When a mosque is built in TORONTO …

“Peace Village” Mosque and Community Canada

Building an Enclave Around a Mosque in Suburban Toronto
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/18/re…te/18nati.html

AFTER nine years of living in faculty housing at York University here, Hamid Rahman, was looking for other options. An adjunct professor of Web design, Mr. Rahman valued York’s multicultural mix, yet his housing setup was inconvenient for his religious life. For prayers, he had to visit a multifaith center or join other Muslims in renting a conference room.

That changed in 2003, however, when he moved with his wife, Bilquis, and four children to a home on Bashir Street in Peace Village, an Islamic subdivision of 265 homes in Vaughan, a suburb north of Toronto. The Rahmans paid 350,000 Canadian dollars, or $268,500 at that time, for their four-bedroom detached house with around 3,000 square feet of living space. Conveniently, the home is only a block from a mosque.

Peace Village, originally developed in 1998, began construction of its second phase in June. So far, 53 town houses are under construction, and of these 31 have sold. Most homes have three bedrooms, 1,700 square feet of living space and start at 350,000 Canadian — around $360,000.

An enclave built around a center of faith is not new. For years, Hasidic Jews have settled in upstate New York in towns like Kiryas Joel. Ave Maria, a planned Roman Catholic community near Naples, Fla., will be centered around a Catholic church.

Peace Village is one of the first developments for Muslims in Canada, though it was not initially designed that way. Naseer Ahmad, the founder of the subdivision, is part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect, which seeks to understand Islamic doctrine in light of modern developments. This Islamic sect is not universally accepted by other Muslims.

He said that many of the established mosques in Toronto would deny him and other Ahmadiyya Muslims access. In 1992, he raised 4.5 million Canadian dollars in donations from the Ahmadiyya community to buy a 50-acre tomato field, where he built what is now the mosque at the center of Peace Village.

“The mosque was so remote that for many years we could hardly fill one line during prayers,” said Mr. Ahmad, referring to the fact that Muslims pray in rows. He said he worried that he had built in the wrong location.

The land around the mosque was zoned for agricultural use, but in 1994, the zoning changed to residential. At the same time, Mr. Ahmad, then overseeing construction of a sawmill in Nova Scotia, learned of a local developer, the Solmar Development Corporation, that had bought 50 acres adjacent to the mosque.

Mr. Ahmad had the idea to build homes to be marketed exclusively to the Ahmadiyya community. And Benny Marotta, president of Solmar, who was uncertain about how to develop a residential area so near to a mosque, agreed to collaborate with Mr. Ahmad. The developer would pay for the construction, but Mr. Ahmad would manage the process of selling the homes.

Mr. Ahmad worked with architects to design features in the mosque and in the homes to accommodate a Muslim lifestyle, like having industrial-strength vacuums installed in the shoe closets of the mosque to remove odors, as Muslims take off their shoes to pray.

In the houses, kitchens were fitted with powerful fans because most of the community likes to cook aromatic food. And given that Ahmadiyya Muslims are conservative about sex roles, houses were built with two living rooms — one for men, the other for women. Most home buyers in Peace Village have come from Toronto’s community of about 30,000 Ahmadiyyas.

Since the first homes were sold in 1998, prices have risen sharply, as they have elsewhere in the Toronto region. The original homes built in 1998, which are almost twice as large as the ones currently under construction, now sell for around 550,000 Canadian, about $570,000. Buyers pay around 10 percent more than comparable homes in Vaughan because of the “mosque premium,” brokers say.

Houses at Peace Village are sold primarily through word of mouth in the Ahmadiyya community. “Homes come on the market and go very quickly,” said Sebastian Malhotra, a real estate agent in Vaughan with Royal LePage. Peace Village does not keep a waiting list for buyers, but homes are sold within days of going on the market, he said.

Some Canadian Muslims believe that the community’s homogeneity is polarizing. “Diversity is the backbone of Canada and the value of living here is that you get to mix and mingle,” said Raheel Raza, an author who has lectured at York University about the portrayal of Muslims in the media. “Especially after 9/11 when we see more polarization of Muslims, it’s important to be seen as part of the community.”

On the other hand, Mr. Rahman and other residents in Peace Village work outside the community, commuting to Toronto and elsewhere in the region.

Living so near to a mosque is ideal for residents who would like to pray with their imam on a regular basis, said Ahmed Elgeneidy, an assistant professor of urban planning at McGill University. “I have seen this happen in Minnesota,” said Professor Elgeneidy of Muslims moving to be near a mosque. “People were commuting a long way to listen to the imam.” Eventually, many Muslims moved near to the mosque to shorten their traveling time.

Construction of the subdivision’s second phase, with more than 80 town houses, began in June. An elementary school opened in September where 80 percent of the children are from the subdivision. A plan is under way to build a high school, too.

Other faith-based subdivisions have been inspired by the success of Peace Village. Another subdivision in Vaughan, Village Vellore, has 4,000 homes around a Romanesque church constructed by the Toronto Roman Catholic Archdiocese. Residents of Village Vellore are mostly Catholic Italian-Canadians, according to brokers.

In the adjacent city of Markham, the Slovak Byzantine Diocese of Canada is working with developers to build 2,000 homes centered on the Catholic Cathedral of the Transfiguration and its 20-story-high golden domes.

In other cities, immigrants tend to move into city centers, where there are established ethnic neighborhoods. Yet in Toronto, where a large percentage of the population is foreign born, many are moving straight into suburbs. (The Greater Toronto region’s population increased to more than five million in 2006 from more than four and a half million in 2001, according to Statistics Canada.) During rush hour, traffic gridlock is constant, and so for the religious-minded, residing in a faith-based community makes logistical sense.

For Mr. Rahman, 57, who is now a Web publishing consultant, the benefits are clear. The Rahmans reside close enough to hear the call to prayer carried by speakers hanging from lampposts in the mosque’s parking lot. Five times a day, members of his family join hundreds of others in walking to the mosque to pray with their imam.

Before he moved, he rushed to the mosque once a week; now he prays there around 20 times a week. “Without a mosque that’s easy to reach, praying in your car or in a conference room is O.K.,” Mr. Rahman said. “But it’s not living in the full sense of the word.”

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