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‘Concrete and grey’ no more: How mural artists are beautifying Scarborough’s ‘Golden Mile’

Every Saturday afternoon, the room inside O’Connor Community Centre in Toronto’s Scarborough neighbourhood fills with chatter as artists enter one by one and greet each other.

They are part of the VIEWS: Golden Girls mural project, an intensive training program in mural painting and community arts initiative.

The mural is part of the City of Toronto’s Cultural Hotspot Projects, a program that showcases local artists and community organizations, and engages the public in free public art and community projects.

Led by Next Generation Arts, the group of BIPOC and non-binary artists represents the talents and diversity of the Scarborough community and surrounding areas. The mural at the O’Connor Community Centre will be available for viewing starting Oct. 1. 

Golden Mile once a thriving industrial hub

During the Second World War, this area of Scarborough was dubbed the “Golden Mile of Industry,” and in the following decades, it was transformed into one of Canada’s first model industrial parks.

Golden Mile became a thriving industrial hub in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, including the construction of the now-defunct Scarborough General Motor van assembly plant. In 1959, Queen Elizabeth visited the Golden Mile Plaza, one of Canada’s first outdoor malls.

But all that heavy industry of the past has left a mark on this Scarborough neighbourhood’s landscape.

“Scarborough is known for being concrete, grey and not welcoming,” said Helen Stratigos, a board member at Next Generation Arts and a volunteer with the mural project.

Today, this stretch of Eglinton Avenue East, pictured below, is home to the Eglinton Square shopping centre, what many consider the centre of the Golden Mile community. It’s a mixture of chain stores, strip malls, large parking lots, apartment buildings and single-family homes.

The O’Connor Community Centre, seen below, is the home of the VIEWS program, It serves the Golden Mile community as a gathering place and is located a few blocks away from Eglinton Square.

“The mural is an effort to add colour to the bare walls to bring a welcoming feeling to the place,” Stratigos said.

Supporting women, emerging artists

Programs like VIEWS can encourage local emerging artists from different communities and life experiences to showcase their artistic talents, Stratigos said.

Muzna Erum, seen in the centre of the photo below, is one of the artists working on the project. She was born in New York City. When she was an infant, her parents moved to Toronto’s Thorncliffe neighbourhood.

Erum, 21, moved to the Golden Mile neighbourhood with her family during her high school years. She met Claire Forsyth, 20, below right. The two friends hang out weekly, often in each other’s homes and also outdoors in locations like the Edge Park opposite O’Connor Community Centre.

Erum first found out about the VIEWS program on social media, and the two friends signed up right away. Forsyth, who grew up in Golden Mile, talks about how having a weekly routine has helped her mental health.

“The timing was perfect,” Forsyth said.

Inclusive space for diverse young talent 

A majority of Scarborough’s population is made up of immigrants who have arrived in the last five decades.

Natalie Sze Wai Ho, 25, another mural participant, is a visual artist and painter and has previous experience in supporting mural projects abroad.

Ho arrived in Canada in April after graduating with a fine arts undergraduate degree in Hong Kong.

As an aspiring mural artist, the public arts community in Canada was a big draw for Ho, seen below in her apartment.

Fellow mural participant Cai Jerome, 28, below left, identifies as a non-binary artist and is enrolled at OCAD University. Jerome said being in the arts has helped them personally in many ways, including exploring their identity and Métis heritage.

Jerome is also involved with personal art projects, including an exhibit they are planning in a forested area near where they live focused on fairies and other fantasy characters.

Public art’s appeal

The cultural zeitgeist of suburbs in most cities is that these places are essentially cultural wastelands with little happening on the arts scene, Stratigos said.

“You would almost be ashamed to say you were from Scarborough if you are an artist.”

For many in the program, the biggest appeal around mural painting in public spaces, especially inside a community centre, is the ability to share their artwork directly with the communities they feel they are a part of.

“Mural and artwork around the city is the most accessible and best version of art. You’re beautifying your own city,” Jerome said.

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