A walk through Canada’s densest neighbourhood
A few months ago, I wrote about Jane’s Walks, a yearly weekend of walking tours in cities all over the world. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in one of these walks, held especially for the Creative Places + Spaces conference. It took place in one of the most curious neighbourhoods in Toronto – St. James Town. After a major zoning change in the 1950s, maximum heights were raised drastically, and developers quickly bought up the Victorian homes in their way. In a few quick years, 19 high-rises were built, the tallest of which reached 32 stories, making it the densest community in Canada. The new buildings were mostly made up of small apartments, meant to cater to singles and young rural emigrants from the rest of Canada. Originally, small children weren’t even allowed to live in the development. With few amenities, the sheen quickly wore off and the towers’ bachelor and one-bedroom apartments quickly filled up with large immigrant families looking for the cheapest space they could find.
Despite the cold nature of St. James Town, and the way it seems to be designed to prevent human interaction, there’s still a remarkable sense of community. Before the young tour guides had a chance to start us off, a resident walked up to the group, inquiring and offering his own view on the ‘hood, as if we were in his living room. His complaints were of theft and drugs, but the two local tweens who led the tour had a different outlook. They spoke of a strange combination of division and unity. We were told of the time thugs held up the kids in a playground at the center of the ‘hood. In the ensuing weeks, children stayed far away from that spot, but the older brothers and sisters took it upon themselves to reclaim the land in the name of their siblings. They were the first to hang out there, proving that it was indeed safe, and soon after the younger ones overcame their fear.
They also told us the chain-link fence separates the subsidized units on Bleecker St. from the market-rate units to the East. Although it is easy to circumvent, the fence formed a psychological barrier between the two parts of St. James Town that ran far deeper than I would ever have guessed. In a community defined by material poverty, the slightly poorer side seems to have been segregated even further, for no reason other than that the landlord decided it was a good idea. Our tour guides’ parents remembered a time from before the fence when no division existed. But now those from the East are reluctant to venture past the chain-link after dark.
From my perspective as a planner, if there’s one physical feature that holds the community back, it’s poor, uncoordinated urban design. As well as the Bleecker fence, the guide made sure we noticed the absolutely appalling provision for pedestrian pathways. We saw residents hopping over barriers, lunging across puddles, winding around dumpsters, and about anything else you can think of that would put off a pedestrian. Surface parking took up a great deal of the site, despite the fact that there is a widespread network of underground parking that has fallen into decay. With even the most basic of changes and a little co-operation between landlords, all the walkability issues would disappear.