Completely dead space in the city

Fenced in.

This photo of a storefront in downtown Toronto shows completely dead space. The chainlink fencing was recently installed making it newly dead space. I’m sure there’s an urban planning term for this type of situation.

Since the coincidence of Covid-19 and a huge run up in local housing costs, Toronto’s city centre has entered a whole new era of “houselessness” and street life. Basically, Toronto now has an “underclass” in the style of a USA city. This fact is obscured somewhat by a policy of hoteling the houseless.

It’s safe to assume that this fencing is a response to the new social situation. This “Subway” location happens to be across the street from one of the hotels functioning as temporary housing for a bunch of people on the wrong end of things.

Presumably the property owner is entitled to fence in his or her property even if it’s effectively been part of the sidewalk over the long term and even if there are no entrances (or anything else) to enclose.

This particular example of dead space really draws the eye as it’s well lit, in a high trafficked area and features a window into a busy retail location. It’s like a glowing cube.

Toronto’s Miamification

Toronto is most often compared to New York though it has at least as much in common with less glamorous Great Lakes cities like Chicago. Toronto is also compared to London, Los Angeles (SoCal as a parallel for the GTA) and still other places (“Vienna surrounded by Pheonix” etc.).

But what about Toronto’s Miamification?

Toronto’s waterfront-condo skyline looks more like Miami’s than New York’s. The increasingly extreme contrast between Toronto’s ever taller, gleaming and prosperous waterfront strip and the stagnant and exploited areas of the inner suburbs is like Miami Beach vs. “the real Miami”.

Like Miami, Toronto is endlessly diverse but the diversity has certain polarities. Some groups are much more likely to be found in the city center and it’s high-status sites of social mixing. Toronto is only getting more diverse over time. This is handy in obscuring the steep verticality of its mosaic.

A preoccupation with elite mélange* as opposed to New York-style particularism or Canadian museum-multiculturalism is more like Miami. The old Toronto ethnic clichés are fading fast, what place do they have in the era of “Instagram face”?

Like in Miami, a balcony view including the waterfront is a status symbol and the resulting Instagram upload often includes a status-seeking someone in the foreground. In New York the skyline speaks for itself because it actually looks incredible, the ultimate Instagram-status.

Toronto’s development of a USA-style (now Canadian enough right?) underclass could equally be evidence of “Manhattanification” but the unaccounted for shock of this development has surely bypassed anything previously entertained.

Downtown Toronto’s strange, spotty, half-attempted purple-blue neon aesthetic (which, in fairness, makes sense as something to layer on top of Toronto’s varied greys for lack of any other good ideas) is Miami Vice.

Every summer the Toronto waterfront does its best Miami imitation. Queens Quay and Marine Parade Dr. stand in as Ocean Drive pantomimes. Toronto is home to a newly elevated boating trend at the level of youngish-culture (like almost everything else I’m talking about this is mocked in Toronto-memes: “If she posts this *picture of the front end of a small yacht* focus on yourself”).

The new conspicuous consumption that’s evident in Toronto is experienced alongside the new ambiance of crime. We’re a global headquarters for high level criminality, you can encounter “mob nights” fairly easily just walking around, we host global drug kingpins and untold money is laundered into Toronto.

A lot of this overall “vibe shift” has its material basis in the changed Toronto economy, including the run up in house prices and the low-key mania that has accompanied it. Some of the most incredible impacts of this and other related changes are psychological. And Miami just makes for a better fantasy than Toronto, doesn’t it?

*One prominent Toronto man remarking on local change referred to the “Toronto blend”.

Public space, Hannah Arendt and Toronto

“If cultural homogeneity is no longer an option, how do we live together? An indispensable precondition for peace and harmony is to have place and spaces where we tread the same sidewalks, see each other, simply walk to a park or public square to meet friends, take our kids to play, walk our dogs, and through unscripted interactions learn to cope with our inevitable differences and understand our commonalities. Virtual space does not replace that. As with many other earlier communications advancements – telephone, movies, television – new technological capabilities are absorbed and become complementary to this still-basic need for face-to-face encounters.

Encountering the “other” in public has something fundamental to do with self-actualization. As philosopher Hannah Arendt observed, humans appear before others in public in order to be recognized. Personal identity is exposed and revealed. This “revelation” of identity cannot happen in isolation; it cannot result from self-reflection alone. Our public self is revealed in a public place. In our city, we cannot help being aware that we have been born into a world that is inhabited by many others who are different from ourselves. We can also see that, in large part, we benefit form that reality and thus we consider it a positive condition of our shared lives as city dwellers.

