Text and photos by FEONA HEBRIO
It’s 1:30 pm and 24 degrees. In their most comfortable wear, bottled drinks at the ready, folks from various cultural backgrounds gather along Sherbourne Station to join Heritage Toronto’s walking tour of St. James Town and the Filipino community. Organizers fiddle with their audio, volunteers warmly welcome participants. The air is full of excitement and anticipation on this perfect spring Sunday.
Located northeast of downtown Toronto, St. James Town was once an enclave of the city’s upper middle class. The few remaining magnificent Victorian houses built in the 1870s are a testament to this status, which it held on to until the 1950s, when the homes started to crumble and the City of Toronto rezoned the downtown core and increased the area’s building coverage. A consortium of developers bought the properties, demolished them and built the city’s first high-rise apartment community in Canada. The towers were originally designed for professionals, but instead became populated by low- to middle-income families, a huge percentage of them newly arrived immigrant families.
“World within a block.” There are 19 high-rise buildings in this concrete neighbourhood, four of which are owned and leased out by Ontario Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which is responsible for the province’s public housing programs. Apartment buildings are named after Canadian cities: Toronto, Hamilton and Quebec, among them.
Home to more than 17,000 people, St. James Town is considered Canada’s most densely populated community. The neighbourhood is so culturally diverse that two-thirds of its residents are newcomers to Canada from over 25 different ethnicities.
At least 50 language groups are represented in the area but it has always had a strong Filipino presence, along the with Indian, Pakistani and Chinese communities. Tagalog, Chinese, Tamil, Urdu, Amharic, Bengali, Somali, Tigrinya and Nepali are the predominant languages.
The lifeblood. The first Filipino immigrants that formed the community in St. James Town were mainly young professionals – nurses, caregivers and other skilled professionals – looking to make a better life in Canada. Years later, the Temporary Foreign Workers program paved the way for an influx of Filipino families to move in. Presently, the Filipino community is now considered the largest cultural group there – at 21.9 per cent of the population, according to the Toronto Centre for Community and Development.
Among its first residents was “Lolo Popong,” who was the town sage. He could often be spotted in one of the parkettes giving advice and guidance to newcomers adjusting to life in Toronto, said Roldan.
The strength and spirit of the community lies in the concept “bayanihan,” meaning town or nation, is a core Filipino value that speaks of communal unity and co-operation. Nowhere is its existence more evident than through the community’s fight to improve the rights and conditions of caregivers.
One the community’s late denizens , Juana Tejada pushed for the reform of the caregiver program. Tejada had moved to Toronto in 2003 through the live-in caregiver program, with the hope of becoming a permanent resident. She completed the three years required to be eligible to apply for residency, but was at risk of being deported because she was diagnosed with colon cancer and seen as a strain on the healthcare system.
She contested their decision and won her appeal with help from the community. Her appeal turned into a high-profile issue, and in 2009, she successfully fronted a campaign for caregivers’ rights. Tejada and her supporters lobbied the federal government to adopt the “Juana Tejada law” to waive the requirement of undergoing a second medical exam for permanent residency and which reduced the years under contract from three to two. Tejada later passed away the same year, but her efforts live on.
Mahal kita is universal. Just as we were about to walk to our first stop, Diana Roldan, the Filipina guide points to a row of Victorian houses that have been converted into a specialty store, a pharmacy, a coin laundromat and a Filipino restaurant. Roldan comes up with a challenge to read the words out loud from the bright yellow signage of the Filipino restaurant. Tongues were twisted but by the end of the exercise they all knew what “Mahal Kita” meant: I love you.
No man is an island. Small pockets of green with benches and colourful street art are typical features of a St. James Town parkette, which are almost always used by residents as an oasis perhaps from living in a box in the sky. One such parkette is located in front of Rose Avenue Junior Public School. Students have added touches of colour by hanging their art work on its wired fences. Their art give this plot of nature a youthful glow, in contrast to a drab-looking man-made pond stacked with decaying leaves in the corner.
