Precarious life for young men in Third City

Note: This piece appears in the opinion section of today’s Toronto Star under a different title: Life in ‘Third City’: Nasty, brutish, and short. I will post a longer version shortly, along with a list of young men who have lost their lives to violence on Toronto’s streets.

Last week, Andrew Naidoo was shot dead outside his Rexdale home. He was 15 years old.

To his parents, peers and community he was a fun-loving teenage boy whose smile lit up the hallways of Monsignor Percy Johnson High School, who cheered on his classmates competing in school sports, who liked to do the things most boys his age like to do: listen to music, chill with friends, talk to girls.

Naidoo’s death is part of a tragic trend of young men from the city’s racialized low-income neighbourhoods losing their lives to violence: Aeon Grant, Sealand White, Jermaine Derby, Abdikadir Khan, Lorenzo Martinez, Okene Thompson, Keyon Campbell…sadly the list goes on.

More often than not, they have died at the hands of those whose social and economic circumstances they share: poor, young men from racialized communities. They lived on Fallstaff, Chalkfarm, and in Jane and Finch; neighbourhoods like Malvern, Kingston-Galloway, and Rexdale.

Their names must not to be forgotten; they should be said out loud on our city’s streets, repeated and remembered. And their deaths continue to beg the question: How many more young people from the city’s low-income, racialized communities must lose their lives to violence before our governments declare a crisis?

As researchers at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre have documented, over the last 30 years Toronto has become segregated by income into three distinct cities. City #1 consists of the richer and whiter downtown core and well-heeled neighbourhoods close to the subway lines. City #3—or the Third City—are Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, with high concentrations of racialized poverty. Generally found in the in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, incomes in these neighbourhoods have declined 20 per cent or more since 1970. City #2 are middle-income neighbourhoods that fall in between and are shrinking in size as Toronto becomes a more socioeconomically polarized metropolis.

Those who inhabit the Third City live lives characterized by precariousness. High rents and dilapidated social housing make shelter precarious. Temporary and part-time jobs at low wages make for precarious employment. And a lack of regulated childcare compounds the insecurity of everyday life. 

Moreover, the Third City has become home to a drug market with street entrepreneurs perversely mirroring the pursuit of profits at all costs that marks Bay Street success stories. As young people in the Third City testify, you don’t have to be involved in gangs to get caught up in the violence, just be in the wrong place at the wrong time or a cocksure teen in a neighbourhood where a sideways glance or the friends you keep can translate into trouble.

Consequently, for many of the Third City’s youth, especially its young men, life itself has become precarious. Since 1998, the average age of homicide victims under the age of 25 has grown to 40% from 25% in the 1970s and a majority of those have been racialized youth from the Third City.

For years Toronto avoided the street violence which plagued U.S. cities. Yet since the late 1980s we’ve embarked on a path which would make manifest in our urban fabric the social problems of inner-city America. We cut the social safety net; we’ve neglected the built environment of poor neighbourhoods; we’ve failed to regulate precarious employment and create ‘good jobs’; we’ve yet to solve high dropout rates and youth unemployment, disproportionately impacting racialized youth; and we’ve rolled back equity initiatives which acknowledged the ways socioeconomic outcomes continue to be shaped by race.

Thus, the Third City was manufactured. And as it was made, it can be unmade, with policies to make more economically and socially secure the lives of its inhabitants.

We appeared to turn a corner with the tragic murder of Jane Creba: the problems of the Third City had made a violent appearance on the streets of the First, the spaces of commerce so central to Toronto’s competitiveness and standing as a ‘world class’ city. Commitments were made—however limited—to deal with urban social exclusion and the problems, including community violence, which it breeds.

Alas, with shifting political winds, support for such initiatives appears to be drying up.

It is time that we, as a city, confront some hard questions: Are we going to accept 15 year olds being gunned down outside their homes as our modern urban condition? Is this to be the fate of more of our city’s youth? Has Toronto become so divided, so polarized, that many of us think ‘our city’ is not ‘their city’ and ‘we’ therefore have nothing to worry about?

Published in The Toronto Star, June 8 2011

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