Newsletter: Sometimes, community grows from tragedy

We’ve just finished a week of listening in Willowdale. It was our fourth week talking to residents in Greater Toronto Area communities whose diverse stories are misrepresented or simply not told by existing media. (To learn about how we selected Willowdale, as well as Brampton, Little Portugal and Scarborough, read this.)

In Willowdale, we talked to Toronto City Council candidates, community organizers and artists. We conducted in-depth interviews with 15 residents, asking everyone the same 11 questions about how they get information and what local stories they think deserve more attention. One consistent theme we heard is that as Willowdale has become increasingly dense with houses and condos, services like libraries and hospitals aren’t keeping up with demand.

If you live in one of the four #GTADiscourse communities and have a few minutes to spare, please share your story ideas by completing our brief survey. Your feedback will help us decide what to report on. Here are some highlights from our interviews so far:

What do you love about Willowdale?

Lily Cheng, 43, is the founder of North York Moms, a group for local moms to share advice, resources and plan get-togethers. The group has grown to almost 800 people, and Lily says it’s an example of the diversity that exists in Willowdale.

Lily Cheng, 43, is a Toronto City Council candidate and founder of North York Moms, a Facebook community of mothers who share resources and advice with each other, and also plan meetups, playdates and workshops. Launched in 2013, the group now has nearly 800 members. 

Lily loves Willowdale for its diversity, explaining that the area is a “microcosm” of the diverse city that Toronto is. “There’s a lot of new immigrants who land in this community,” she says. “Because I’m a foodie, you can get almost every country of food that you’re craving. There’s great Indian food. There’s great Korean, particularly Korean-Chinese. There’s beautiful little noodle shops that you can explore. You could explore the world with your palette here.”

Lily feels Willowdale’s diversity is represented in the North York Moms community. “A lot of times, same cultures hang out together, especially in the moms community. [But in the Facebook group], I see so much diversity, and we’re all supporting each other,” she says. “Just that willingness to be a part of a village and to serve each other — that’s something that I’ve watched happen in this community.”

What issues get covered the most by media in Willowdale?

Jesse James, 33, is a community organizer and youth programming director. He says Willowdale can sometimes feel fragmented, so he looks for opportunities to bring people together.

Jesse James, 33, is a community outreach worker with Youth Unlimited North York, a faith-based youth program in Willowdale. He lives in the community with his wife and two kids. Jesse says the area’s considerable diversity means media coverage is fragmented along linguistic lines. “The biggest barrier, though, is linguistic and I think that’s why the media struggles so much,” he explains. “You can’t get a media outlet here that will engage even 50 per cent of the population.”

Still, Jesse says tragedy garners the most media attention from both English and non-English outlets. When a man drove a van through a busy sidewalk near Yonge and Finch on April 23, killing 10 people and injuring 16, he watched Willowdale make news across Toronto and Canada.  

“Willowdale has […] been centered in media coverage recently because of the attack on our street,” he says. “I coordinated the decommissioning of the memorial sites, just happened in the beginning of June. That got a lot of media coverage.”  

But even after the van attack disappeared from the news cycle, crime still dominates headlines, Jesse says. “Prior to that and now, since we’re out of the new cycle, the stuff that has been covered is usually violent crimes,” he explains, “which only entrenches these stereotypes and stigmatization that certain communities get, primarily the lower-income communities.”

What issues are your friends and family most concerned about about right now?

Chris Nolan, 40, is an artist and a stay-at-home father. As Willowdale has become more expensive, Chris says, local residents feel the need to work more, and as a result don’t have time to spend in the community.

Chris Nolan, 40, is an artist and a stay-at-home father of an 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. He’s lived in Willowdale for the past 15 years, so much of his art and activism focuses on viewing the community through different lenses. For example, one of his projects, titled “Slow Down, Look Closer,” is taken from a kid’s point-of-view and features close-up images of plants and creatures found across Willowdale. 

Chris has watched the local cost of living skyrocket over the years. The families that we knew back then, most were tempted to sell because the price has just gone up so much,” he says. “The ones that we identified, who had similar values at the time, have moved away, or they’re renters … who have now different pressures. They don’t have that safety net to fall back on.”

Chris’ family owns a home, which some people assume they’ll sell: “We get people knocking on the door the other day to say, ‘Are you going to sell now?’”

With increasing homeownership and rental costs, Willowdale has started to lose its neighbourhood identity, he says, adding that some locals feel too busy to get involved.

“The people that do move in have so much debt that they are so much more pressured to perform in their jobs, that they don’t have as much time for community,” Chris explains. “They drive home, they park in their garage, they go into their house. Next morning, they’re back in their car. There’s a lot of people in the neighborhood you just never see.”

“Some of the volunteer work and stuff that I do — it’s really hard to get people to do it.”

Help us report on the GTA

Whether you live in Willowdale, the three other communities we’re covering or elsewhere in the GTA, we’d love to hear from you. Fill out this survey or reach us at to share your thoughts on what local stories we should cover. Then follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates from the field, and for information on upcoming Discourse pop-up events across Toronto. Finally, if you appreciated this newsletter, please ask your friends to subscribe for #GTADiscourse updates.

Healing in community

Ribbons hang from the ceiling at the North York Civic Centre to commemorate the victims of a deadly van attack in Willowdale on April 23. The installation, called the Toronto Love Project, is a partnership between North York Arts and quilt artist Berene Campbell.

After the van attack, Willowdale united as a community to mourn, support victims and their families and reclaim a sense of safety. Many local residents we interviewed told us the tragedy united this usually siloed community in new and powerful ways. Lily Cheng and Jesse James, for example, co-founded a Facebook group called We Love Willowdale after the attack.

“I think that the van attack really unified our community,” Lily says. “John Filion, the current city councillor, was really amazed to just see how people came out of the woodwork to serve the community.”

From the moment the attack happened, she adds, “people just dived in to help.”

“Sometimes, I think in our modern society, people are so busy, distracted and disconnected that that sense of community identity gets watered down,” Lily explains. “So something like that moment, I feel like it could and is defining our community in a positive way because we can be proud of how we responded.”

Check out We Love Willowdale and the hashtag #NorthYorkStrong to learn more about local initiatives in light of the attack.[end]


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