On this warm Sunday afternoon, residents were outside of their buildings, making the most of the week’s end. Kids were off in a world of their own at a nearby playground – sliding and climbing the monkey bars as their parents engaged in one another’s stories. One woman who still had her haul of groceries in tow, sat and watched as cars and others passed by.
One can’t help but think how this parkette has been a silent witness to human encounters and thoughts. How many have sat on its benches in varying states of emotions? Despondent and unable to find work, overjoyed at the birth of a child, excited about the future, lonely and fearful about the present….
Art is a form of life
Art has always revitalized communities and it is no different in St. James Town.
From an electric box loudly painted in one corner to a 320-feet mural, this is a community that is sending a strong message of overcoming perceptions of poverty and limitation.
Early this year, STEPS or Sustainable Thinking and Expression on Public Spaces engaged more than 50 youth from the community to create possibly the world’s tallest mural [pending Guinness Book of Records approval].
The public art project – launched in partnership with the local high school, Jarvis Collegiate Institute and other community partners – asked young people to express how they felt about themselves and their community through art and they did so in a big way. After gathering stories from local residents, the result is a 30-storey high-flying Phoenix in vibrant tones of red, yellow, orange and blue. Phoenix, in Greek mythology, symbolizes rebirth.
The youth “felt strongly that the often-stigmatized St. James Town needed both more colour added to its predominantly grey streetscape, alongside a celebrated landmark, that would draw people to the community,” according to the STEPS website.
St. James Town is also known as a hub for ethno-specific initiatives. Recreation and the arts are the main focus of different non-profit organizations. Its diversity in culture encouraged organizations to bring their efforts to the community. Filipino-Canadian arts groups such as Kapisanan, Carlos Bulosan Theatre and The Digital Sweatshop serve as a place for artists to share and express their journey as newcomers in the country.
Location, location, location
Our Lady of Lourdes Parish church, which was built in 1879 is a structure you’re not likely to miss. Its imposing dome and façade stand in contrast to a modern low-rise apartment on its left and a row of beautifully maintained Victorian houses on its right. It’s a good picture of what St. James Town was and the possibilities of what it can be.
Across the street is a residential apartment with a small convenience store, a Filipino store and a Philippine National Bank (PNB) remittance company on its main floor. “Remittance,” says Roldan. “is one of the many things Filipino immigrants do, for some even in a monthly basis. For so many years, Filipinos have been sending money to the Philippines as financial support to their families…”
The company began operating in Canada in 2000 and it clearly knew where it needed to be. “In fact, by just knowing where the other branches of PNB is in Toronto, you would already have an idea where majority of the Filipinos and Filipino communities are,” says Roldan.
Sea of changes
As the afternoon breeze cooled down, participants walked by an evidently contrasting facade of old Victorian houses and newly built modern apartment buildings. A few steps more, the group was led into a now-empty pebbled lot. Here, the lot is surrounded by modern-glass apartment buildings, making it a common ground for residents to contemplate on the things of the past and things unforeseen.
“This is the former location of the Wellesley Hospital,” says Roldan. Almost bare but for the pebbled floor, a couple of benches and a wall of art, it will be quite hard to believe that a notable hospital once stood here.
Built on a foundation of healthcare services, the hospital introduced community-based services to the people in the area. The hospital shut its doors in 2003, leaving a gap in the services available for the diverse community.
The Wellesley Institute says that with overcrowding, poor conditions in the buildings, limited resources to serve the population and a lack of enough public space, the community’s health and well-being has suffered and declined. The institute says that while most arrive in good health, within a few years, there is a noticeable drop in their overall health.
There are talks of development within the crowded limits of the community – a proposal to create four more towers at the height of 50 storeys, in addition to a five-storey residential building and semi-detached houses – bringing a host of new concerns for residents about the quality of life.