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There's a village in that stripmall: a slideshow and essay wandering Wexford's main strip

Wexford was once a village, a day's ride or more from York, and later, Toronto. As Toronto grew, Wexford became more suburban and ultimately was subsumed into Scarborough, which in turn got eaten by the megacity in 1998. So now it's neither village nor suburb, properly speaking, but if you look closely, being careful to scrape away those sticky 21st-century urbocentric prejudices, you'll be able to see not only vestiges of both, but that Wexford and, by extrapolation many, many other more or less nameless enclaves around the city, remain very fundamentally both.

OK, well, maybe detecting Wexford's suburban qualities is not so tough. That strip of Lawrence, east of Victoria Park, known to foes and fans alike by various names playing on the name of the main bus route, the number 54, is about as archtypically suburban as North America gets, with its tract housing, its allergy to density and addiction to Kentucky blue grass, the huge roadways that focus on the car, and its strip malls, often several to a block (if that stretch of Lawrence can be said to be built of blocks).

Finding the delightful 19th-century village in all that sprawl can be like trying to see the 3d picture in those novelty pointillist posters: you've got to set your field of focus just right, but when you do, it couldn't be more obvious.

It's the strip malls. And Wexford's got one that, better than most, illustrates just how little has changed, about community life and about ourselves, in the past century and a half.

Wexford Heights Plaza is older than most of the malls on this or any other Toronto strip, and dates from close to the postwar inception of what came to be vilified by urban thinkers and snobs everywhere as the very icon of suburban wasteland.

If you're not from around there and took a trip over to the corner of Lawrence and Warden with all this in mind, you might be tempted to think that the Wexford Restaurant is the key. It's the centerpiece of the strip, and has been since 1958, when it was opened by Jerry Kiriakou who was born, a plaque on the wall says, in the village of Vevi Florina in Greece.

It's charming, to be sure, even to someone with a heart hardened to the charms of strip malls. But that's not it. If anything, the restaurant might even be a distraction, to those trying to work out their thoughts on strip malls, hewing as it does to so many standard urban notions of quaintness and quality. Though the owners of Wexford Restaurant now own the entire mall, the essence of what makes a strip mall a new version of the village main street that has persisted from the 19th century, through the 50s malt shops and right up to today, lies elsewhere. Everywhere else, in fact.

On the evening I'm there, as I walk past the shops, I see three teenage girls with slushies and popsicles, looking a little more lesbian-punk than Betty and Veronica, but engaged in pretty much the same behaviour and conversation. They're coming back from Frank's Smoke Shop, which is the strip's corner store. They don't cut across the parking lot, that big buffer of space separating the strip from Lawrence Avenue, that density-killing ode to vehicular supremacy that is the easy-out for the strip mall-hater. They walk along the arcade-like path in front of the shops, past the Sewing Machine Factory Outlet, the Lawrence-Warden Dental Clinic, the Photo Fast DVD Video Centre, CAS Corp Signs, International Halaba Exchange, Wexford Auto Parts, the Herbals Health Food Shoppe, Wexford Restaurant and Kirk's Dining Lounge, Stephanie Nails Salon and S.K.T. Jewellers and Textiles, and then out into the night, giggling.

It's that list of shops that makes this something other than what so many of us think it is. For starters, there's not a single chain store. [Footnote: There's a Pharmasave off the west end of the strip, but it's not attached and has its own parking lot.] Name a downtown strip that can say the same. Certainly not any significant portion of College or Queen, nevermind Yonge or Bloor or Eglinton. And yet, if you cared to take a little day trip through the strip malls of Scarborough, you'd be hard pressed to find a single corporate-owned shop. These strips are direct, unadulterated reflections of the communities they're at the centre of.
You also might notice that this single strip mall has just about everything in both goods and services, from chocolate bars to auto parts, dentistry to pedicures, that anyone in the neighbourhood might need. The only thing that's missing is produce. If you go around the back of Wexford Heights Plaza, you'll see remnants of what these shops used to be in the form of little painted signs meant for back-door deliveries. One of them was Athena Sweets Bakery and Stephanie's Nails Salon was once Adelphi Cleaners. Add that to the still-surviving Helen's House of Hairstyling, with its sign out front old enough that it's missing the 416 in its phone number, as well as Mr Kiriakou's restaurant, and Diana's Seafood restaurant and market across the street, and you see that this used to be a Greek village.

But now, in addition to the International Halabja Exchange, there's Sanabel Halal Meat (which is multiculti enough to offer both sausage and mortadella on its lit-up sign), and Alisra Islamic Superstore, where you can buy three hejabs for $10.

And then there's Dream. Most of the shops are closed by 9pm, when all the back-lit shop signs light up, but there's a crowd outside dream, and it's getting bigger. There's no clear indication from the sign or the frontage what Dream is, so I walk in. It's a hookah bar, and it's packed with twenty-somethings playing checkers, backgammon, talking sports and music and school, all English-speaking, all of Arabic extraction, and every table with a candy-fragrant hookah, mostly one for every two people.

I sit there for about an hour, and it just gets more and more packed with jocks and babes, hip-hoppers and geeks. There's a birthday party at one corner table, with phones clicking pics as the table sings happy birthday.

Outside, there's a circle of seven boys, maybe teens, rough-housing. Behind them, a truck and a car, engines running, beside each other facing in opposite directions so the drivers and passengers can talk through the driver-side windows. The cars may be a little light on the detailing, but other than that, it's pure American Graffiti. If you wanted to, it wouldn't be to hard to substitute horses for those cars, either. On my way back downtown on the 54 bus I pass 20 more of these strips at least, some Arabic, some Asian, some African and some an unpindownable amalgam, each not only reflecting and serving the slab apartments and ticky-tacky houses that surround them, but largely owned and staffed by nearby residents as well.

Downtown could take some lessons in community building and sustainable retail from these strips.

Bert Archer is Yonge Street's Development Editor and Tanja Tiziana is its Managing Photographer. Check out the previous articles in this series: Bathurst and Church streets.

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