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The Gentrification of Toronto’s Flemingdon Park is an Issue of Systemic Racism | Op-Ed

On November 2nd, 2020, Salwa Abdalla, an 18-year-old immigrant from Egypt, was silenced at a community meeting with the North York City Council. She said that each of her statements in defense of Flemingdon Park was met with eye-rolls from Toronto’s most esteemed politicians, with numerous adults interrupting her heartfelt speech against gentrification in her neighbourhood.

Flemingdon Park, one of Toronto’s longest-standing, predominantly racialized working-class neighbourhoods, has been scheduled for immediate gentrification with insufficient community consultation.

In resistance to the proposed gentrification of Flemingdon Park, long-term residents Sahar and Sawar Abdalla are currently leading their community’s efforts to prevent the provincial government from allowing Preston Living to develop luxury condos at the expense of Flemingdon residents’ livelihoods.

In Short: As the Abdalla sisters, two young, racialized and immigrant Torontonians, attempt to withstand both the provincial government and southern Ontario’s most prestigious rental management company, their story reveals the disturbingly high levels of resilience immigrant communities must exhibit against development and racism in Canada. 

As the proposed gentrification threatens to worsen existing inequality between racialized and non-racialized people in Toronto, our city’s political stability becomes damaged.

Consequently, the provincial government and Preston Living’s plan to develop Flemingdon Park should concern all Torontonians. 

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A Class Act? Preston Living’s Proposed Transformation of Green Space at 25 St. Denis Drive 

Preston Living’s proposal to build 552 new luxury units at 25 St. Dennis Drive, distributed across two high-rise condominiums and two blocks of townhomes, would have disastrous consequences for Flemingdon Park residents’ physical and psychological health. 

Development would Worsen COVID-19 Transmission

  • Since March 2020, an astonishing 83% of all coronavirus cases in Toronto were diagnosed in racialized bodies, with a disproportionate number of these patients also experiencing poverty.
  • The profile of a high-risk COVID-19 patient resembles that of a typical Flemingdon Park resident. Due to issues of extreme population density, Flemingdon Park, colloquially known as Flemo, is currently a COVID-19 hotspot

Flemo currently has a population density of 9,000 individuals per square kilometer, which is far higher than Toronto’s average population density of approximately 4,000 individuals per square kilometer. Adding another 552 units to the neighbourhood would worsen health outcomes overall. 

“[Under Preston Living’s development plan] … We become vectors of disease unwillingly,” Sahar Abdalla states.

A Proposal to Destroy Existing Green Space

As a low-income, predominantly non-white neighbourhood, Flemo has been denied green space, community amenities, and maintenance services from municipal and provincial governments since the 1960s. 

  • Due to the municipal and provincial government’s consistent lack of support, in the early 2000s, Flemo parents were forced to establish their own association to provide extracurricular programming for Flemo residents. 
  • The Flemo Park Parents Association (FPPA) soon became one of the largest community service organizations in Flemo, responsible for advocacy work on behalf of, and extracurricular programming for, the Flemo community

Flemo resident Sahar Abdalla explains that authorities have been ignoring the FPPA and other Flemo residents’ cries for improved community services for decades.

“I grew up learning that we couldn’t go to the community center because there was no space, or that at 6 PM I had to leave the park because there were too many kids playing,” Sahar says. “As a kid, it doesn’t strike you that anything is wrong. You have so many happy memories with others playing. But then you grow up and realize, wow, I really lived like this?”

“For as long as I can remember, we’ve been ignored, or, dismissed … And I don’t know if it’s because we’re a low income community, or if we’re people of colour, or if it’s because we don’t speak English, or all of that, but the way we’re being treated, it’s hurtful.”

The municipal and provincial government’s neglectful policies towards Flemingdon Park residents are especially insulting, given that many Flemo residents serve as Toronto’s essential workers and are critical components of Toronto’s local economy.

Building a set of luxury buildings in Flemo Park’s remaining green space insults the FPPA and other residents’ long-term advocacy work for improved community programming and spaces. As well, the development further disadvantages young Flemo residents who are increasingly in need of space to learn and grow. 

Saving Flemo from the Ontario Municipal Board: The Abdalla Sisters’ Story

What is the Ontario Municipal Board and why does it matter? 

For the physical and psychological reasons listed above, the City of Toronto rejected Preston Living’s proposed development at 25 St. Dennis Drive in 2016, with councillors voicing serious concerns that each new condo would negatively impact Flemo residents’ lives.

