Downtown looks good again

Kaspars Dzeguze September 1 1980

Downtown looks good again

Kaspars Dzeguze September 1 1980

Downtown looks good again


Kaspars Dzeguze

It would have seemed blasphemous to the very idea of suburbia to suggest, just two years ago, that anyone from the suburbs might want to leave the promised land. Ever since the Second World War, the dream of housing all over North America has pointed in just one direction: away from the city core to the suburbs, or the Little House on the Prairie beyond. Anywhere but back to the terrifying darkness that, as anyone who watches TV police dramas knows, lies at the heart of the megalopolis— any megalopolis.

But in some suburban communities these days the neighbors don’t even look up when a mover’s van breaks the silence. In one young community on Toronto’s outer fringes Bob Best, a 31year-old plumber whose job and heart are in Toronto, hears a van and grins. Come October, he’ll be loading one himself. With his 2V2 -year-old daughter, Emily, and wife, Jane, a nurse at the Hospital for Sick Children, Best is moving into a Portuguese-Italian neighborhood practically within the

shadow of the CN Tower, to a threestorey house that has been home to 10 immigrants. “People are leaving the suburbs every day,” Best says. “Some move to other suburbs but more all the time are going back downtown.”

Living downtown is emphatically back in fashion in metropolitan cities across Canada—cities that, like ladies “of a certain age,” have enough going for them to live off their past. George Baird, an architecture professor at the University of Toronto, says it is still too early for centres like Edmonton or Calgary.But,almost everywhere to the east, the trend of the largest three cities— Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal—is being repeated on some scale. It is going on in Quebec City and Ottawa, and to a lesser degree in Halifax and even regional centres like London, Ont.

“One school of thought says the suburban dream is dead,” says Toronto’s chief planner, Stephen McLaughlin, “while the other suggests it’s part of the maturation of cities—the end of a fron-

tier mind-set—like what happened 50 years ago to New York.” The statistics are running far ahead of the statisticians—the next census is published in 1981—but downtown realtors estimate that 25 per cent of buyers in Toronto now come from the suburbs. In Montreal, the figure is closer to 50 per cent.

The trend hardly seems credible. Just a few years ago, the big story of populations on the move was “the return to the land.” Like their American counterparts, Canadian cities seemed doomed to extinction, to grow hollow and abandoned by all but the poor, the old and the terminally ethnic. From 1971 to 1976 Toronto suffered the biggest drain of its history, losing nearly 80,000. Since then the exodus has eased. Baird says he “wouldn’t be surprised if it has stopped or even reversed itself by now.” Even in Vancouver, where odd geography makes the downtown area more difficult to define, Trish French of the planning office says there is a much greater demand for city housing. Barry Rose, Toronto’s housing commissioner, simply notes that what was merely a trend is now a torrent.

“Downtown housing has become an issue like motherhood,” says Mark London, director of Heritage Montreal. “It’s now the answer to every urban problem.” Last September, a $2,000-perdwelling grant project was launched to foster construction of 2,500 dwellings a year in Montreal for the next four yeàrs. In the first seven months, 1,500 had already been built—and quickly occupied. Toronto’s ambitious plan for 40,000 new housing units by the end of 1985 is about 55-per-cent realized and two-thirds of the dwellings built privately have gone up right in the “core area.”

To work, the housing has to be the right kind. In Vancouver’s central Kitsilano and Fairview Slopes areas, the resurgence began only after high-rise towers were curtailed. “People wanted communities, not wholesale high-rise construction,” explains French, “so we downgraded them to mostly residential areas.” New townhouse developments soon appeared, and restoration of older homes spread. Fairview Slopes, a onceshabby area, has become unrecognizable with the renovation of about twothirds of all houses. Results no less dramatic are expected in Montreal, if city council passes a plan to similarly “downgrade” central neighborhoods.

Before neighborhood preservation became a political issue in the ’70s, living downtown in big cities was a matter of economic necessity for young families—a source of cheap “starter” homes. But it quickly turned into a fad, fanned by real estate agents and characterized by sandblasted exteriors and white walls. Given the economic urgency of an OPEC-dominated world, what was then trendy now bears the stamp of wisdom. Says Bob Best: “My wife and I work practically at the same place downtown, but we have different shifts so we must both drive. That’s 56 miles daily, each, or $200 a month in winter, $140 in summer. When an accountant told me I could carry an additional $17,000 on my mortgage for that, I knew I had to move.”

Legs are transport enough for clothing designer Anna Buchan and John Wertschek, a 29-year-old design teacher. Eight months ago, they moved into the ideal house in Vancouver’s Strathcona district, a 12-minute walk from downtown. Wertschek admits he’s lucky: “The house is 75 years old— really old by Vancouver standards. You just can’t get houses like that because nobody in Strathcona wants to sell, ever.”

But it is clear that this “intensification of urbanization,” as Baird likes to call the downtown phoenix, is more than a placebo for the country’s economic dilemma. “There’s no question we now have city folks and suburban

types,” says Bob Best. “My suburban friends think I’m crazy to bring up my daughter in the city. In fact, I’d bring her up anywhere except the suburbs.” Adds Mary Savage, a realtor whose company is thriving in the east-central Riverdale section of Toronto: “There’s definitely such a thing as a ‘city person,’ and it’s far more than a question of economics. It’s a whole attitude. When I moved in 13 years ago, this was an all-Greek neighborhood. My friends thought I was mad—people were still afraid of the city core then. Now, you can’t keep them away.”

All ages are represented in the downtown shift, including older suburban couples who tend to buy condominiums and “want to make their last move a contemporary one,” says Terry Mills, a young Toronto architect who’s a partner in The Master Building Group, which expects to sell about $3 million worth of new and rejuvenated homes this year. The majority, though, are young people—part of the demographic “bulge” known as the baby-boom generation. They need homes now to raise their families—sometimes two homes, to house the separate halves of an unsuccessful marriage.

Professor Larry Bourne, director of the Centre for Urban and Community

Studies at the University of Toronto, says the impact of the new “core-crashers” is far more significant than their numbers. They’re creating a ripple effect, he says, that leaves no neighborhood untouched. “As the hunt for

housing by less affluent members of the baby-boom generation fans through a city, families with middle or upper-middle incomes buy out those with lower incomes and restore the houses, a process the English have rather archly termed ‘gentrification.’ ” Gentrification goes on in 75 per cent of North American cities, Bourne says, but what’s unusual in Canada, especially Toronto, is that it’s not accompanied by decay elsewhere in the city.

However, while gentrification may do wonders for a city physically, it could end up being disastrous socially. For, as Toronto’s McLaughlin points out, the people ultimately displaced by gentrification tend to be the poor—who often have little choice but to retreat with their troubles to public housing in the suburbs. Already, in fact, a densely populated stretch of suburban Toronto known as “the Jane-Finch corridor” has taken the place of the city core in media depictions of an urban hell. Bob Best sees early warnings of a similar problem in his community, including notice that public housing will be built there shortly. “I’m taking a loss selling my house now, just four years after I bought it. But in another year, I don’t think I could sell at all. And in 10, this place is just going to be a slum.”