Airport Road Travelogue
Part II: Toronto Prologue

(I’m posting this from Jackson’s public library, which has wi-fi. As expected, Internet connectivity will be sporadic, so expect some slow posting over the next couple of days. Everybody is here and is doing well and we hope to be back in Des Moines on Thursday)

Previous: the Longest Street Revisited


My trip begins at the foot of Scarlett Road, which happens to be Dundas Street, itself is a long road with considerable history behind it. Dundas meanders westward through Toronto, avoiding marshy lands that have since been built over. Where I am, just west of the Toronto Junction, Dundas has reached as far north as it is going to go. Scarlett Road begins beneath a dark railway underpass, above which trains belonging to Canadian Pacific rumble. Driving past the stone abutments, I arrive immediately at St. Clair Avenue, and make my first stop.

The first business on Scarlett Road is the Messina Bakery & Deli (19 Scarlett Road, 416-762-2496), a touch of St. Clair’s Little Italy that has spilt off of its home street, although the owners tell me that they came here from somewhere other than Little Italy. “We were in this location for about twenty years, since 1987,” says Francesco Mucio, who manages the business with his father. “We used to be on Jane and Lawrence before my father moved it. He and my uncle started it up in 1969.”

“We sell baked goods, pastries; coffees too are our speciality,” he adds. “We’re like a delicatessen and a grocery store, selling everything except vegetables and fruits.”

The store is full of sights and smells, of bread baking and prosciutto under glass. An authentic espresso machine draws me to the coffee bar where I order cappuccino, mindful of the signs warning me to drink up before thirty minutes have passed. As I sit and steel myself for the long journey, a number of Italian-Canadian gentlemen come in, quaff quick cups and leave.

“Our customers are mostly from the neighbourhood,” says Mucio. “Some people come from far away if they’re driving. Lots of Ukrainian, Portuguese, Croatians shops here, even Vietnamese. It’s a family-oriented bakery; father and son working hard together to make our customers happy. Great customers make great business, and that keeps them coming back.”

I ask the manager about the road ahead, and he knows that though it’s called Scarlett Road where he is, it undergoes a few changes. “It becomes Dixon Road, and then Airport Road.”

Did he know that it went all the way to Collingwood?

“Oh, yeah, I’ve done it. It’s faster to go by the 400 and Highway 26, but if I have time, I take Airport Road. It’s a nice drive.”

He’s put his finger on why I’m drawn off the beaten path. In this province, just as in the rest of North America, there are roads you take if you want to get there fast, and so many people take them that, sometimes, hardly anybody goes fast. You see more interesting things off the beaten track, on country roads replaced by expressways and interstates, secrets shared in solitude.

Bolstered by a fine cappuccino and a pound of coffee beans, I get back in my car and resume my journey.

Scarlett Road heads north-northwest, crossing the Humber River and following the height of land. The road owes its existence to a sawmill on the Humber River built in 1831 by a colourful British immigrant named John Scarlett. Investing some 60,000 pounds, he purchased choice timberland along the Humber from Dundas Street all the way to Black Creek. The road built to log the area came to be known as Scarlett Road as timberland gave way to housing.

Today, Scarlett Road is lined by homes and stores built after the Second World War. At Eglinton Avenue, high rise apartments tower over the road and river. North of Lawrence Avenue, Scarlett Road curves left, turning into Dixon Road.

Looking at a map, it is clear that Scarlett Road used to continue along its alignment on what is today known as Riverview Heights, but the area has changed. Car drivers have no choice but to turn left onto what used to be the Dixon Sideroad.

This area is known as Humber Heights which, in the early 1850s, used to be part of the Village of Weston across the river. The settlement on this side of the river was washed away in a storm that raised the level of the Humber by twenty feet (Hurricane Hazel would do the same again in 1954, forcing the establishment of Toronto’s river valley park system). Only St. Philips Church and Cemetery, at the corner of Royal York and Dixon, remain from this period.

“Dixon Road is busy,” says area councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby. Its got a lot of traffic. Its got a lot of high rises. There are some small plazas, although we just lot a big Loblaws store there, which is too bad.”

