Urban Transformations: An Avenue For Academic Work in the Community

Urban Transformations public events web posterBy Jay Young and Daniel Ross

Toronto’s St. Clair Avenue West is an important transit and economic artery as well as the hub for several of the city’s most diverse and dynamic neighbourhoods. Historically it was a key east-west axis for development in Toronto northof Bloor Street, and today the street continues to grow and change in step with the expanding city. Its communities have attracted not only the attention of journalists and local writers but also academic researchers, from the sociologists who authored Crestwood Heights to historical geographer Richard Harris, whose ground-breaking work on self-built housing makes us rethink the process of suburbanization.

As urban historians, we were excited when the Wychwood Barns Community Association (WBCA)–an energetic not-for-profit organization of dedicated local residents–asked us if we would be interested in organizing an academic symposium or idea exchange about the St. Clair West corridor. The result was “Urban Transformations: The Past, Present, and Future of Toronto’s St. Clair West”. Over the weekend of June 20-22, the event opened the doors of the Artscape Wychwood Barns (a former streetcar maintenance/storage facility now adapted into a vibrant centre of the community) to academics and urbanists, seeking to bring them together to promote a greater understanding of urban life along St. Clair Avenue West, while placing its story in the contexts of Toronto, Canada and urban change worldwide.

Artscape Wychwood Barns, by John Coburn (2014)

Artscape Wychwood Barns, by John Coburn (2014)

Inspiration for the event came from both local community members and the unique importance of St. Clair Avenue West within the story of Toronto. The WBCA sponsored the event as part of a year-long series of activities planned to commemorate the centennial of the first run of the streetcar route along St. Clair in 1913 (the second line operated by the municipally-owned Toronto Civic Railways, forerunner to the TTC). The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), York University, and McMaster University also provided crucial financial and institutional support for the symposium.

We felt that the symposium should use as wide a lens as possible for studying the St. Clair corridor, since in many ways the changes taking place there are a microcosm of larger transformations occurring in the City of Toronto and urban centres across the world. For example, many neighbourhoods within the district, having witnessed the social repercussions of deindustrialization and economic stagnation, are experiencing revitalization through attracting residential population growth from within the region and across the globe, higher density housing forms, exciting forms of cultural expression, and the adaptive reuse of the Barns and other historic architectural spaces.

St. Clair West—part of the urban fringe until the early twentieth century and now near the centre of the Greater Toronto Area–has a fascinating past. Along with the work of Richard Harris, it helped that Nancy Byers and Barbara Myrvold had already published a local history of the area that provided some helpful historical context about the growth of the area. We soon realized, too, the interesting possibilities of exploring urban issues through a case study of one street and its neighbourhoods.

The street itself dates back to the late eighteenth century, when the British laid out concession roads near Toronto (then the Town of York). Settlement picked up pace by the mid-nineteenth century, as affluent families built impressive estates and market gardeners farmed the soil to sell fruits and vegetables to the growing city immediately to the south. With the arrival of the railway in the second half of the nineteenth century, the small communities of Carlton and Davenport developed on the street’s western fringe and along the escarpment below it. Yet by the turn of the twentieth century, St. Clair West remained sparsely settled and relatively undeveloped, as the thoroughfare lacked paved surfaces or public transit services.  The street served as neither a main commercial road nor the community focus of nearby residents.

By the early twentieth century, St. Clair Avenue West became a busting thoroughfare. The City of Toronto annexed much of the avenue in 1909. The pace of development in the area had quickened by 1913, when the city completed an electric streetcar route along the avenue. Convenient transportation was one impetus for residential and commercial development. Cheap land along the urban fringe served as another reason for population growth, as working-class residents purchased small, unregulated lots and built their own modest homes. A booming industrial sector, including manufacturing facilities and the massive Ontario Stockyards at St. Clair Avenue and Keele Street, provided employment for many nearby residents. Meanwhile, to the east on St. Clair, middle class neighbourhoods emerged, while members of Toronto’s affluent class built luxurious homes further east in Forest Hill. A diversity of income levels and wealth has marked the communities of St. Clair West for over a century.

Immigration has played a crucial role in the development of communities along St. Clair West. During the early twentieth century, newcomers from Britain flooded parts of the district, along with smaller numbers of migrants from Italy, Poland, and Macedonia. By the 1950s, the immigrant tide had shifted heavily towards people of Italian descent, as St. Clair Avenue around Dufferin Street became the heart of Toronto’s “Third Little Italy” – or Corso Italia, as the area is known today. The growing number of residents from Italy reflected dominant immigration patterns in postwar Toronto, and these newcomers not only provided needed labour for a growing metropolitan area but also injected an exciting assortment of new foods, customs, and cultural activities that has helped define the city as a centre of multiculturalism.

