Lately, I have been interested by Torontonians' reactions to certain neighbourhoods. Uttering 'Rosedale' or 'Malvern' sends the other half of the conversation into a flurry of six-digit housing quotes or crime statistics respectively. The neighbourhood of Elia (see Realosophy's Elia neighbourhood profile for local school and housing stats) is an exception to this generalization. Personally, Elia conjures up a place of tranquil suburbia - tidy homes set on sprawling, manicured lawns that are kept shady by large oak trees; a place where families can flourish within the safety of a community. Whenever I casually mention this neighbourhood to friends, curiosity enters their tone and all at once they are swept up in the same vision of suburban utopia. “I have never heard of that area before but it sounds wonderful,” is the common response. In fact, Elia happens to be a well-known neighbourhood, branded by the famous corner which it encompasses: Jane Street and Finch Avenue West. Once better oriented, my audience inevitably becomes a rather skeptical one.
Elia’s boundaries envelop everything from Sheppard Avenue West to Steeles Avenue West. The eastern boundary runs along Keele Street, alongside the western grounds of York University, to Highway 400. It is an expansive neighbourhood with an unfortunate reputation derived from that infamous intersection.
The majority of housing throughout Elia are apartments and semi-detached homes. High-rises and low-rises line the busy main streets along the periphery of more residential areas, while semi-detached and multi-storied row-houses weave throughout the interior streets. Many of these residences act as a base for multi-generational families as Elia is a hub for new Canadians trying to get on their feet; Chinese, Caribbean, Italian, Indian and Koreans call this area home. Reflecting this is the variety of ethnically diverse grocery stores and restaurants that can be found along Sheppard Avenue West, Jane Street and Finch Avenue West. Many Torontonians relish these eateries as reminders of their heritage or an exciting opportunity to explore uncharted edible territory.
Twelve parks are creatively scattered throughout Elia, granting HomeOwners and renters alike an easy walk to whichever one they chose. Schools are laid out in the same fashion - twenty-two elementary schools are within walking distance from all corners of Elia; three high schools are also close enough for a reasonable walk to and from classes.
The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) provides the Jane Street 35 and Finch Avenue West 309 buses into the heart of Elia. These two routes connect with Keele Street 41 and Steeles Avenue West 60 allowing for cross-city travel with minimal effort. Driving through the area is an option; however, congestion on main arteries is a common sight. As previously mentioned, Highway 400 acts as the western border of Elia as well as offering transportation south to Highway 401 and an escape north out of Toronto.
Now, I took off my rose-coloured glasses some time ago. I do not intend on sugar-coating Elia - but I do not consider it a write-off either. Some sections of this neighbourhood are more colourful than others; all roads do indeed lead to Jane and Finch where most of the unsavoury activity in the area takes place. Gun violence and gang presence is elevated in and around this slice of Elia – it is hard to watch the local news without hearing about a latest incident.
Last year CBC: The Fifth Estate broadcast a piece called “Lost in the Struggle” which profiled a few young men who grew up in the atmosphere of constant violence around Jane and Finch. Stated only at the end of the hour-long program was the disclaimer that I had been waiting for: 'not all youth from this area live their lives as those who have been profiled'. Sensationalizing the crime and downplaying the good only perpetuates the cycle of misunderstanding that plagues this neighbourhood, segregating it from the city to which it belongs.
Community pride shines through in such events as the Toronto Caribbean Carnival Parade and Canadian Hispanic Day Parade and Kiddie Carabana. Jane-Finch.com is a community activist website updated regularly and dedicated to the Jane and Finch area and Elia as a whole. It sheds positive light on the beleaguered portion of northwestern Toronto.
Talks to re-brand Jane and Finch as ‘University Heights’ have recently been brought to the table. Overlooking the fact that Jane and Finch is but an intersection within the neighbourhood of Elia, is re-branding what this struggling community needs? Perhaps what Elia's residents need is a sense of dignity and the opportunity to take some pride in the community they live it. An injection of city love may go a long way.
Jesse is a freelance writer specializing in Toronto neighbourhoods. Email Jesse