When I was a kid growing up on Yonge Street in the fifties the subway was just a hole in the street in front of our house. We lived in a three-floor, four-bedroom apartment over top of my maternal grandparents’ fruit and vegetable market. My other grandparents lived in a similar property and ran their business on Church Street, two blocks north of Maple Leaf Gardens. St. Michael’s Choir School on Bond Street had a “yard” instead of a park. (Still does, only it’s even smaller.) St. Michael’s Cathedral had four or more “Standing Room Only” masses on Sunday’s. Now it’s empty. Just like most everything else.
Like a lot of families living in downtown Toronto at the time, once my folks had saved some money from the postwar boom in the economy, we moved to the new upscale suburbs being built throughout the fifties and sixties. Ours was one of the first houses to be completed in Victoria Village, which was bordered by the Don River Valley on one side and Victoria Park Avenue on another. My brother and I started public school there in a brand-spanking new building with eight acres of adjacent park lands, baseball diamonds, and football fields. The tennis court was where we freshly minted middle-class kids used to play ice hockey in winter, and ball hockey day and night in spring, summer, and fall.
On Median Income Estimates, Old Fort York and Spadina 50 Years Later, The Importance of Cities Within Cities as Cultural Laboratories, and Lament for the Joylessness of Life Without Chance Encounters.
By some socio-economic estimates, in the early seventies close to 65 percent of residents of large metropolitan areas like Toronto lived in neighbourhoods with median incomes close to the mid-point for the entire city. (I remember more bookstores, candle and incense stores, cafés and pastry shops, and basement nightclubs in Yorkville Village northwest of Bloor and Yonge—than the plush hotel restaurants, gentrified tailors, and urbane boutiques there now.) By rough conjecture, by the end of 2020 that matching median income estimate will have dropped well below 40 percent.
But back in 1964, in Victoria Village, the Longo brothers lived right beside the school park I was telling you about. Gus Longo and I went to Neil McNeil High School in maroon blazers, white shirts, grey ties and slacks—after first carrying out boxes and crates to the sidewalk in front of their Coxwell Avenue butchers and grocery store. Nearly everyone I knew had enough cash to enjoy life and living together as members of a sufficiently affluent society.
Most of the guys and gals I knew and played competitive sports with in the neighbourhood owned small engine Japanese motorcycles like I did. Mine was a powder blue and chrome Yamaha 100-cc Twin. Mike Losco had the same bike in red, and Susan Howie’s brother Rick owned a black one. (Said he “couldn’t find anything darker.”) It’s fair to say most of the new suburban Toronto neighbourhoods throughout the sixties approximated the economic diversity of the broader city-at-large. Fair enough.
Old Fort York and Spadina 50 Years Later
Here in CityPlace today, as we look out in almost any direction, what do we see? Steel, glass, and concrete towers and new construction projects invariably described as “luxury condominiums.” Whenever I walk between my building and the lake front in a reasonably enhanced reflective state—I’m squared up by the fact that many vulnerable, homeless people are living nearby, less than 100 metres alongside our sufficiently affluent community. How did this happen?
Some suffer from more-or-less obvious symptoms of poverty and neglect. Some can be aggressive; some break your heart. Somehow, they manage to survive in ramshackle tents made out of whatever discarded tarps, cardboard, blankets and bits of plywood they can find. Surrounded by rotting trash dumped beneath the elevated on/off ramps of the Gardiner Expressway. At least the poor folks huddled inside the enclave beside the elevators in the Concord CityPlace Public Parking lobby are in out of the rain, for now.
It’s impossible to ignore the welfare of those on the poor side of this invisible, metaphorical “other side of the tracks.” We’re never more than six feet away from landing hard on the curbside with our heads after a fall. The same goes for how close any of us may be to the edge of the abyss by nothing more than the gentle kiss of an innocent, asymptomatic covid-19 conveyor. There but for the grace of the gods go you or I in no time at all. What are the odds of that happening to any of us, I wonder? Proud or penniless, princess or downtrodden—we’re all in this wicked mess together—like it or not.