A pervasive desire for some form of sociability in true public space seems to meet a fundamental human need. On a personal level, many of us have a longing for the unscripted possibilities – a life of absolutely “no surprises” is deadly dull. Too, the experience of seeing and being seen among our peers in public confirms our own place in the universe as humans and the connectedness of things. In true public space we can reveal and communicated our uniqueness as individuals and at the same time recognize the differing identities of others. These interactions, even when they provide something as simple as awareness and familiarity, speak to our collective viability as an urban society. In the absence of public spaces where such mingling can occur, problems of exclusion can easily arise. When citizens do not meet their fellow citizens – in all their variety – there emerges the very real danger that the unknown “other” will be seen as in some way threatening. In our heterogenous city, we have an obligation to ensure the existence of a space for communication and interaction among all citizens; and it must be inclusive enough to allow access and use by everyone.

There is an important political dimension, as well. The presence and stability of the commons is critical to democracy.We need space for political freedom, places where people can demonstrate, express dissent, and freely vice opinions in public.”

Counterpoint: Nathan Jurgenson in The Social Photo

“‘The Moment’ is not just a solitary experience. And, often, when people praise disconnecting from the digital in order to be ‘in the moment together,’ it really is a privileging of mere geography. The fetishization of contiguity has a long tradition and is echoed in our everyday language: each time we say ‘IRL,’ ‘face-to-face,’ or ‘in person’ to mean connection without screens, we frame what is ‘real’ or who is a person in terms of their geographic proximity rather than other aspects of closeness-variables like attention, empathy, affect, erotics, all of which can be experienced at a distance. We should not conceptually preclude or discount all the ways intimacy, passion, love, joy, pleasure, closeness, pain, suffering, evil, and all the visceral actualities of existence pass through the screen. ‘Face to face’ could mean much more than breathing the same air.

Geographic proximity remains important to whether we call something ‘close’ or ‘in person’.or ‘face to face.’ At times it is perhaps the most significant variable. But it certainly should not be the only one. To start from the prerequisite that co presence is solely dependent on proximity in space devalues so many other moments where closeness occurs and happens to be mediated by a screen. Physicality can be digitally mediated: what happens through the screen happens through bodies and material infrastructures. The sext or the intimate video chat is physical-of and affecting bodies. Video chat brings faces to other faces. You are aware of, learning from, assessing, stimulated by, and speaking through bodies and the spaces around them, as details of those spaces filter in and are noticed or foregrounded. This screen-mediated communication is face-to-face, in person, physical, and close in so many important ways, and distant in only one.

Likewise, being geographically close does not necessarily assure the other qualities of proximity. You can be in the same room with someone, but that doesn’t mean you are actively caring for or about them: maybe you are not listening; perhaps you are there out of obligation. You can be distant in all the ways you were close in the video conversation, not ‘in the same place’ at all. To be sure, mediated communication comes with miscommunication, degradations in the fidelity of the message, the loss of meaning. But to downplay mediated communication is to downplay the cultural and social possibilities of communicating with those who are far away, to exchange across culture, to send messages to those in the future, to speak to yourself from the past, to interface with the dead.”

TRBOT’s “Meeting in the Middle” – report summary

I’ve summarized this report recommending “missing middle” friendly housing reforms for Ontario. Link: https://t.co/cRO5dBXl8h

-residential neighbourhoods are currently “protected” from “missing middle” development like triplexes or small apartment buildings

-this contributes to a shortage of housing with negative economic and environmental consequences (the high cost of housing impedes the attraction of “talent” for ex.)

-political leadership in the form of “courage” at the provincial level (ie. Doug Ford) is required to push through reforms that will increase density

-TRBOT proposes a “provincial framework” to permit missing middle options “as-of-right”

-missing middle density would allow for greater use of existing infrastructure and provide a wider variety of housing options outside of the typical “single detached” home

-the Ontario govt. should enable “as-of-right permissions” to build “at least four units in a building” in residential areas, reduce development charges for missing middle developments and reform laws governing ownership to allow for more co-ownership and shared ownership

-municipalities should implement a “housing elimination charge” to discourage multi-unit to single-unit building conversions

Marshall McLuhan and Aubrey “Drake” Graham in Toronto context

“No Canadian city has played Elsewhere as effectively or as often as Toronto. . . . If the most salient characteristic of the English-Canadian identity is its lack of identity, Toronto is the place where that lack feeds and thrives. Perhaps this is why the city has produced some of the country’s most adept generalists, chameleons, observers and shape-shifters: Harold Innis, Jim Carrey, David Cronenberg, Moses Znaimer, Robert Fulford, Wayne and Shuster, Norman Jewison, Ivan Reitman, Atom Egoyan, the Kids in the Hall, SCTV- all did hard developmental time in Hogtown, the same place from which McLuhan would scramble the world’s receivers with the publication of Understanding Media in 1964.”