Past Kipling Avenue, detached housing gives way to high-rise apartment buildings and strip malls dating from the fifties and the sixties. Once the place for young families to set up a home, this area underwent remarkable demographic changes through the end of the 1990s, when waves of Somali immigrants gave the area the name “Little Mogadishu”. Between 1996 and 2001, census figures estimated that the number of individuals of Somali descent had risen from 8,500 to close to 50,000. It was said that, in Somali refugee camps in Africa, Canada was known as Dixon.

The transformation has not been without its problems. The influx of immigrants coincided with a change in Toronto’s economic fortunes throughout the mid 1990s. An intriguing pattern of urban decay settled on the city. Whereas many American cities have experienced problems with their downtown cores as affluent citizens fled to the suburbs, Toronto’s downtown prospered, while suburban areas like Dixon Road entered a cycle of poverty and frustration.

“The area changed from before we became the megacity and we were just Etobicoke,” says Lindsay-Luby. “There were culture clashes between the recent immigrants and people who owned condominium units where some of the condominiums were rented out to the new immigrants. There were differences in how to use the local environment. For instance, Somalis are accustomed to going out into the backyard and speaking loudly, having lively discussions, which didn’t sit well with owners who tended to be of an English background, and tended to keep to themselves.”

“There was also an issue of overcrowding in some units,” she adds. “In some cases, they’d fit twenty people into one apartment, and in a condominium where you share the cost of water and hydro, you can imagine how the rates jumped up, along with tensions. We were forced to send in the health department and by-law officers. It took a little while to settle down, but it has.”

“I’ve had no problems with them,” says Councillor Rob Ford, whose ward borders Dixon Road. “We’ve made a number of services available to these people and other new Canadians; Vince Carter built a nice basketball court for them, and they play a lot of basketball. We have the Rexdale Health Centre up on Taber Road, the Humberwood community centre, the Don Bosco Catholic High School and the Dixon Road Youth Services drop in centre to occupy the younger crowd. The local churches really help out with basketball tournaments and homework centres.”

“I also worked to help bring a new Walmart to the area, which created some jobs for the area.”

“A lot of the community’s services are up in Rexdale,” says Lindsay-Luby. “That’s where the commercial centre is, since Dixon is really more a residential area in my ward. I think, gradually, the Somali community just established itself. Leaders emerged to work with the wider community, and people filtered through to other areas and settled down.”

Gradually, Dixon appears to have settled into its new role as an immigrant community. “I don’t foresee any major changes along Dixon Road,” says Ford, “other than the younger generation growing older and going off to university or getting jobs and having families of their own. It’s a young community, though, so that change won’t happen for a while.”

“Dixon Road has just been redone,” Lindsay-Luby adds. “It was a pain in the rear to drive on, but it’s a good road, now.”

Further Reading

Next: The Pearson Patch

Here are some pictures I took of the journey. They originally appeared on this blog two years ago.


The Messina Bakery and Deli is a classic Italian store and bakery at the corner of Scarlett and St. Clair. It serves excellent cappuccino.


Scarlett Road runs along the height of land above the Humber River valley. It’s proximity to the river limited development until after the Second World War. The bulk of the development along the road is either low density residential, or high rise apartments.


Looking at a map, you can see that Scarlett Road used to continue along its alignment on what is today Riverview Heights, but the area has changed. The road curves onto Dixon Road and there is no choice for car drivers on where to go.


This area is known as Humber Heights. Its roots go back to the early 1850s when it was part of the Village of Weston. The settlement on this side of the river was washed away in a storm that raised the level of the Humber by twenty feet (Hurricane Hazel would do the same again in 1954, forcing the establishment of Toronto’s river valley park system). Only St. Philips Church and Cemetery, at the corner of Royal York and Dixon, remain from this period.


My drive now follows the old Dixon sideroad. Suburban residential homes from the fifties slowly give way to flat industrial properties, kept low by the airport.


High rise apartments punctuate Dixon Road around Kipling Avenue. This area has, unfortunately, become known for its poverty.


After passing beneath Highway 401, Dixon Road becomes a hotel and convention centre strip. Again, densities are kept to a minimum to avoid conflicting with Pearson’s flight paths.

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