My friend, Martin Proctor, has been complaining that his neighbourhood has been going down the tubes, and I don't think he's far wrong. Over the past eleven years I've visited his home, I've seen for myself snapshots of the decay he sees everyday. Not only is it depressing to see an area decay, it's shocking that it should have to be my friend's neighbourhood.
Martin lives in the old Village of Weston, an old community founded in the early 1800s well inland from Lake Ontario. By the 1920s, growth from the City of Toronto had turned Weston into a satellite community. By the 1960s, urban sprawl had surrounded the whole village. Thus you have an enclave of Victorian homes and streets with excellent tree cover set amongst subdivisions of forties and fifties-style development, and high rises creeping up the old highway from Toronto.
Weston should have a lot going for it. I've already described the wonderful housing stock; it is also located next to the Humber River Valley and its network of parks and paths. It's near a major intersection, as well, with a downtown that should serve the community's needs, and attract shoppers from around the area. However, many of the stores are closing, replaced with pawn shops and bargain bins. Other buildings are being torn down. The apartment buildings stretching up Weston Road are becoming centres of urban decay. It hurts me to see Martin's home wither in such fashion.
Weston is not alone. Alarming signs of poverty are showing up across the City of Toronto; moreover, it's appearing in an odd pattern. Whereas most American cities experience decay right in their downtown cores, Toronto's downtown core remains strong and vibrant, while the ring of inner suburbs falters. It is a decay pattern seen in European cities. While in some ways this is good (if Toronto ever lost the core to decay, it would be that much harder to salvage its reputation and attract international investment), it is sad that any decay is happening at all, and some of it doesn't appear to be on City Council's radar.
The City of Toronto's new official plan seeks to refurbish some of the inner suburbs. The stretch of Kingston Road that has become a graveyard of abandoned strip malls is expected to be reborn as a grand avenue of low-rise condominiums served by a long LRT. Other grand avenues hope to bring urban values to the suburban sprawl that exists within Toronto's boundaries, but the village of Weston hasn't rated much attention. Even councillor Frances Nunziata, or her brother John, don't seem to mention Weston very often when talking about their constituents. Nobody has yet come forward and offered up Weston Road as a grand avenue.
Martin pessimistically sees this as a continuing pattern stemming from Weston's amalgamation with York. He sees industry having departed Weston for York (and then York for parts unknown) after the Metro reorganization of 1967. I think his concern is too focused: industry has been vacating the developed areas of the city of Toronto for years, now. The Free Trade Agreement served to turn most of the City of York from a working class neighbourhood to a ghetto of high unemployment. All of the city is dealing with Canada's transformation from an industrial economy into an information-based one, but there has been little understanding of the consequences this has had on some neighbourhoods. Redeveloping of these brownfields with new jobs as well as new residents has been slow going. This is hurting neighbourhoods across the city, even as the GTA sprawls.
I am all for the Official Plan and its desire to foster a more urban lifestyle in Toronto's inner suburbs, but planners sometimes have the tendency to concentrate on building things, with the expectation that communities will just happen. This isn't always the case. The New Urbanist development of Cornell, in Markham, is fantastically designed, but hasn't yet fostered the sense of community that the developers had hoped. Building communities take time; sometimes only time can build communities. It is much easier to foster a sense of community than it is to build it from scratch, and in this way, the swallowed villages like Weston, West Hill and Thistledown should be taken as starting points around which to build the urban lifestyle that we want in Toronto's inner suburbs.
Our work would be made all the harder if the reasons for the poverty in these areas aren't examined and the needs addressed. You harder to build a vibrant, diverse neighbourhood if that neighbourhood's neighbour is a ghetto. Weston is a source of untapped potential. Moreover, it is a functioning community. It shouldn't be left to rot. Weston's people deserves better, as does all of Toronto.