Top: Thorncliffe from above; bottom: Two worshippers in a mosque that was converted from a storage room in a local apartment building
In an office at U of T’s Centre of Criminology, overlooking the Ontario legislature in Queen’s Park, Dinovitzer and Levi explain their findings. The overall rate of what they called “youthful illegalities” — drinking, taking drugs, petty theft, vandalism, fighting, and so on — was significantly lower in the immigrant-rich 1999 cohort, and in both groups immigrant kids were less likely than their peers to engage in delinquent behaviour. Also, as Sampson had discovered, the disinclination to commit crime extended across all nationalities; it didn’t matter whether a teenager’s family was from India or Trinidad or China. Specific cultural values were not at play; nor could behaviour be chalked up to a given ethnic group’s parenting style (sorry, Tiger Moms). “[The model minority] has been a fetish of a lot of the media,” Dinovitzer says. “They want to focus on the good Korean kids, or some other group. Our study unequivocally shows there’s no difference between these immigrant groups.” However, second generation immigrant kids (defined in this study as having been born in Canada or at least having arrived here before age six) were more likely than first generation immigrants (having arrived past the age of twelve) to get into fights, take drugs, vandalize, or steal. In other words, the newer the immigrant, the better behaved he or she was.
The U of T study, which was published in 2009, shortly after Sampson’s findings, has done a great deal to validate the theory that immigration decreases crime. And the case is only getting stronger: Statistics Canada has now released findings from a spatial analysis of crime data in Canadian cities that suggest the percentage of recent immigrants in various regions of Toronto and Montreal is inversely proportional to all types of violent crime; in the latter case, it concluded that while various socio-economic factors increase crime, “the proportion of recent immigrants lowers the violent crime rate; it acts as a protective factor.” But that’s not the end of the matter. Noting the discrepancy between the stereotypes about immigrants and the data coming out of the research, Levi says, “It’s very uplifting to have a story that says it’s different from what we previously thought. But it still begs the question of why immigrants should be distinct in this area from native borns in any way.”
he Thorncliffe Park
neighbourhood is situated at the northern end of the Don Valley, a ravine that bisects east Toronto. Unlike the more affluent, suburban site of the U of T study, it is a maze of postwar high-rises, old-fashioned strip malls, gas stations, convenience stores, kebab takeout shops, and Hakka Chinese restaurants. The average household income is $50,000, and about 43 percent of local families are considered low income. Most of the 26,000 residents live in market-rent apartments in the towers, occasionally squeezing two or more families into a single unit. Since it was established in the 1960s, Thorncliffe has been a landing spot for newcomers. In his 2010 book, Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World
, Doug Saunders includes the neighbourhood in his profiles of those “always fascinating, bustling, unattractive, improvised, difficult places, full of new people and big plans.” The majority of occupants have roots in Pakistan and India, but there are also people hailing from the Philippines, Afghanistan, Africa, Greece, and the Middle East.
My host is Aamir Sukhera, a part-time youth worker at the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office, a soup-to-nuts community support agency; he’s also, unofficially, Thorncliffe’s ambassador. His parents are immigrants from Pakistan. While he was a vacation baby, conceived on one of their trips back home thirty-some years ago, he grew up in the neighbourhood and still lives nearby with his father. He wears his thick black hair short and spiky, and his beard and moustache are trimmed to a neat, thin line around his mouth and along his jaw. He’s a genial, talkative guy, and it seems that everyone — political activists, school custodians, local cops, social workers, business owners, community elders — is listed in his cellphone.
Driving through Thorncliffe Park in his Honda, Sukhera navigates the abutting apartment towers, concrete blocks with satellite dishes jutting out from their balconies, the paint peeling on the trim of the windows. It’s bitterly cold, and the grimy remainder of a recent February snowstorm is piled on small patches of lawn between the buildings; a few hearty pedestrians are bundled in parkas, but I see flashes of brightly coloured cotton peeking out from underneath. Around one corner, Sukhera points out an above ground garage, “a favourite spot for ganja,” he says, then shows me that the high-rise across the road has windows that look down onto it. The neighbourhood’s density makes it hard for young people in the community to escape scrutiny. “There’s always someone who’ll tell your parents if they see you smoking, or talking to a girl,” he explains. Soon we pull into an empty parking lot behind another building where he used to play street hockey when he was a kid. A former storage room on the main floor has been converted into a mosque. It’s not time for prayer, so the low-ceilinged room is deserted except for two men in shalwar kameezes, sitting in a corner talking quietly. Sukhera, who is religious but has a considerable rebellious streak, wonders how quickly word will spread that he brought a strange woman into the mosque.