Transformation has persisted in the communities of St Clair West during the past four decades.  Immigrants from across the world have made the area home, including people from Latin America, the Caribbean, and South Asia. Like the settlement of Italians in the area during the 1950s and 1960s, the increasingly diverse cultures of more recent newcomers reflect the widening range of source countries for migration to Toronto and Canada since the liberalization of immigration laws in the late 1960s. A growing number of middle-class residents have also chosen to live in the area, especially those whose professions, tastes, and other demographic indicators make them part of what Richard Florida has termed the “Creative Class”. At the same time, the rise of the service economy and the closure of industrial facilities in the area have replaced what had been relatively stable blue collar jobs for many lower income residents with more precarious employment possibilities in the area.

These demographic changes in the area, in tandem with regional and global forces, have led to spatial transformation along St Clair West. In some cases, the thoroughfare’s vernacular architecture of two- and three-storey mixed-use buildings of storefronts and residences – a product of development during the early twentieth century with the arrival of the streetcar line – are giving way to numerous glass high-rise and mid-rise condominiums.

The best way to approach these varied processes and themes, we decided, was by reaching beyond the academy to promote discussions between university researchers and other urbanists—including journalists, architects, artists, and politicians. And from the start there was keen interest among the people we contacted in participating in our event.

Urban Transformations was bookended by a series of public events. Journalist Edward Keenan kicked off the weekend with a Friday night keynote to an audience of more than one hundred people. His talk, “St. Clair West: The Building Blocks of Urban Vitality” discussed his observations on the importance of community in areas like St. Clair West within the future of the “Megacity” of Toronto. The presentation drew from ideas in his book Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto (2013); specifically, the importance of diversity, democracy and infrastructure within Toronto’s identity.

Detail of the St. Clair interactive map. Participants noted their most prominent memories of the area with an orange post-it note.

Detail of the St. Clair interactive map. Participants noted their most prominent memories of the area with an orange post-it note.

Audience members were also invited to participate in “MAP IT! Your St. Clair West.” This interactive project asked people to provide their memories of St. Clair West—along with what they like about the area and hope to see as part of its future—by filling out and sticking post-it notes on a 4 foot-by-20 foot, hand-drawn map of the street (almost to scale!). The map also featured delightful sketches of prominent landmarks by local artist John Coburn.

Meanwhile, a photographic exhibit, “Timed Exposures: St Clair West,” explored the photographic history of the street over the last century using the popular “mash-up” technique of historic and contemporary images. On the Sunday morning, a group of local community members led “St. Clair West: The Growth of a Streetcar Suburb,” a guided Heritage Toronto tour of the area’s historic and architecturally significant sites.

The symposium also featured five panels that brought together experts in the past, present and possible futures of key urban issues–including transit development, demographic change, and the shifting labour market. Each panel’s three presentations corresponded respectively to the past, present, and future of the area. The first two themes focused on the physical dimension of St. Clair West: Infrastructure and Structure. The remaining three panels—Demographics, Work, and Arts & Culture–looked at the people who live and work in the area’s communities. Taken as a whole, these themes provided a wide-ranging overview of the many facets of daily life along St. Clair West.

As a final takeaway for Urban Transformations, we plan to re-launch the symposium’s website–stclaircentury.comin fall 2014. The website will include video footage of speaker presentations, artwork, and short texts to contextualize these media forms. Our aim is to further disseminate the excellent work presented at the event to a larger audience, from local community members to those interested in Toronto and contemporary urban issues. With stclaircentury.com, we hope the WBCA and others along St. Clair West will gain a kind of living document, to which more content can be added in the future. In that way it will record the ways that, like the Avenue itself, our understanding of the neighbourhood and Toronto continues to evolve and change.

Jay Young is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the history department at McMaster University and an editor of ActiveHistory.ca. He is currently revising his doctoral dissertation on the history of the Toronto subway system for publication.

Daniel Ross is a PhD candidate in history at York University and an editor at ActiveHistory.ca. His research focuses on the 1960s and 70s, and he is currently studying Toronto’s attempts to remake, revitalize, and rebrand downtown Yonge Street. He blogs at historiandanielross.com.

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