  • However, on May 3rd,  2019, the Progressive Conservative provincial government re-installed the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), a tribunal with the power to override municipal city planning decisions, often ruling in favour of rental management companies.
  • The OMB recently re-approved Preston Living’s proposal to develop 25 St. Dennis Drive, going against municipal city planners’ recommendations.

According to the Ottawa Citizen, the OMB is a highly controversial organization, due to its ability to make decisions in favour of developers “as if there was no [city] council decision in the first place.”

Adjudicators at the OMB can also hear new evidence that wasn’t presented to the city council, says Jon Willing at the Ottawa Citizen. 

As a result, the Abdalla sisters are currently attempting to resist the OMB’s aggressive politics. However, they’ve already faced exceptional challenges in their journey to save Flemo from Preston Living. 

“We are being silenced”: The Abdalla Sisters and #SaveFlemo

The Abdalla sisters are currently fighting to illustrate that Preston Living did not consult the Flemo community before putting forth their development proposal.

  • If they are able to prove that Flemo residents were ill-informed about the 25 St. Denis development project, they may have a chance at saving Flemo from Preston Living’s construction plans.
  • Currently, they have 1,800+ signatures on a petition, as well as 60 long-term Flemo residents joining them in their advocacy work. 

Preston Living’s attempts to inform Flemingdon Park residents about the development at 25 St. Dennis Drive has been inadequate.

The Abdalla sisters have no recollection of receiving a notice for the 2016 consultation, and only found out about the recent North York City Council meeting on November 4th through through a notice in English, released in October. Disturbingly, between 2016 and 2020, there were no attempts from Preston Living to inform community members about their development plans.

“According to the City of Toronto.” explains Sahar Abdalla, “only 50 people showed up to the consultation meeting in 2016, after 7000 notices were sent out in English. In a neighbourhood of 22,000, this doesn’t even represent 1% of residents consulted.” 

Sahar and Salwa Abdalla emphasize that the minimal turnout is largely due to the fact that over half of Flemo residents do not speak English at home, and the City of Toronto and Preston Living have never issued a non-English flyer about their proposed condo developments in Flemingdon Park.

Sahar explains that Preston Living’s insufficient community consultation process is reflective of a systemic issue in city planning. 

“I’m not sure that the Preston Group did the bare minimum, legally speaking, to consult Flemo residents…I feel like this is a systemic issue, that they can go to a neighbourhood where no English is spoken at home and expect us to read their English flyers with fine print. Residents who work two or three jobs will not have time to read flyers in English, which is their second or third language,” Sahar states. 

The consultation process, if it even existed, Sahar explains, “benefits privilege. My sister and I have the privilege of reading and speaking English, along with strong technological skills, but most people in Flemo don’t have that.” 

Even with relative privilege, Salwa Abdalla was repeatedly silenced at the November 4th North York City Council meeting, which allowed Flemo residents to voice their concerns against Preston Living’s development plans.

Her sister, Sahar, explains that Salwa “… took time off from academics and midterm exams to prepare her speech and speak at this meeting. She was humiliated. We are being silenced.”

Why Save Flemo? Mitigating Socioeconomic and Racial Divides in Toronto

Whose lives matter?  

After realizing that their own neighbourhood might be destroyed in the absence of their advocacy work, the Abdalla sisters report feeling completely overwhelmed. They say they have spent many nights since November 4th in tears. However, they remain determined to save Flemo. 

“[The lack of community consultation] is something I don’t want to let slide. This is an incredibly insulting proposal, compounded with the incredibly insulting behaviour at the proposal discussion,” Sahar says. 

She challenges the notion that scarcity in Toronto’s lower-income, racialized and newcomer neighbourhoods is normal.

Sahar says, “the government will say that Black and Brown lives matter, but, the second we resist, we don’t matter. Suddenly they can’t hear or see us.” 

“I’ve grown up here, I’m Canadian enough, and that’s why I’m fighting. Because I have the energy, and I have the privilege. I think if I don’t use my time and organizational abilities to address this issue, I’m doing myself a disservice, I’m doing my family a disservice and I’m doing my community a disservice.” 

Preventing Worsening Divides across Ethno-Racial lines 

Preston Living’s plan to develop condos at 25 St. Dennis is not an issue specific to Flemingdon Park residents. Through the forced displacement of working-class individuals, who, in Toronto, are disproportionately non-white, the proposed gentrification plan may be exacerbating Toronto’s already alarming racialized income divide

The Bottom Line: As the Abdalla sisters fight to save Flemo, Toronto’s longest-standing working class neighbourhood, their fervent resistance against state and corporate institutions raises an even larger question: To what extent should we all be resisting the inevitability of gentrification, and would our resistance save society as a whole?

To Support Sahar and Salwa: