I've been duped.
I went to meet intern architect Sony Rai to get a taste of the Jane's Walk he'll lead on Sunday May 6 at 11 a.m., "Albion Road, Exploring the Fringe and its Food," on the promise of eating curry – lots and lots of curry.
And despite opening my salivating mouth to a number Indian delights, Mr. Rai delivered a great deal of eye-openers as well. Sneaky. Here, on what was a forgotten fringe of failed factories, threadbare strip plazas, towers-in-the-park and a smattering of tidy 1960s bungalows, are some of the most interesting examples of adaptive reuse I've ever seen.
"I grew up here," began the affable 39-year-old while standing in front of the large Sikh Spiritual Centre at Carrier Drive and Highway 27, which still resembles the Canadian Tire it was in a former life. Mr. Rai then painted a picture of 1980s Rexdale as a thriving, middle-class manufacturing centre sucker-punched in the early 1990s by recession and the loss of major employers to the greener, lower-tax pastures of Vaughan. "You just saw a downturn in the look and feel of the place," he says.
But this community did not wallow in self-pity long. Handed a number of architectural sow's ears, silk purses now abound in these industrial husks: in addition to Sikh temples, there are specialty grocers, furniture stores, ethnic restaurants and other independent merchants, all involved in the ongoing transformation. "So there's become this line of traffic of people coming on the weekends," he explains. "What it's spurred is a lot of the retail along Westmore Drive, so it's become a destination."
Our second stop was a South Asian grocery store beside a popular flea market – both located on Highway 27 in what Mr. Rai remembers as an abandoned factory – where we prepared for our two-hour walk with a bag of plump, delicious samosas. On the way out, Mr. Rai pointed to the cornucopia of imported products, including Lays "Magic Masala" potato chips and more traditional staples. "My mom, back when we were growing up, she had to make paneer, which is labour intensive but delicious," he laughs, "but now you wouldn't imagine doing any of that stuff."
After we toured the bustling flea market – a low-risk place for newbie retailers to gain valuable experience – we walked to Albion Rd. to see a large strip plaza under construction. "For other places, it's almost a dying form," he offered. But not here. Then, it was into Singh Food Centre/Crispy Pizza (a former Pizza Hut), for a spicy bowl of aloo tikki on chana masala and a cup of tea (which comes out of the urn pre-sweetened and with milk, cloves and cardamom).
After showing off the tandoori oven in Tandoori Time restaurant – which still wears its former KFC architectural clothes – we walked through a pleasant late-1960s townhouse complex, past a few 1970s high rises (now awaiting permits to build townhouses on the edge of their properties) and then through an enclave of single-family homes so Mr. Rai could illustrate how these housing typologies are all within a stone's throw of one another. "It's a place that allows you to move from rental to purchaser," he offered. "It's got an unusual mix of housing types, which also parallels the loose scattering of the retail."
Of interest to me in particular were homes on streets such as Elmvale Crescent and Silverstone Drive: solid post-and-beamers and split-levels with carports surrounded by mature trees providing ample shade.
"This was another victim of the recession," said Mr. Rai as we approached the halfway point of the tour, the Albion Centre mall. After losing its mainstream stores in the 1990s, the owners decided to subdivide the retail units to make them affordable to one-off businesses. Meanwhile, the multiplex cinema became a Bollywood-only house.
After a lengthy trek east along Albion (wear comfortable shoes), we arrived at the older commercial hub clustered around Islington Avenue. Rubbing retail elbows in old strip plazas are sari shops, roti restaurants, medical and law offices, beauty salons and jewelers. "Of course a lot of this is based on the whole wedding industry," he laughs. "Buying the sari, buying the jewellery, a lot of that drives the [local]economy."
At one curious place, Royal Paan, we were offered a DVD rental or a lassi, the popular Indian yogurt drink (we chose the latter). We finish with more food at Rajdhani Sweets & Restaurant, but I won't ruin the surprise of what Jane's Walkers will eat there, except to say that a highlight was watching Mr. Rai demonstrate the proper way to eat pani puri.
Jane's Walks work because they celebrate the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. They work because guides are local, enthusiastic and don't sweep problems under the rug: Mr. Rai isn't out to convince walkers that Rexdale is pedestrian-friendly – it isn't. He doesn't try to prove the area's former factories or strip plazas are beautiful – they're not.
But something beautiful has been made out of them: community. And if it takes curry to entice non-locals to understand that, then I'm one happy dupe.
For information on all Jane's Walks offered this weekend, go to http://janeswalk.net