On a sunny day 20 odd years ago, a crowd gathered in a small park in south Etobicoke to celebrate its reopening after a top-to-bottom overhaul. The mayor at the time, David Miller, was on hand to say a few words and everyone smiled and nodded approvingly as he sang its praises.
Everyone, that is, but a handful of protesters off to one side of the park, all clearly unhappy about the transformation of a run-down space littered with used needles and condoms into something more inviting and kid-friendly.
Why such anger over a seemingly positive change, one that would benefit the protesters as much as anyone?
Turned out that the demonstrators lived in the aging low-rise apartment buildings nearby. They were adamant the newly improved amenity would lead to higher rents that would force them from their homes. Their argument was simple; the cleaned-up park presaged the arrival of middle-class families with deeper pockets, grander expectations and deep anti-poverty NIMBY tendencies.
They didn’t use the word gentrification, but they left no doubt it was the enemy.
In Toronto, as in cities around the world, such fears are well founded. Here, as elsewhere, there are two kinds of neighbourhoods -- the gentrified and those awaiting gentrification. There’s little in between.
Since the 1970s, the return to urban life has powered a wholesale transformation of communities and neighbourhoods across Toronto. As a result, from Cabbagetown and Leslieville to Parkdale, the Junction and even the Annex, real estate prices have skyrocketed. Though recent interest rate increases have cooled the market, housing costs remain high enough to put the dream homeownership out of reach for thousands and thousands of people, especially the young.
The unstoppable forces of gentrification have now reached the Jane-Finch neighbourhood. Though long considered one of the city’s most troubled areas, the arrival of the Finch West LRT line next year will change everything.
Not surprisingly, residents are worried.
History tells us their fears are justified. Already, owners of Jane Finch Mall and Yorkgate Mall -- shopping centres at the intersection of Jane and Finch -- are exploring redevelopment opportunities. The places residents and local merchants see as community hubs, are economic assets their owners are waiting to monetize. When Line 6 finally comes to the corner, property values will soar. In time, the parking lots and low-rise retail boxes will have to make way for more lucrative high-rise development, most likely condo towers.
For many Torontonians, mere mention of Jane and Finch conjures up images of gangs, guns and poverty. It is a place to be avoided at all costs. The idea that it could be gentrified seems wholly improbable. But look a little closer and the scary media-induced clichés resolve into a series of real places where real people live real lives.
When another concrete shopping hub, the Don Mills Centre, was demolished in 2006, a group of local seniors unexpectedly formed to protest its disappearance. To the outside world, it was a dreary suburban retail mall, but for the scores of local retirees and residents who met there regularly, it was where their social lives unfolded.
On the other hand, Robert Moses is estimated to have uprooted at least 250,000 people during his 44-year reign of terror in New York City.
Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris starting in 1853 is said to have displaced 350,000 people. The medieval city and its inhabitants were victims; but the result was one of the most admired cities on the planet. Gentrification has never been so disruptive, or so successful.
As Kurt Vonnegut might’ve said, so it goes.
If there’s a remedy, we have yet to find it. Perhaps the closest we’ve come is the 2005 Regent Park Revitalization Plan. It gave tenants of the original 1950s social housing community the right to return to new mixed-income apartments after their units were demolished. That was key to Regent Park’s success. Because Toronto Community Housing owns Regent Park, it isn’t bound by the usual corporate priorities. Whether that model can be replicated in private-sector redevelopment projects is uncertain.
Given governmental reluctance to regulate the corporatization of housing and city-building, the most we can expect is a small number of subsidized units in new condo construction. The focus on Toronto and Canada’s housing crisis largely misses the point; the real issue is affordability. The private sector may not be the cause of the problem but neither is it the solution.
Another example worth consideration is Helsinki, which for decades has made a point of buying real estate within the city. As a result, it owns fully 70% of its land. That, and the city construction company, makes the Finnish capital a significant player in the housing industry. Again, it’s doubtful a policy such as this could work in Canada, let alone Toronto, where whole government departments are dedicated to selling “surplus” publicly owned land. It’s also worth pointing out that the Finnish government’s willingness to intervene has led to the virtual elimination of homelessness.
In the meantime, Torontonians should prepare themselves for the day when the words Jane and Finch have new meaning. No longer will they be shorthand for a neighbourhood defined by its problems. If the landlords and their architects are true to form, one day Jane-Finch will be like so many other parts of the city: generic, anonymous, interchangeable, but gentrified.