Public opinion: the 905 vs. the 416

Note: This is a mini-essay derived from the report titled The 905 vs. the 416: Analysis of Portraits 2017 Regional Differences in Ontario published by the now defunct Mowat Centre. The report came out in 2017. The “905” is General Toronto Area shorthand for the immediate suburbs of Toronto proper.

It’s obvious that Toronto is very different from much of the rest of Ontario. But do Torontonians hold different beliefs compared to other Ontarians? Yes, the cliché is true, Toronto is a bubble.

It goes without saying that opinion in Toronto would differ from rural Ontario but how does Toronto compare to its vote-rich suburbs? As it turns out, quite a bit.

For one thing, residents of the 905 are much more likely to say that government has a negative impact on people’s lives at 47% of respondents with government-friendly Torontonians clocking in at a modest 33%. On a related note, the 905 is much more gung-ho about cutting taxes at 39% of respondents compared to Torontonians who ring in at a more complacent 31%.

Torontonians are inclined to rank climate change as a high priority (53%) whereas 905ers tend not to (39%). Torontonians are more likely to say the national economy is improving at 40% with the 905 registering a more pessimistic 33%. And finally, Torontonians are warmer towards accepting immigrants from conflict zones (56%) vs. the 905 (42%).

These results are all the more interesting when you consider that Toronto is divided between the wealthier areas along subway routes and the “inner suburbs” which—based various political outcomes—have at least as much in common with the 905 as with their bougie civic-fellows.

In conclusion, it seems there is a “bleeding heart” element to Toronto public opinion as compared to the 905. Toronto registers a more positive view of the role of government generally speaking. This is a predictable urban/collective vs. suburban/self-sufficient cleavage.

One last note: a major Conservative pollster and campaign operative is fond of saying that “Conservatives in Toronto are not like Conservatives in the rest of Canada.” So to some extent Toronto’s squishiness is bipartisan.

daily notes #5: R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant exceptionalism

If you aren’t an architecture person the only Toronto landmark that’s worth going out of your way to see is the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. Countless other pieces of internet writing will give you a précis of the institutions history. This one won’t because it’s the 2020’s and there’s no timeline, only an array of moments.

Downtown Toronto’s aesthetic chaos and speed aren’t given to… virtually anything. It’s best to embrace the void but R. C. Harris is far enough from the core that you’re completely abstracted from it as a treat. It’s separate and distinct even in its immediate context.

The plant’s interior is Toronto at its most first-half-of-the-20th-century. What’s your middling grab bag of aesthetic references? Anyways, it’s Art Deco. Everyone likes that. Time and place, it’ll put you there. A Canadian Gesamtkunstwerk? It was at least a possibility.

Can’t get inside? The overall site is still an experience. On entering the front gate a hairpin road guides down to the lake. Looked at from outside the buildings have an abattoir-vibe. In daylight any creepiness is undermined by the fun facades. At night you can lean into it.

No piece of Toronto public grass is manicured like the R. C. Harris lawn. A curving railing contours the divide where the groomed grass meets the sparkling water’s edge. Here, you can pretend you aren’t anywhere. A flat plane greets a flat plane and there’s nothing nearby.

There’s something very sensual about it. Music videos and fashion photography are shot at this exact spot for a reason. The R. C. Harris grounds are a make-out spot for east-end teenagers who, when kicked off, keep partying on the endless beach that starts just steps away.

Forget about the interior, it’s almost never open to the public anyway. Instead, aim to be at R. C. Harris for sunset on a summer night with a full moon. Have dinner on Queen St. first and then ease down to the water. As the sun sets start west along the sand.

Toronto’s new streetcars

Toronto’s new streetcars do much to symbolize the city’s incredible change. Their smartphone-like glossy front and back end match the new tech aesthetic and economy. Street photographers, TikTokers and other marketers love to have them cameo in their content.

The new streetcars were completely called for. They put Toronto on par with most other major cities and are more accessible. But while the old streetcars certainly needed to go, they have qualities that I’ll miss that have no place in the new Toronto. Let me play up the contrast between old and new.

Compare the massive windows of the new streetcars to the old rectangular windows a rider could open and close. In comparison to the new, that functionality is almost touchingly democratic. Remember that time you were on a streetcar, saw a friend, opened the window and yelled at them?

The lighting is more severe in the new streetcars and they have a wide open and washed out feel. In contrast, the old streetcarsif you were on board at the right moment—had a cozier almost den-like vibe complete with woodgrain. The new streetcars can sometimes put riders awkwardly at level and on display next to drivers—a rare event in the elevated old cars.

