by Amanda Kwan
September 24, 2009
Hamid Hosseini is at the back of his store. A row of intricately woven Persian carpets is hanging neatly on horizontal poles running the length of one wall, while stacks of smaller rugs are piled in the middle, forming a fabric maze leading to his desk. He leans back in his ergonomic office chair and glances at the front door.
A variety of street noises can be heard through the open door: the whizzing of a passing bus, the muffled chatter of patrons eating lunch on the outdoor patio at the French bistro next door, the light patter of feet as pedestrians walk along Yonge Street.
Some may assume that Hosseini’s business – Royalty Persian Rugs – is located on one of Toronto’s busy downtown streets. But his store is actually located in Richmond Hill, just north of Major Mackenzie Drive East.
According to the 2006 Census, the Greater Toronto Area is home to 57,000 Iranians – one of the largest expatriate-Iranian communities in the world. An increasing number have chosen to make their home in Richmond Hill. The town’s Iranian population has grown from 5,275 in 2001 to 11,830 in 2006, and data from the Richmond Hill website lists Farsi as the town’s third most spoken language behind English and Chinese.
Hosseini has operated his shop in Richmond Hill for 10 years. After the Iraq-Kuwait war broke out, and fearing for his family’s safety, he decided to relocate permanently to Canada.
“We never go back to our country [Iran] to live in. ….Because of this, I chose Canada,” he said.
Hosseini and his wife chose Richmond Hill because they felt the area was safe and conducive to raising a family – with schools, amenities, and their jobs located close to each other.
“I [didn’t] move to Richmond Hill for the Iranian community,” he said. “I moved here because I like the area…My idea is family. But it is good for us to have the Iranian community.”
Officials from the Richmond Hill Economic Development Program say the town does not keep statistics on businesses based on ethnicity. But the Iranian community’s presence in the downtown region of Richmond Hill is visible from the street.
A substantial number of Iranian businesses, stores, and restaurants, easily distinguishable by the Farsi signs posted on their windows, dot Yonge St. Just past the Presbyterian church is Borna’s Beauty Salon. Walk north about 10 metres and you’ll come across Banoo and Hatam, two fast-food restaurants selling Persian cuisine. Royalty Persian Rugs is just down the road, along with its competitor in the rug retail industry, Persian Prestige. Finally, at the end of the block is Pars Medical Pharmacy.
An April report by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities shows that recent immigrants to Toronto are bypassing the downtown core and choosing to settle in 905 suburban communities.
The suburbanization of immigration settlement is a trend that Ian Chodikoff, architect and editor of Canadian Architect Magazine, has kept a close eye on. In 2008, he curated an exhibition called “Fringe Benefits: the Cosmopolitan Dynamics of a Multicultural City”, which explored how immigrants in the suburbs were shaping the built environment of their communities.
The suburbs are more affordable than the downtown core, where space is at a premium, Chodikoff explained. “This allows different economic realities to exist,” he said, in which people with different income levels can live in the same neighbourhood. “This may not happen downtown.”
Towns like Markham, Brampton, and Mississauga with substantial ethnic communities are often labeled, sometimes pejoratively, as ethnic enclaves. But Chodikoff said these “enclaves” should be re-branded to focus less on ethnicity, and more as areas where global business is concentrated.
“Ethnic communities have fostered intellectual capital. They have as much of a global reach as the CEO of a bank does,” he said.
But resentment may arise when a new community begins to change the physical character of a neighourhood. Markham, for example, has seen several Asian-oriented malls created over the past decade, the most famous being Pacific Mall. While these commercial centres have been successful, they have also faced opposition from some residents who feel that Markham’s Chinese population has too much influence over the town’s development.
But Chodikoff sees Pacific Mall as a successful project, describing the place as a mini node for people in the area.
“It [Pacific Mall] continues to evolve. Urban space is a reiterative process. It’s not static. If you look at the built environment in the suburbs, the stores might look crude but they’re evolutionary.”
The influence of immigrant communities is visible beyond the changing physical environment of a town or city. The Richmond Hill Public Library has three shelves of books in Farsi. One aisle is devoted to Chinese materials, reflecting the larger Chinese population in Richmond Hill. Urdu, Punjabi, Russian, Hindi, and French are other language books available at the library.
Hosseini says he is happy living in Richmond Hill, but his strong ties to his native land prevent him from fully embracing Toronto as his home.
“Maybe for my children…is yes…But still for me, my home is my home: Iran. But I appreciate Canada, the government. They give it to us the chance to come here, to stay here.”