What would you have said the odds were half a year ago that a global pandemic would infect millions of people and shut down entire economies? What do you think the odds are—after taking about an hour to read the Good Judgment Project (which I’ll summarize in my next piece on the Post Truth era), of improving the accuracy of your forecasting global political and economic trends by 10 percent over the course of a year?
I read in the New York Times yesterday morning that, similar to CityPlace Toronto, for Chicago residents of Streeterville—a neighbourhood of white, affluent, college-educated families in townhomes and high-rise condominiums along the shore of Lake Michigan—a baby born in 2015 can expect to live to be 90. Eight miles south, in Englewood, a poor neighbourhood of low-rise apartments in the shadow of Interstate 94, a baby born the same year cannot expect to reach 60.
New York Times Editorial Board’s reporting stated: Our [American] cities are broken, because the affluent “have been segregating themselves from the poor, and our best hope for building a fairer, stronger nation is to break down those barriers.” Who could have foreseen that and how? I wonder.
On the Importance of Cities Within Cities as Cultural Laboratories
American economist at NYU, and co-recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2018, Paul Romer has demonstrated the economic importance of cities, in part, by explaining the way dense gatherings of people facilitate the sharing of knowledge, and thereby the process of creation.
In effect, segregation reduces the cultural expanse and potential of a city by limiting the number and variety of people interacting with greater numbers of individuals with their creative ideas. (Romer is also working on advanced modeling of the covid-19 virus—comparing the economic and social cost of two policies that are equally effective at containing the virus. More on that a later time.)
Much has been written about how the C-19 pandemic may have a silver lining to its dark storm clouds—by providing us the opportunity to remake, or redesign our city spaces. In today’s (May 12, 2020) New York Times for example, Professor of Urban Design, and incoming Head of Architecture at MIT, Nicholas de Monchaux (“The Spaces That Make Cities Fairer and More Resilient”) reveals how the same forces that bring us together to share and create, also create the possibility of contagion.
This is a design problem as old as cities themselves, Professor de Monchaux argues. However, the physical overlap between rich and poor in our cities actually creates an enormous potential for enhancing creative opportunities, by bringing more people together. “[It] is the ability of physical space to bring many cities together, unexpectedly and instrumentally,” he writes. “And to begin to craft, out of many cities, one.”
In practical terms, he adds, this is “because such public space provides a restaurant owner, someone posting dog-walking services, or a midnight clubgoer the chance to meet anybody, with any imaginable result.” Why does this matter? Because the equal and accessible public space created by city streets is the most essential infrastructure of all, from his perspective.
Lament for the Joylessness of Life Without Chance Encounters
“In our current crisis,” says de Monchaux, “we see the absence of street life in the devastating effect of shelter-in-place orders on creative and essential small businesses. But we all feel this loss, with its own devastation, in the joylessness of life without the serendipity or chance encounters that the city street provides.”
One excellent example he gives about needing a crisis to improve our cities is what we’ve witnessed these past weeks across the world—in places that have closed urban streets to automobile traffic and opened them to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Oakland, California, for instance, has already transformed 10 percent of its streets into public promenades. (Something I saw plenty more of in European cities like Lueneburg, Germany in the nineties.) Now San Francisco, New York and other US cities have followed suit. In Seattle, there’s talk of making such changes permanent. Something we might shout about here in Toronto?
In concluding his piece on what makes our cities fairer and more resilient, de Monchaux predicts there will be more uncertainty to follow. Due to the international web of physical and incarnate digital space that emerges from our current crisis. However, he further insists—equal, accessible, and resilient public space can promote civic health and welfare. During and after the pandemic, and for decades to come.
“For in the end, urban resilience is not purely a physical, nor a social, nor an economic goal. It is one, like well-made streets and sidewalks, that should connect every part of public life.” What forms do we imagine this urban resilience will take in CityPlace Toronto in the decades to come? Believe it or not such forecasts can be readily, accurately predicted.