In the Mecca Restaurant, diners are enjoying Mohammad Miah's food the traditional way, delicately digging fingertips into the aromatic biryani. The scene is a lot like Miah's native Bangladesh, and after 25 years here, he couldn't be happier.
"The community has grown up and we don't have to go to the Little India to shop anymore," laughs Miah from behind the counter. "We have everything here. This is like our Bangladeshi market back home.
"When I first got here, there was nothing Bangladeshi. Now, we've taken over the local businesses and we just keep growing."
Ground-level storefronts like Miah's – bustling grocery stores, movie rental shops, the Desh Pharmacy and businesses offering help with taxes – may be the public face of Little Bangladesh, a stretch of Danforth between Dawes Rd. and Victoria Park Ave., just south of Crescent Town.
It's the part casual observers don't see that makes this place really feel like home: The vertical village.
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University of Toronto geography professor Sutama Ghosh has explored Little Bangladesh for an academic paper titled "The Production of Vertical Neighbourhoods."
"The residents of these vertical spaces in general and Bangladeshis in particular have also transformed these residential spaces into economic spaces," she notes.
"Among the numerous economic activities that are carried out informally, the following Bengali services are common: mosque and weekly Qur'an classes in Bengali, informal daycare facilities, at-home beauty parlours, academic tutors and Bengali language classes, informal catering services and parent-pooling for schoolchildren."
The "forgotten cousin" of Greater Toronto's booming South Asian community, Bangladeshis are a growing force that have transformed what was once a neighbourhood in decline. They number perhaps 50,000, a group dwarfed by other nationalities represented in Canada's 1-million-member South Asian community.
The first wave of Bangladeshis arrived as refugees after the 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan, followed by a trickle of skilled immigrants in the 1990s. Those who have had a Western education are more likely to have arrived recently.
Besides Crescent Town, there are major pockets of Bangladeshis in Regent Park, the Eglinton Ave. and Markham Rd. area and a single apartment building in the Highway 401 and Don Mills Rd. area. Bangladeshis are the largest ethnic group in Crescent Town, accounting for more than 24 per cent of the population, up from 18 per cent in the 2001 census – and it is growing.
The community has changed a lot in the 20 years since brokerage consultant Ashraf Ali arrived.
"The earlier settlers were busy trying to survive in the new country. As the population started to grow, people started organizing themselves. When (Bangladeshi microcredit banker) Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it really instilled pride in the community to get united, to do more," says Ali. "We've been mistaken (for) Indians. Some of our businesses would be termed as Indian stores. Now we have a critical mass and we want to be more visible," he says. "We are like a banyan tree. We've planted our root and are continuing to grow."
A quick Googling reveals that this neighbourhood hosts, among other things, restaurants and newspapers and student services and a community services organization, also serving as background in a video of a street celebrating the Bangladeshi defeat of India in a recent cricket tournament.