The jokes about Scarborough just aren't fair
Bruce Kidd urges Torontonians – especially downtowners and left-leaning councillors – to rethink a dynamic part of the city, Marcus Gee reports
Bruce Kidd was riding the elevator at City Hall not long ago. A group of reporters who didn't know who he was were making jokes at the expense of Scarborough – what a vast, trackless wasteland it is; the usual thing. That bothered him. He didn't say anything at the time, but it really got under his skin.
What he sees when he comes in to work every day just does not fit with the popular image of "Scarberia," a place of strip malls and stabbings.
What he sees is a buzzing, promising, complicated, neglected, vibrantly diverse city within a city. What he sees is the future.
So he invited me to come see him and look at Scarborough through his eyes. Prof. Kidd is a vice-president of the University of Toronto. He has been principal of its Scarborough campus since 2014. For years, the lean former Olympian and distance runner led the kinesiology faculty at U of T.
Looking out his office window, watching students hurrying back and forth to classes, he marvels at the dynamism and variety of the place. More than 700 buses a day drop passengers there. Most of the 14,000 students are from immigrant families. A fifth are international students, the bulk of them from China. Although many are of modest means, they are scrambling up the ladder of success.
"This is not a party school. This is a school of ambition," Prof. Kidd says. "They want to start their careers, start companies, get jobs." At home, they are often caregivers and translators for their families. "There is just a tremendous amount of energy."
U of T Scarborough is mainly for undergraduates, although grad enrolment is growing. Students come to take subjects such as environmental sciences, fine arts, management and computer sciences. It is a campus of busy strivers. The school has been growing so fast that, despite an energetic building program, some faculty share offices and some students still take classes in portables.
Prof. Kidd sees a similar dynamism in the vast eastern suburb of 650,000 people that surrounds the campus. Amazing diversity. Staggering ambition. Great food, too. If you are a foodie, he says, come to Scarborough. If you are interested in Toronto's success as an immigrant landing pad, come to Scarborough. Researchers from around the world travel there to study the place.
That's why the Scarberia jokes annoy him so much. "People who say those things miss the essence of what is happening out here. It's an extraordinary social experiment."
Prof. Kidd is 74. When he was growing up, Scarborough was a much different place. There was one Jewish family at his high school and one black family. That was the extent of diversity back then. Today, just a third of the population is white.
He lives in central Toronto. As with a true downtowner, he walks to the stores and rides his bike all over. But he knows that there is more to the city, and he thinks it is a shame that so many people exist in a downtown bubble, with no conception of what goes on outside. To him, it is foolish and even dangerous that so much of the city's attention goes to the glittering downtown.
A leading Toronto official he knows says that if the city does not invest in struggling suburbs such as Scarborough, they could go the way of the alienated immigrant enclaves of Paris or Brussels. "I'm more confident than that," Prof. Kidd says, "but there is such a disparity."
If Toronto's great experiment is going to succeed, he says, it needs to invest in Scarborough and places like it. It needs to invest in schools, parks, hospitals, community centres, and especially transit. One of his fixations is getting a light-rail line to campus to cut the punishing commute times for many students.
He worries that left-leaning politicians overlook the suburbs, leaving conservatives such as Rob Ford and now his brother Doug to ride suburban discontent. "Why should the Fords be picking up the mantle? Why doesn't the left carry the banner for the suburbs? This should not be Ford territory."
As with any thinking person, he is troubled by the times we are living in: the ugly, divisive politics, the rising xenophobia. Then he looks out his office window. "On this campus, I see the alternative being lived in these helpful, thoughtful, considerate young people. It gives me encouragement and hope every day."
He just wishes people would stop with the Scarberia jokes and see what he sees.