Strip malls are perfect examples of “third places,” which are spaces outside of home and work where one finds a sense of community, according to Daniel Rotsztain, a Toronto-based cartographer, artist and writer. Third places often house a variety of retail stores that function as gathering spots — from a convenience store that sells neighbourhood essentials to a barbershop that locals frequent, and a restaurant that serves homestyle food based on family recipes passed down through generations.
Usually, there’s a cultural specificity to strip malls, says Rotsztain, since affordable rent makes them especially attractive to new immigrants who might not have access to a lot of capital: “Birds of a feather flock together; it’s that combination of affordability and need for community that humans just have. And so, some strip malls are all Bengali, or all Gujarati or all Iranian.”
Scarborough strip malls, however, are special because they’re so culturally mixed, Rotsztain points out. “I think communities like Jewish or Iranian or Greek — they usually have specific areas, specific neighbourhoods they congregate in. There’s something about Scarborough [in] that everyone [from many different ethnic communities] is there,” he says.
As part of my research for my story about why strip malls bring community together, I asked members of our Scarborough Discourse Facebook group to share photos and accompanying anecdotes of their favourite neighbourhood strip malls. In response, I received many heartfelt submissions — some reliving childhood memories, others describing recent outings. Check out the highlights, below, and click each person’s name to see the full Facebook thread discussion. If you want to be featured in this post, please email me.
“I was going to highlight the corner where I live that has three strip plazas and a small shopping mall. But…after dropping in on the Uncle Neil and Friends Annual Toy Drive, our family stopped in for lunch at Mama’s Boys Burgers. This joint is inside the ‘Sun Valley’ plaza at Danforth and Birchmount. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this place before?! The burgers are so tasty and juicy. And ‘Mama’ is the nicest person! She spoke with us like we were old friends. She even made sure everyone had a drink even though not everyone ordered one! Mama’s Boys Burgers is now my favourite burger place, and is now on my list of go-to places for burgers and for visitors to the city. The rest of Toronto is missing out by not going to Scarborough!”
“A picture of a small yet vibrant strip mall in my area. It’s always filled with people and has been a meeting place and community hub of sorts since I was a kid. Throughout the years, it has also been well maintained and continually able to attract new people to the area.”
“Thought I’d share one of my favourite Scarborough strip malls, even though it’s not really a strip mall. I can be found here at least once a month, sometimes two. I get my eyebrows done, maybe pick up some South Asian grocery staples and — on the odd occasion — also pick up samosas at Samosa King. The samosas are cheap, the perfect size and super crisp if you happen to get a batch straight out of the fryer. Yum!”
“Wexford Plaza is a forever favourite of mine. I grew up right behind here, and I have the best memories of going to Frank’s Smoke Shop for strawberry shortcake ice cream bars. There was also a European deli that would give us free slices of meat. It’s always nice to come back to the old area and see what’s new. We always come back for the Taste of Lawrence and get to check it out. Also, today we had lunch just down the street at Sahan, which is a delicious Somalian restaurant if anyone is looking for food suggestions in the area!”
“There are many incredible plazas in Scarborough — hard to pick just one, but here’s one. Northwest corner of Ellesmere and Pharmacy (some shop owners refer to it as the ‘Express Plaza’). I started bringing guests here during the food tours to showcase how diverse the scene is in Scarborough — told through one of the smallest plazas in the area. You can go from Filipino to Persian to Tanzanian (the best samosas IMO) to Lebanese to Hakka, all in one parking lot. I’m regularly asked by downtowners if there’s one plaza worth eating through. This is a start.”
“As discussed, a great little strip plaza in Scarborough. The Stop 20 Plaza was named because it was at the location of the twentieth stop along the radial streetcar line that went from V.P. to Highland Creek way back in the day. It has street credibility with decades of history, many longstanding reputable service businesses, adds to Scarborough’s well-known variety of international cuisine (Sushi and Wok, Il Fresco, Vi Pei restaurants) and has diverse retail, as well as animal care. As you can see by the busy parking lot, it is well attended. There still is an important place for well-tenanted and -maintained strip plazas that serve as community hubs in Scarborough.”
“Woodside Square mall! Intersection: McCowan and Finch. I grew up in this mall. This place holds many childhood memories, such as birthday parties at McDonald’s (it used to be located in the mall), $2 chicken burgers from the bakery (I ate this every day in high school) and Zellers (my first retail job). I know it’s not a strip mall by definition. However, it contains strip mall aesthetics. Also, I thought it was important to capture the cinema entrance. This place has been around since the ’70s.”[end]