After an impressive opening week box office on just two screens, the indie film Scarborough expanded to seventeen screens across the country this weekend. This intimate, heartbreaking and beautifully rendered tale told from the perspectives of three children from the Kingston-Galloway community has done the seemingly impossible: it’s propelled Toronto audiences to go out and watch a Canadian film.
Part of the appeal may lie in the name itself: Scarborough, the former municipality once plagued by a negative rep, is having a moment. From landmark cultural events like Nuit Blanche expanding to the region to its growing spotlight as a food capital of the world, Scarborough seems to have captured the attention and the imagination of the zeitgeist.
Poets Dwayne Morgan, Ontario Poet Laureate Randell Adjei, and award-winning artist Paulina O’Kieffe-Anthony are the curators behind the ArtworxTo supported project Scarborough: The Backbone currently on display at Scarborough Town Centre. The name, as you may have guessed, was partially inspired by the hip-hop classic “Let Your Backbone Slide” by one of Scarborough’s first international superstars: Maestro Fresh Wes.
“So much of what has put Toronto on the map is on the backs of people from Scarborough,” Dwayne Morgan said. “The whole idea of Scarborough: The Backbone kind of came from that. The immigrants that do all of this hard, backbreaking work to make Toronto run but at the same time, never get the respect that they really deserve. So we wanted to create something that celebrated Scarborough and really positions Scarborough as this place that makes Toronto what it is.”
Scarborough heroes such as former NBA player Jamal Magloire and rap superstar Kardinal Offishall have been re-imagined into comic book superheroes through the illustrations of Joseph Osei Bonsu. A digital playlist by DJ Lewy V is filled with sonic offerings from musicians across Scarborough.
As of the 2016 census, Scarborough was home to over 600,000 people, with over 73 percent of residents identifying as a visible minority. The majority of the population are immigrants and they come from a diverse array of places including China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Guyana and Jamaica. It is the relative affordability which brought many of these families to an area often segregated from the rest of the city due to limited transit options. Dwayne Morgan explains that the collective wanted to focus on capturing and documenting Scarborough as it currently exists.
This desire to document Scarborough as it is right now and the almost urgent call to connect directly with its current residents hints at an underlying anxiety: this project may one day be considered an archive rather than a reflection. Toronto’s claim to the crane capital of the world means that a constantly changing skyline of glass towers has been a familiar sight in the downtown core but less so in Scarborough. However, according to recent reports, the gaze of buyers, custom home builders and developers is increasingly turning east and a once familiar landscape is becoming not only unrecognizable but also unaffordable.
In a region home to few artistic institutions and professional performance venues, Scarborough has still managed to produce a remarkable number of high profile creatives including actors and brothers Stefan James and Shamier Anderson, pop superstar The Weeknd, and comedian Lily Singh.
Randell Adjei is the founder of the youth arts group R.I.S.E. which for years held a weekly open showcase for young artists in Scarborough who were hungry for exposure and opportunities to grow. He recalls that in the absence of formal spaces for gathering, artistic communities in Scarborough would often be found in the basements and homes of different people.
Adjei believes it is the absence of infrastructure and the reality of living in a transit desert that produced the tenacity and determination that makes artists from Scarborough stand out. “I think there’s something to be said about not having very much. About having to travel to showcase. Having to travel to learn and having to travel to connect and meet other people. It’s almost like you have to work a little bit harder as opposed to folks that live downtown.”
Paulina O’Kieffe-Anthony is one of the many artists who have left the city entirely due to the rising cost of living. She and her family now live in Windsor, Ontario and she commutes to Toronto for work.
However, Dwayne Morgan remains hopeful that Scarborough will continue to set the tone for the city.
“Scarborough will continue to define what is Toronto, especially as Toronto becomes more concrete, more cold. I think Scarborough will always be where that lifeblood is. A lot of times people think the downtown core is the heartbeat, but I think there’s a greater heartbeat in Scarborough.”