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The Peanut Plaza: a slideshow + essay exploring an unsung Toronto community in North York

Waiting in line to buy my cans of wax gourd and pennywort juices at Tone Tai, Peanut Plaza's anchor grocery store, I overheard the conversation between two women in front of me. The first, Chinese, was buying chicken parts, dry noodles and various vegetables I couldn't immediately identify. One looked like an overfed, elderly cucumber, another like lettuce that had been grown in a cellar. The other was Hispanic, buying, among other things, a box of Azteca mangoes, and apparently had the same trouble identifying the vegetables. "What are you going to make with those?" She asked. It was obvious they didn't know each other.

"You steam the chicken, brush the pan with oil for the noodles, but not too much or it gets sticky," she told the other woman with a smile, going back and forth between English with her and Chinese with the cashier. "It's really good."

The Hispanic woman thanked her, and there were big smiles on all three of our faces. One woman got to share a recipe, another got a new one, and I got a perfect example of why little local malls like this one are such brilliant urban evolutions.

Peanut Plaza was built in the 1960s on a little peanut-shaped bit of land in the middle of Don Mills Road just north of Sheppard. It's just a few minutes' walk north of the much larger Fairview mall, and is considered so unimportant by its owners, the Sitzer Group, that they didn't even bother returning repeated phone calls and emails from me with questions about its history and current performance.

But everything you really need to know about Peanut Plaza you can learn from hanging out there for an hour or so, as I did on a recent weekday. There aren't too many places to sit - actually, only one, the Coffee Time, one of the few indoor chains at this indoor-outdoor mall.

So I sit there, with my bag of goat patties from Allan's Pastry Shop to bring home, a pork bun from Edward Bakery next door, and some roast pork on rice from Hung Fok BBQ Gourmet, where the woman who prepared it spent a good half minute cleaning the outside of the Styrofoam container the food was in to make sure any little spills or crumbs were taken care of. Then she gave me a free bottle of water.

I look around at the shops. Hard to Resist Jewellery, Shoprite Optical, IDA Rainbow Drug Mart, Don Valley Hair Design (which the manager at Allan's tells me has been here for about 40 years), Furniture and Mattresses, Travel Kiosk, Hair King, New Ya Fashion, Pizza Pizza, a new Rogers storefront, Rainbow Nail Spa, Bulk City, a staircase down to the basement Dollarama, Don Valley Health Food, Paincare Physiotherapy, and on the other side of me, just around the bend and out the door, a Popeye's.

It's not as painstakingly chain-free as some of these strip mall main streets. In fact, once you step outside and walk the perimeter, you find a Subway, a Mac's, a Beer Store and a Bank of China (Canada) alongside the Fine Indian Grocers and the Col. Mustard's Pub and Deli. But its proximity to Fairview Mall, just a 10-minute walk south, highlights a major difference between these old locals and the newer malls that grew out of them. Spend a few minutes in Fairview and you'll notice people meandering, kids congregating, adults chatting, people browsing.

There's no browsing at the Peanut. There are stores that sell things that you need. No surprises, no sales. You go there because you need groceries, or a haircut, or to book a flight and buy some lottery tickets. The Coffee Time I'm sitting at only has four tables, and people don't tend to linger. Even here, people come for a coffee, not to hang.

But this doesn't make the place any less social, as our Tone Tai checkout line conversation made clear. But here, at least to judge from my hour-long linger, the no-less robust social interactions happen more briskly, as a natural adjunct to being in a place where everyone has something to do, a reason for being there. People don't live their social lives at the Peanut, like people do at the Starbucks downtown. There didn't even seem to be a whole lot of conversation going on at the Rainbow Nail Spa.

If I decided to stalk these people a bit -- a bit more than I already was, anyway -- I think I would have found the Peanut customers' social lives still revolve around home and church and community centres. They probably go to Fairview, too, when they need some clothes they can't find at New Ya, and when they're there, they probably meander like everybody else there does.

But here at the Peanut, it's good to see socializing that isn't constituted entirely of casual consumer pursuit. These people aren't shopping, it strikes me, they're buying things. Peanut Plaza, partially indoors, partially outdoors, partially underground, is different from a main street or a town square in many ways, but something it has in common with those other places where people mostly tended to gather not for gathering sake, but as a matter of course, is that it was built for, and still to a large extent exists in, a world before buying the things you needed to live your life started to insinuate itself into so many aspects of that life that shopping and living became mostly indistinguishable.

There's a stairwell under Hung Fok that leads down to All Wheel Driver Training, The Moment Photography and Picture, Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, and Association of Women of India in Canada (AWIC) Community and Social Services. You could live your life at Peanut Plaza. There are far more of the necessities of life here than at Fairview or Yorkdale. But people don't. And Peanut Plaza doesn't want them to.

Bert Archer is Yonge Street's Development News editor.

Check out the other places Yonge Street Has explored: a Wexford stripmall, the Gay Village, and Bathurst Street.
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