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JOURNALISM: White Oaks Neighbourhood [Download .doc version]

Neighbourhood Feature: White Oaks, by Jeffrey Reed

White Oaks in London is much more than a megamall: it’s a neighbourhood heavily populated by young families who enjoy a thriving community spirit flavoured with a cornucopia of ethnic diversity.

For many Londoners, White Oaks means a sprawling, 185-store shopping centre anchored by The Bay and Wal-Mart, and surrounded by a growing number of neighbouring big-box stores, restaurants and motels. Ever since the mall opened in 1973, Londoners from every section of the city, and thousands of out-of-towners – many whom ride about 4,500 tour buses down nearby Highway 401 each year – have frequented the fashion centre in search of bargains.

But the true spirit of White Oaks rests in the family unit, not in credit cards, nor the adjacent industrial park boasting businesses ranging from Rocky’s Harley-Davidson to Peterbilt Motors Company.

Formerly agricultural land, most of the White Oaks area was part of the city’s 1961 annexation, with a small western portion along White Oak Road annexed in 1977. The neighbourhood is officially bordered by Highland Country Club and area homes to the north, Wellington Road to the east, Exeter Road to the south, and White Oak Road to the west.

The majority of homes in White Oaks were built in the 1970s and early 1980s, following construction of the mall which was surrounded by rich farmland. Some of the original White Oaks builders: Eric Whalley Construction; Don Bere Homes; Witlox Construction; Labate’s Custom Build; Wimpay Homes; and Van Araham Construction.

Names of numerous neighbourhood streets – and the subdivision itself – are borrowed from a series of 16 novels from, the Jalna series, written by Canadian author Mazo de la Roche. Her fiction series, penned between 1927 and 1960, told the story of the Whiteoaks family from 1854 to 1954. CBC television produced, The Whiteoaks of Jalna, in 1972. Today, streets include Ernest Avenue, Alayne Crescent and Jalna Boulevard – a winding road encircling the heart of the neighbourhood, and confusing even local motorists.

A tornado had no trouble finding White Oaks on September 2, 1984. That evening, a twister touched down, injuring 30 people, and damaging 600 homes and businesses. Today, a youth gang called the White Oaks Crew is in the eye of the storm. They surfaced first in 2003, but “WOC” tags spray painted on neighbhourhood property indicate they have existed at least since 1999. A 2004 dispute over street drugs brought the WOC headlines, as did recent rumours of a rumble in Dorchester.

White Oaks, however, is a “well-organized cosmopolitan community, with every modern amenity, a diverse economy, many children and families – very mutlicultural,” says Ward 6 councillor Harold Usher.

In fact, 40 per cent of White Oaks’s 22,000 population are school-aged children, who account for the neighbourhood’s five elementary schools. The 2001 Census labeled White Oaks as housing a younger population than London as a whole, with home ownership higher than the rest of the city: seven out of every 10 private dwellings in White Oaks are owned. It’s an area of numerous well-kept bungalow-style homes, with an average affordable purchase price of $152,000. Overall, White Oaks has a more transient population than the rest of London.

White Oaks is, indeed, the United Nations of London, with every ethnic group imaginable represented. In particular, there is a large visible Arabic-speaking population, reflected in many of the neighbourhood’s small businesses. Following English, Lebanese is the largest represented ethnic origin. Arabic is the second-largest mother tongue and home language, next to English. But there are large groups from a rainbow of ethnic backgrounds – Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and Scottish, just to name a few.

Festival Food Mart on Southdale Road exemplifies White Oaks’s cultural diversity. Owner Rick Wong – a Jamaican of Chinese ethnicity – and his wife, Mina, who at age 6 moved to London from Taiwan, operate the popular store. For 14 years, meat, fish and baked goods – “95 per cent ethnic food,” says Rick – have supplied customers with have roots in the Middle East, South Africa, and every other corner of the globe. In 2000, the Wongs won a Race Relations Award from the City in the Business and Labour category.

The “organized” community Usher speaks of is evident in the Community Council of White Oaks, an association of area residents, organizations and groups that meet monthly at the South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre, 1119 Jalna Boulevard. One of the council’s highly visible events is the annual Canada Day fireworks display, where residents from a diverse background gather at White Oaks Optimist Park. The north section of the park, across Southdale Road, is home to the new White Oaks Skateboard Park, always active with youth challenging its ramps, banks, pipes and pyramids.

Since 1998, the familiar whale-shaped South London Community Pool has offered White Oaks families indoor fun. Community residents raised about $400,000 towards the cost of the pool, a Canada-Ontario Infrastructure Program project. More recently, the community centre, and attached Jalna Branch Library, received a $1.8-million upgrade – the first-ever joint construction project between the City and the library. The Jalna Branch saw visits increase 300 per cent before construction, making it one of the city’s busiest libraries. The centre, built in 1987, accommodates a wide array of activities, including a toy lending library, youth dances, and women’s international cooking classes.

Families First in White Oaks, a community group providing information and programs that enhance healthy development of families with young children, is sponsored by the community council. Programs such as the Wednesday afternoon women’s parenting group are housed in the centre, and provide Arabic interpretation upon request.

“There is a diverse community in White Oaks,” said Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco when discussing the community centre/library upgrade. From rich Ontario farmland, to families of every race and creed, you’ve come a long way, White Oaks.


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