildings was a dark gathering place for criminals. Then, in 2007 came the non-profit Art Starts, which asked residents what neighbourhood spot was most in need of beautifying. Over the past three summers, locals - from Tamil kids to Chinese grandparents - have come together to adorn the concrete walls with vibrant, intricate mosaic art. Too bad the project lost its funding last year.

What hasn't: It's hard being young in a lower-income suburb. "We still need to work on the relationship between police and youth," said Edmond Crosbie, 41, who has lived here for 16 years. Part-time and summer employment is scarce. For those who do have jobs, transit service is intermittent to the point of insult.

What the police say: Drug charges in the L'Amoreaux neighbourhood dropped 44 per cent between 2004 and 2008, while sexual assault and B&Es went down 20 per cent or more. Robberies rose 40 per cent. No shooting charges have been laid in 2010.

What the locals say: "I helped build that!" says a teenage boy, walking through the basketball court on his way into the apartment building on Birchmount. Though nighttime lighting on the court is unreliable, neighbourhood pride keeps the spot mostly free of dealers and users.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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