(Exterior of 320 Dixon Rd.-Photo by Joyita Sengupta)
As you approach the white high-rise buildings and drive into the complex, a large black sign greets you to ‘Kingsview Park: 320, 330, and 340.’
But, for years the neighbourhood has simply been known by the name of the road it sits on: Dixon.
The past year has been an eventful one for the Dixon neighbourhood, a six-building apartment complex located on Dixon Road., between Kipling and Islington Avenues.
On Thursday June 13, residents woke up to the noise of an early morning police as Toronto Police made 43 arrests and seized 40 firearms and $3 million worth of narcotics. The raid was part of the Project Traveller investigation, an initiative targeting the Dixon City Bloods, a local gang, and its drug and gun smuggling operations. Most of the arrests were made in the building located furthest east of the complex, at #320.
This building had also been identified as a possible location at the time of the now notorious video footage of Mayor Rob Ford allegedly smoking crack cocaine. This added to the controversy and media coverage surrounding the raids.
I have been living at 320 Dixon Rd. with my parents for 17 years. My balcony overlooks the elementary school I attended, Kingsview Village Junior School. On the morning of the raids, I woke up just as confused as any other resident of the building. My family had no idea what was going on until my father turned on the TV to the local news and saw images of police officers in riot gear entering our lobby. That morning, I made my way through crowds of police officers and reporters to the bus stop, on my way to my part-time job at a market research firm.
Jennifer Pagliaro been writing for the Toronto Star for two years and has been working the crime beat for just a year. Pagliaro and other colleagues have been following the Project Traveller story closely since it unfolded earlier this summer.
“I had never been to Dixon at all. I know there’s been some other crime that’s happened there but I‘ve never covered it,” said Pagliaro. “It’s always interesting to go into communities at their crisis points.”
Pagliaro visited Dixon a week after the raids for a conference held by the African Canadian Legal Clinic to condemn the damage from the raids.
“I know that covering committee meetings that happened there that unlike some of the other neighbourhoods I’ve been to, there’s a very strong community presence,” Pagliaro said. “A lot of parent voices, especially concerned parents that spoke about what they experienced, especially during the raids.”
The Dixon neighbourhood has also been called Little Mogadishu. While quite diverse, the area is mostly made up of Somali Canadian families. On most days, the complex is filled with children playing in courtyards and green spaces around the complex as lively conversations in Somali, Urdu and Arabic take place in elevators and hallways. But before the raids, it wasn’t unusual to see remnants of dealings on the property or ominous groups meeting in the stairwells or the basketball court.
Sgt. Chris Laush is the head of the Somali Liaison Unit of the 23 Division, which aims to help reverse some of the long standing social problems in Dixon. Laush has been in and out of the community as a police officer since 1989.
“You can look at the stats and all that but I can tell you from experience like watching a number of the community members grow up from young kids, to adults, to die,” said Laush. “It’s sad and that’s why I guess, I do what I do. To watch them grow up and then watch them die I’ve seen too much of that.”
Laush said the main goal of the unit is to build a healthier relationship with the Dixon community by having a strong presence and providing them with services they need. They have already made quite a bit of progress by helping to bring in a small library in the lobby of 320 and a computer room in the lobby of 330.
“To see the kids out in the courtyard, riding their bikes and playing soccer, it felt good,” Laush said. “A few months prior, if I went up to a kid with a basketball and asked him why he wasn’t at the courts, he would look at me like I had six heads. ‘I don’t feel safe, I’m not going to go over there.’”
As I was interviewing Laush in the 320 library, a group of eager kids collected in front of the door, patiently waiting for Homework Club to start as it usually does at 4 p.m. every weekday.
Kim Beatty, a representative of the Children’s Book Bank, talked about her decision to reach out and donate books after reading about the neighbourhood in the height of this year’s media coverage.
“I called somebody who was mentioned in one of the newspaper articles and I was eventually put in touch with the Somali Liaison Unit,” said Beatty. “Turns out that they were doing this initiative.”
Children’s Book Bank has opened libraries or donated books to the Albion, Victoria Park, and Crescent Town neighbourhoods in the past. Beatty said that while Children’s Book Bank has had similar initiatives before, something sets this one apart
“This one is different because it’s actually in the apartment building and it’s run by the residents,” Beatty said. “They know what they want for the community. I’m really excited about this notion.”
Selena Abshir, 19, is a resident of 340 but is currently in Thunder Bay studying nursing at Lakehead University. Her family has been in Dixon for over 21 years. Abshir said she was happy to see the new programs put in place over the past few months.
“The kids have more things to do now,” said Abshir. “Because we don’t have the Dixon Community Centre anymore. I’m glad they opened something else for the younger generation.”
Abshir is referring to a community centre that offered homework help and resume building workshops at a nearby plaza. Growing up in the area, she said she knew some members of the Dixon Bloods and was surprised to see what happened to them as they grew older.
Despite the positive changes and the arrests made during the raid, Laush acknowledged that the criminal element is creeping back in Dixon again. He mentioned recent incidents like newly installed security cameras being damaged, Molotov cocktails being thrown off of a balcony in 320, and the vandalism and attempted arson of the new computer room.
“I came to investigate the rock being thrown in the computer room and I had five community members come up to me and saying, ‘This is going on in 320, this is going on here, this is going on there,’” Laush said, shaking his head. “ ‘They’re dealing drugs, smoking dope, and on and on.’
“I look at that and part of me goes, oh man, all our hard work’s going out the window. But it’s not really. We still have to fix it but they’re talking to us. And that has not happened before.”
The Somali community can be warm and inviting to visitors but at the same time, when it comes to criminal activity, Laush said the community are very tight-lipped – which he said is why he’s happy to share that the Somali Liaison Unit is guaranteed to be around for a minimum of two years.
It’s clear that while some positive changes have been made, Dixon will need time to make the turn around the community needs.
As for my family, my parents have made it clear that we will not be going anywhere any time soon.