Rexdale Neighbourhood: Northern Elms Library

Saturday morning we wake up and walk out of the house early. Today’s library will take us about 90 minutes to get to by transit and we have to figure out breakfast as well.

We take the subway from the east end of Toronto all the way to one stop short of the western end of the line: Islington Station. Like many of the stations near the end of the line, it not only hosts a lot of out of town buses (in this case, Mississauga Transit buses that take you to the western suburbs) but also some services. Many of these stations have small convenience stores, and a few of them, including this one, include a bakery. As soon as we get to the top of the stairs we can smell it – a combination of doughnuts and Jamaican patties. Not only can you get those, you can often find Chinese buns as well, and in some cases samosas and sandwiches. There is really something cheap to snack on for everyone in these places.

We’re in luck as our bus is waiting on the platform at the top of the stairs. We find a seat and wait for the driver to leave. While we wait, Sage and I play UpWords – a game like Scrabble on steroids – on my phone. As I take our turn, the bus pulls out. We’re on our way. A minute later I finish my turn, hand the phone to Sage and look out the window. We’re still at the platform.

“Did we go somewhere?” I ask Sage?

As she’s reassuring me that reality hadn’t turned in on itself and I hadn’t hallucinated our departure, we’d just gone out of the platform and back in again, we left for real.

We head north on Islington for quite a distance. As we look out the window Sage remarks that while some neighbourhoods of Toronto are unique: You can tell you’re in East York from the tiny Bungalows, and homes around High Park have a distinctive look with lots of dark wood that seem like they’d fit equally well in Germany as in Toronto, this road is completely nondescript. We might be in Minneapolis. Or perhaps we’re in Denver. Or is it Hartford, Connecticut? Who knows? As we talk about this we pass two golf courses.

Almost 90 minutes after we leave we arrive in a part of the city that, thanks to Google’s tracking my every move with my phone, I know I’ve never been to. A bit of research using Yelp tells me that there is a 24 hour restaurant nearby in which we can find breakfast. But in order to get there we must first make our way across a large and somewhat dismal parking lot.

We are among the only people walking in this part of town – at least ones that are not walking from a car to a building, and I can see why. It’s designed to be inviting to drivers with loads of easy to find free parking. But sidewalks and paths are few and far between. We cross the lot watching carefully for drivers who may not see us coming out from behind cars. About half way to the restaurant, we find a large chain link fence whose only purpose seems to be to prevent people walking directly from one lot in to the next. And so we find our way around that one. Even if a man had yelled from his SUV: “Go get a car, hippie!” the message could not have been clearer. Finally, we arrive at the restaurant.

This restaurant is an example of something I love about Toronto. There are so many unexpected and interesting things to find – especially if you go beyond the downtown core. Istar is a diner, but instead of burgers, bacon and eggs, and poutine, it is a Somali restaurant. Like any good diner it is open 24/7 and serves excellent coffee.

We find a booth for ourselves, set down our things and go up to order. It works very much like a hot table: select the things you want from a buffet and they’ll plate it up for you and you can take it back to your table. The dishes look great.

I go for chicken suqaar – a spicy chicken stew. I have a choice of malawah, a slightly sweet, pancake-like Somali bread. Sage chooses ful medames – delicious spiced fava beans with injera – an Ethiopian style bread. The injera here is a little thinner and makes me think of uthappam.

Eating here reminds me of how much different cultures borrow from each other – especially when it comes to food. Tandoori chicken is listed on the menu (but not available today), and behind the counter are a number of small triangular fried pastries stuffed with meat. If you hadn’t already guessed what they are, perhaps the name they call it will help: here they’re called “sambusa”.

As we eat, we watch a soccer match being played on the TV next to us. The commentary, like much of the conversation around us, is in Arabic. And as the morning goes on the restaurant gets more and more busy. It is unsurprising, the food is fantastic. I will definitely be back.

Today’s library is about 10 minutes away by bus and so we make our way back across the lot, narrowly avoiding the speeding truck delivering food to the grocery store and wait back where we were dropped off. The temperature seems to be dropping and it is getting colder. It isn’t as comfortable as it was before. But fortunately we haven’t long to wait.

The ride takes us deeper in to suburbia, across North America’s biggest highway, above which a steady stream of jumbo jets line up to land at the airport nearby.

Eventually we are dropped off a short distance from the library. We seem to have travelled not only in distance but time. The area was clearly at its peak in the 60’s and 70’s. Just have a look:

Reading a bit about the neighbourhood, Rexdale, I can see where this perception may be coming from. The neighbourhood was initially built in the 1950’s – when cars played a large role in not just urban design but social identity. For many, utopia was a place where you could go from your garage to work, to the store, and back all in air conditioned splendour in your private car, all the while showing your success to those around you by the type of car you drove and the shininess of the wax job on it.