Urban planning guru Jane Jacobs called this kind of neighbourhood nosiness “eyes on the street,” and according to Robert J. Sampson it’s one of the reasons immigrant communities like Thorncliffe Park are safer. Another protective factor, he says, is the “spillover effect.” If a critical mass of residents are law abiding, then others will follow suit. “The most crucial factor, though, is the economic revitalization of poor neighbourhoods by immigrants,” Sampson says; that commercial activity creates jobs and keeps the streets busy. While Thorncliffe is home to some thriving small businesses, like Iqbal Halal Foods, a sprawling South Asian grocery store, it has a way to go before it could be considered revitalized. “That is a total ghetto toboggan,” Sukhera says, when behind one building we spot a little boy attempting to slide down the Don Valley’s steep, tree-covered slope on a battered piece of cardboard. He tells me that there used to be outdoor pools at a couple of the high-rises, but those have been filled in. Later he shows me a park treasured by neighbourhood women; the playground was ripped out a few years back and hasn’t been replaced. Thorncliffe Park still looks kind of rough.
Top: Shoppers line up at Iqbal Halal Foods; bottom: A Thorncliffe high rise
Constable Joseph Ho says that when he started working with the local police response unit four and a half years ago, he didn’t know what to expect. The neighbourhood fits the police profile of being at high risk for crime: its poverty levels, its density, its concentration of teenagers. Now he’s less concerned that the newcomers will commit crime than that they will become victims of it. “If they don’t speak English, or don’t understand how to call 911, or they don’t trust the police because of how the police behave in their home countries, that puts them at risk,” he says. When I ask him what the biggest issue is when it comes to youth crime in the neighbourhood, he thinks for a moment, and the worst he can come up with is loitering. In Thorncliffe, as elsewhere, the high concentration of immigrants has created a safer community. “Summer nights are really nice,” he says. “There are a lot of young families out. People are out on the street talking to each other.”
It’s too cold now for this kind of street life, but Sukhera still knows where to find the action. We’re headed to the Sunday ball hockey game he supervises at Thorncliffe Park Public School. The neighbourhood office provides many critical services — English classes, job training, child care, and, for restless teenagers, a youth drop-in centre with computers and social clubs — but like many of the young men in Thorncliffe, Sukhera is a hockey obsessive, a Habs fan, more specifically. He and Ho have tried unsuccessfully to get the city to install a temporary outdoor ice rink in the winter, to give kids more opportunities to skate. In the meantime, he’s organized an indoor recreational league for high-schoolers and a weekly shinny game for older guys. On our way to the former, he tells me he gets frustrated by people who are only interested in their own ambitions. “You should seek the success of your community,” he says, “then maybe in that you’ll find your own success.”
efore the question
of immigration was taken up by researchers, a number of theories had been considered to explain the decline in crime rates in the US and Canada. Maybe it’s due to the aging population. Or it could be the result of a shift in the drug market, a levelling-out of violence after the devastation that followed the crack epidemic of the 1980s. One of the weirder suggestions, popularized by Freakonomics
authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, is that access to abortion has reduced the birth of unwanted children, who presumably would have had criminal tendencies. Ronit Dinovitzer’s response to this is an eye roll so pronounced it’s nearly audible.
You can’t blame her. The root cause of decreasing crime, the reason immigration makes neighbourhoods safer, seems so obvious when you hear it. It goes beyond such phenomena as “eyes on the street,” the “spillover effect,” and community revitalization; these factors speak only to the context of immigrants’ lives. There must be something else at work, some intrinsic motivation that drives individual immigrants to commit fewer crimes. Dinovitzer, Hagan, and Levi’s study was uniquely positioned to determine what that might be.
In addition to finding out whether their teenage respondents were getting into trouble, the researchers also asked them about their values, habits, and temperaments. Do you talk to your mother about your feelings? Do you finish your homework? Do you like to take chances? What ultimately set the first generation kids apart were three important protective factors against delinquency: strong family bonds, commitment to education, and aversion to risk. What’s more, these three qualities acted in a kind of feedback loop: the kids who regularly did their homework were also the kids who admired and confided in their parents, and were also the kids who shied away from troublemaking behaviour.
Dinovitzer stresses that these qualities would deter any young person from engaging in crime, whatever their ethnicity or immigration status. It’s just that first generation immigrants — again, across ethnic lines — tend to possess these traits to a greater extent than their peers do. And that makes sense: the traits required for a person to leave behind all that’s familiar and take a chance on making it in a new country — ambition, resilience, perseverance, imagination, optimism — are conducive to the rearing of successful children; those children, in turn, naturally feel an obligation to their self-sacrificing parents. “The kids said they didn’t want to let their parents down,” Levi says. “Their parents had suffered to get here, so they owed it to them to succeed.”
I put this to Ahmed Khota, an old friend of Sukhera’s who teaches at Valley Park Middle School, which has a student population of 1,200 representing fifty different languages. We’re sitting in the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office Youth Centre, where a half dozen girls are giggling on the well-worn couches; several offer a singsong “Hello, sir” to Khota when they spot him. He runs into students all the time and even plays hockey with a few of his former pupils; at Valley Park, a couple of his colleagues were once his teachers. He grew up in the neighbourhood, where his family settled in the 1970s. “They’re like the founders of Thorncliffe,” he says proudly. He left to attend teachers’ college at the University of Windsor, but ultimately lucked into a teaching position back home.