The harshly lit fishbowl effect of the new streetcars imply a drive toward full transparency but what does that mean in the current context? Increasingly—as a matter of degree, but a significant one—there is a class divide in terms of who actually takes the TTC. Uber, Covid-19 and Toronto’s stark inequality are the triumvirate of causes.

Economic inequality and the housing crisis—most pointedly homelessness—come to bear on everything that’s open to the public or at the street level. The new streetcars superficially match the new Toronto’s aesthetic and aspirations but arrive just as the ridership and rider experience is suffering.

The city’s problems are wide open for all to see.. but you can act like you didn’t see anything—or weren’t seen—thanks to the soft tint of the new streetcar windows.

media notes #10: electricity and radio in Toronto history

The following quotes from Too Good to be True by Randall White imply that radio and domestic metered electricity were taken up simultaneously during the 1920’s, at least in Toronto.

Metered electricity:

“Electricity was a crucial prerequisite for the Standard Electric Home. In 1930 Might’s Directory would review the progress of the “Toronto Hydro-Electric System.” In 1916 the system had served some 40,000 meters in the city. This had increased to more than 93,000 meters by 1922, and to more than 141,000 meters by 1924. More than 175,000 meters would be served by the end of the decade.”

Early radio in Canada:

“Canada’s first experimental radio station began broadcasting in Montreal in 1919. For a while in the 1920s Toronto newspapers carried program listings for Canadian stations as far away as Vancouver. By 1924 the recently established Canadian National Railways had begun a primitive programming service in both English and French. (Its Toronto outlet was known as CNRT.) By the late 1920s there would be five local radio stations in Toronto itself.”

The mass perception of radio at its debut:

“The June 1922 ads reflected the novelty of the new machines. A radio was not yet just something you put in your living room, to receive programs from stations on the dial; it was also a mysterious link to assorted strange noises from the cosmos.”

Toronto #2: A Mayoral Debate Including John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat

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(This piece is my original coverage of the first Toronto mayoral debate in 2018. The debate in question was of little consequence and no one read what I wrote at the time. That said, my blog post was probably the best thing written about the event as it succinctly identified the fundamental dynamics of the race very early on. If you want independent/critical insight into the Toronto context don’t hesitate to get in touch.)

The debate was supposed to be arts-focused but instead the main themes were affordability, funding cuts and transit -with arts used as a proxy.

Volunteers from each campaign doled out literature in front of the venue. John Tory had the most sidewalk-support, but the far-right candidate for mayor -Faith Goldy- had a much larger clique than Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s former chief planner and Tory’s main competition.

Goldy almost certainly has more support in Toronto than some of the candidates that were included in the debate but has been sidelined due to her white nationalist leanings. She would go on to interrupt the event after the participants were introduced but was quickly escorted off stage.

As the debate wore on it became clear how the dynamics of the race favour the poll-leading incumbent, John Tory. He seemed relaxed in his status as the consensus right-of-centre, low-tax candidate.

Keesmaat jabbed at Tory over the unaffordability of rental housing and “Smarttrack” -the transit plan that was the centerpiece of Tory’s campaign in 2014. Tory ignored the first subject and dealt with the second effectively, saying Keesmaat had supported the plan when she was chief planner.

Keesmaat’s other line of attack highlighted the challenges Toronto will face with the newly elected Conservative government of Ontario headed by premier Doug Ford. Keesmaat said “you can’t fight Conservative cuts with a conservative mayor.” Tory responded with a warning about a “state of war” with other levels of government.

Tory intends to paint Keesmaat as a chaos candidate who will set back progress on transit and infrastructure. Meanwhile Keesmaat is attempting to portray Tory as a weak leader -a “ditherer”- in contrast to herself, a change candidate with “a clear plan and a clear path”.

Tory is exactly where he wants to be. At mayoral debates -if the current cast of characters stands- he will play foil to three of the other four candidates who are left of centre. Tory emphasizes a “balanced approach” while literally balancing the candidates ideologically.

For whatever reason -perhaps the crowd, the timing or their being off-topic- Keesmaat’s pointed barbs against Tory didn’t seem to land. In general, Keesmaat faces an uphill battle to appeal to Torontonians across the city, particularly in the suburbs where her “urbanist” politics are less a natural fit.

Saron Gebresellassi -a human rights lawyer and the most left-wing candidate- closed the debate with a strong final statement which was in part an attack on Keesmaat’s plan to build 100,000 units of affordable housing at 80% of market rate. Still unaffordable according to Gebresellassi, woe is Keesmaat.