Scarborough and the politics of resentment

“Scarborough has long been seen as Toronto’s wasteland and a subway is something too expensive for an outpost like Scarborough” [1]

Mary Wiens, CBC Reporter, Metro Morning, Toronto
Wednesday September 3, 2014

On September 3, 2014, CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning website introduced a radio interview with one Scarborough resident in the following manner:

Scarborough Transit

Transit is one of the most important issues in this mayoral campaign, especially in Scarborough. Mary Wiens spoke with voters in Scarborough, who could be key in deciding who becomes the next mayor.”[2]

This is a blog that in some ways I am reluctant to write. I like Metro Morning. I like Matt Galloway and I really like Mary Wiens. I always turn up the radio to listen to the interviews she conducts as they are unerringly empathetic and thought-provoking.

She conducted her September 3 interview with one Scarborough voter who favours the building of a subway connecting Don Mills Station to Scarborough Town Centre.

The interview covers a gamut of issues from Scarborough’s building boom to the perception that Scarborough is treated unfairly from a public transit perspective.

In less than seven minutes, the interview engages what she calls the ‘politics of resentment’ that could result from the building of a Scarborough subway line. She explores the political oddity manifested in the fact that Scarborough subways have already been approved.

“If Scarborough gets a subway instead of an LRT, everyone will have to pay more. City council has voted to approve a city-wide property tax increase to extend the Bloor line.   No wonder the Scarborough subway has become a political football. There’s room here for the politics of resentment. It will mean a tax hike.”

She ends by noting accurately that a mayoralty outcome could be decided by a hot-button issue like the Scarborough subway.

But even as the Metro Morning interview did a thorough job in covering the many political nuances of the Scarborough subway debate, it also accomplished something far more damaging.

The Framing of Scarborough as a resented district

Ironically, by correctly noting that “There’s room here for the politics of resentment”, the interview itself creates that room by participating in the degradation of one of Toronto’s largest districts.

Let’s start with the framing of the story. This is not hard to do. Ms. Wiens makes it easy by framing Scarborough with no hint of guile or deception:

“Scarborough has long been seen as Toronto’s wasteland…”

Here are some on-line definitions of ‘wasteland’:

An unused area of land that has become barren or overgrown.

 A bleak, unattractive, and unused or neglected urban or industrial area.

 Land where nothing can grow or be built: land that is not usable

 An ugly and often ruined place or area

Something that is being compared to a large, empty area of land because it has no real value or interest.”

“…and a subway is something too expensive for an outpost like Scarborough”           

Here are some on-line definitions of ‘outpost’:

“A small military camp or position at some distance from the main force, used especially as a guard against surprise attack.

A remote part of a country or empire.

 A large military camp that is in another country or that is far from a country’s center of activity

A small town in a place that is far away from other towns or cities”

OK. So I don’t have to say anything more about the words used in the framing. We know how Mary thinks Scarborough has “long been seen”. The blunt force of the negative language and framing are about as subtle as being hit by a Mack truck.

And the evidence for how Scarborough has long been seen?  Is it authoritative? Is it from polling? Is it from reports or commissions? The answer is no.

The renaming of Scarborough to ‘Scarberia’, ‘Scarlem’ and ‘Scareberia’

It’s not that hard to find where the evidence comes from. If you take a truly scattershot approach to research, it is possible to find a few sensationalist articles over the years that either make fun of Scarborough or link it to crime:

Eye Weekly has noted that most media in the Greater Toronto Area has long portrayed Scarborough as an “embarrassment” and a “gang-infested wild, wild east”. For instance, the Toronto Life article “The Scarborough Curse”, by Don Gillmor, nicknamed the former city “Scarlem” and described it as “a mess of street gangs, firebombings and stabbings”.[26] In 2005, a series of gang-related shootings in some Scarborough neighbourhoods led to the portrayal of Scarborough in the media as crime-ridden.[27] As well, based on an informal survey of people on the streets in the Greater Toronto Area, a reporter noted that most respondents associated Scarborough with “crime” or “ghetto”.[28[3]

Here’s the effect on a Scarborough resident:

“Whenever I tell people I live here they make a stupid comment like “Oh, have you ever been shot?”. Sure there are some bad pockets in Scarborough, but there are bad ones EVERYWHERE – all over Toronto and every other city. I live in a nice area, and there are many nice areas in Scarborough.

And why on TV, when there is a crime and it occurs in Scarborough, do they say it was in Scarborough? When it’s in North York, they’ll say something like “Yonge and Sheppard” or something. Scarborough is HUGE, it’s almost a third of the city.”[4]

It doesn’t matter a whit that almost all of the facts in all the articles are wrong and based on perceptions gleaned in one-off, highly selective interviews and informal surveys. The reality is that:

“…long term trends show that Scarborough is less prone to violent crime than the rest of Toronto. Between 1997 and 2006, the ratio of violent crime in Scarborough averaged 20.4% despite making up on average 23.6% of the population over that period.[29] Murder rates for Scarborough and Toronto show no particular trend. Between 1997 and 2006, the ratio of murders in Scarborough as compared to the rest of Toronto ranged from a low of 8.8% to a high of 32.2%.[30] According to Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, “[42 Division is] the safest division in the city”; this division includes north Scarborough.[31] The safest part of Toronto is north Scarborough from Victoria Park Ave. to the Pickering border, north of Highway 401.”[31][5]

So where are we?

The media concocts a Scarborough narrative mostly through decades of selective reporting of crime and the incessant addiction of junk journalism to scapegoating communities in which their offices are not located and their reporters don’t reside.

We know that’s going to happen and that’s going to continue.

Life on Planet Earth.

Taking stigma to the next step

But the CBC, a publicly funded broadcaster with a presumed code of conduct, takes it a subtle but catastrophic step further.

Ms. Wiens intimates that because of Scarborough’s reputation in some quarters – built on the shoddiest of self-serving evidence from sensationalist sources,  means “…that a subway may be too expensive for an outpost like Scarborough”.

In other words, the subtle point being made is that Subways may be appropriate for places with neutral or good reputations but too expensive for places that have – in her eyes – bad reputations.

Unbelievable! Just writing this, I almost lose my breath.

The characteristics of successful degradation ceremonies are the lifeblood of stigma and fellow Scarborough residents, you have just experienced an attack on your District’s reputation that takes the manufacturing of stigma to a whole new level.

Fully one quarter of Toronto’s population living on over one third of its area just took the hit.

The subtleties of political subway-speak

Let’s conclude with just one more subtlety. In negative political subway-speak, subways are always ‘to Scarborough’ from the centre of the universe (hint: downtown) but subways within the downtown are never conceived as being ‘to Rosedale’ or ‘to the Danforth’ or ‘to High Park’ because none are framed as outposts. They are within the downtown’s warm positive frame, the frame to which much of the media swears it allegiance.

So when I sit in my Scarborough home, should I be thinking of the cost of streetcars?  We have none.

Should I be thinking of the costs of a 400 series north-south road corridor? We are the only district in the GTA without one.

Should I be thinking about the cost of bus services that serve Rosedale even though residents there have 5 subway stations that surround their perimeter?

The answer is no because that’s the real politics of resentment. I don’t want others to get less just because I get less.

But I should not have to think that subways are too expensive because someone thinks I live in a wasteland or an outpost.

They may be expensive for a lot of reasons but surely not that one.

Js//September 7, 2014