Today, though, things have changed. Many here now choose not to have a car, and the economic landscape has changed such that many of the more affordable places are now in places where a car is required – even if you can’t afford it. Some parts of Rexdale also have had a problem with gang violence and even our previous mayor was filmed smoking crack there, the recording of that having been found on a phone seized in a gang-related police raid.

But all of that paints a picture that is incomplete. While there are problems, this is also a neighbourhood where people from all over the world start their lives in Canada. When I visit these neighbourhoods I get frustrated with our government, and even our culture for letting whole neighbourhoods fall through the cracks. I think “Someone should do something.” and then struggle to find a way to be that someone. How can one person help?

We cross a wide street and off in the distance I see a sign for the library.

When we get to the sign, we need to walk through the parking lot around to the back of the plaza. As we near the entrance, we see that we’re even closer to the airport. The planes are so low now I can read “Air Canada” on one as it passes just overhead.

Finally we see the entrance ahead. The logo looks a bit different than the others with an odd white highlight around the letters that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Was this a logo used by the library in the past, another example of our being in a neighbourhood out of time?

As we walk around the exterior of the library I see an activity’s room with many kids and parents playing together. The library itself, though, is relatively small and seems to fit in whatever decade we’ve transported to.

I am able to look through all of the stacks in a very short time as the library takes up the space of a small storefront. It isn’t much bigger than the restaurant we had breakfast at. I find a place to sit near the computers.

As I sit and write notes about the library, a phone rings. A man at the computer next to me picks it up and starts talking in a booming voice about his day, where he drove, how he had to go back to pick up something so he was running late. The librarian comes by to ask him to be quiet and he pauses. Then he resumes, just as loud as before. The librarian comes back and tells him he really needs to be quiet and he ends his call. He turns to the man behind him. “Was I being too loud?” The man answers calmly: “Yes. Yes you were really loud.” This inspires the man with the phone to go back to the librarian and try to plead his case. “I was taking an emergency phone call. It was really important.” He gets nowhere with the librarian and as I pack my bag to leave, I see him going in to the foyer of the library to resume his call.

The contrast of the happy noise of the children in the activity’s room and the angry patron was really stark.

The book selection was good despite the size of the library. I even found a few Hindi reference books.

I didn’t find any books in Hindi, especially not children’s books at my reading level. In fact, almost the entire selection of children’s books can be seen behind Sage in this photo:

As she always does, Sage has chosen one book to read and review for this entry. This trip’s book is: Drawing Perspective: How to See it and How to Apply it and Sage says:

While this seems like a really helpful book for grown-ups who understand art, I should have looked in the children’s section for a perspective book for myself.

As we leave, the wind is picking up. By the time we get to the bus stop we both feel chilled to the bone and don’t feel fully warm until well after we arrive at home.

Looking back at this visit, I enjoyed breakfast and the small, cozy feel of the library building. But overall, I feel like in so many ways from the streets to transit to jobs and even to the library itself, we could be serving this neighbourhood so much better than we are.

9 thoughts on “Rexdale Neighbourhood: Northern Elms Library

  1. This, pretty much, is the neighbourhood I was born into and grew up in (and stayed in until I was about 24). My parents bought a house there just before I was born — at the time, there was pretty much nothing out there, and it was the only way they could afford a house with my mother going to be staying at home to look after me after I was born. It was always a kind of working-class, immigrant neighbourhood, though the places people came from changed over the years. When I was small, it was mostly European immigrants — Italian, Maltese, Portuguese, and some folks from the UK. As I grew up, we had more Asian and African immigrants, and more people from the Caribbean, which probably now gives that neighbourhood its current make-up and flavour. It’s a much tougher neighbourhood now than the one I grew up in, too, but I think it’s much more vibrant in some ways, and there are definitely little pockets of it that I love. And like you, I get so frustrated at seeing the government neglect, or even the attempts at wilfully underminding the community (like the idea about getting rid of libraries there).

    1. Right. And I saw another one about getting rid of a community centre a while back. Once you get past the car-centric design it really is quite a nice area and vibrant like you said. I will be curious to see the Rexdale library soon to see how it compares. I hope it is better. This is the first time I have been disappointed by a library in this project.

      1. Rexdale Library pretty much was the one I used most when I lived in the neighbourhood, though it was far enough away (we lived behind the Rexdale Plaza, which was only a strip mall then) that we depended more on the bookmobile and the school library for books. But I went to a lot of movies there, they used to screen a lot of children’s movies and classic films — it was probably the first place I saw Casablanca. I’d almost be tempted to ask if I could join you on a trip there 🙂

      2. We had planned to go bowling after the library but there was an ambulance outside and it seemed like perhaps we should just go home after all.

      3. Yeah, that would have been my call as well 🙂 Okay, let’s do the library. Part of me is almost afraid, because you know that the things that stick in your memory are never as good when you go back and revisit them .

  2. Ahh yay! Another new restaurant and another new library! I always love these posts so much, Todd. They are definitely my favorite on your page. All of your photos are so great & I love that you include a mini book review by Sage. 😄

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