Saturday, March 5, 2011

Case Study 3.0: Toronto

Toronto is more personal to me than the previous two case studies as my family lived there for a few years during my early childhood. Admittedly I don't remember any specifics as I was very young but certain memories stick out. Summer holidays, walking to school, my friend's treehouse, yes, but not the city itself, except standing in traffic on the 401 highway for hours. We lived in Scarborough, a nondescript suburb which apparently doesn't have the best reputation nowadays, and trips into the city were rare. I remember the impression that going downtown felt like going to an entirely different city, really quite an ordeal due largely to the traffic. I don't remember downtown itself, but it was quite an adventure to take the ferry across the harbor to the islands, on one of which was an enjoyable amusement park.

I was too young to care about architecture and urban design back then, but I knew something wasn't right. Toronto didn't leave a positive impression on me. If I had to choose one word to describe it, I would use sprawl. It's a huge city, with suburbs and exurbs stretching seemingly in all directions as far as the eye can see. It took hours to drive from one side to the other even without traffic. And there just wasn't any coherence to the city, quite literally an urban jungle. Chinatowns, Greektowns, Indiatowns, Little Italys, dozens of them throughout the city, each independent and not necessarily forming a strong community. I doubt anyone in the early 90's saw themselves as a Torontonian, and there was always the sense that the city was trying to be something it wasn't. The city psyche desired so strongly to be Manhattan, it forgot it was a Canadian city serving Canadians and destroyed much of the past. They got their wish, though. Toronto has more skyscrapers than any other North American city apart from New York. Maybe the city's changed though. I've been hearing a lot about Toronto lately.  Maybe the 15 years since I lived there have worked in Toronto's favor. 

With a metro population of 5.1 million, it's Canada's largest city and economic hub. Toronto is not a particularly old city, first inhabited by European settlers around 1800 on land occupied by Huron tribes. The name of the city comes from the Iroquois word tkaronto, which means "place where trees stand in the water". Irish immigrants and later the construction of the railroad contributed greatly to the city's growth. Like many North American cities, the city experienced significant urban renewal in the 60's and 70's, losing much of its architectural heritage in the process. Historical structures were demolished for uses as mundane as parking. 

Considering the city's history, it's quite remarkable how little historical buildings there are downtown. I would go so far as to say that Toronto has done a poorer job of preserving its architecture than any other North American city I am familiar with. This is in stark contrast to Canada's second largest city, Montreal, which has an abundance of beautiful architecture downtown. Luckily, some historical neighborhoods survived in vicinity of downtown and they form the basis for my case study. 

See the previous post for a selection of historical photos. 

The case study:

3.3  Riverdale
3.4  Rosedale
3.5  Conclusion

Be sure to click on each to view the full case study.

Summaries of the neighborhoods:

The story of this neighborhood is a rags-to-riches tale. Once regarded as one of the poorest slums in Canada, much of it was razed in the 1940's to make way for public housing. In the 1970's however, middle-class bohemians started buying and renovating homes and to this day it remains a quirky downtown enclave. 

These are among the most popular historical neighborhoods just north of downtown. Full of large Victorian homes, for many years the Annex was considered Toronto's most desirable neighborhood before the development of suburbs further north. Close to the university, it has recently regained its place among the best.

The least expensive of my Toronto case studies, Riverdale is separated from downtown by Don Valley. Full of parks and schools and with shopping nearby, Riverdale is popular among young professionals and families. Just north, Greektown is widely cited as having the greatest density of restaurants in North America. 

Full of large detached homes, this is one of Toronto's most affluent neighborhoods, though the homes are rarely over-the-top. Developed at the turn of the century, the character of Rosedale is more suburban than I would usually feature, but Toronto's surviving historical neighborhoods are generally more suburban than those found in other cities.

As before, a final post will showcase a few streets in other neighborhoods throughout Toronto.