I’m sitting across from someone who should know better, but he says “Well I don’t want tall buildings either!” We’ve been talking about the need for densification to reduce urban sprawl, slow down gentrification and increase affordability – my favourite topic. Should I accuse him of being a ‘neighbourhood fascist’? No, name calling just makes people defensive.
I despair. How, I ask myself, do we persuade people that we humans need to give ourselves the chance to adapt? Survival of the most adaptable…. And then the obvious creeps into my awareness: we’ll do it a drop at a time, like water on a stone, just as we did with women’s rights, civil rights, and so on. Well, hopefully faster than water on a stone…. That would take forever, and forever’s too long.
Of course many would scoff at the idea that this has anything to do with rights. But it does – if we believe in the right to affordable housing. Surely it also has to do with compassion. Do we care that most of the next generation has to leave the neighbourhood for more affordable accommodation? Do we just say ‘nevermind, more are arriving every day, to replace them’? But won’t we miss our daughters and sons?
And what about urban sprawl?*
The trick is to never give up. And don’t get angry, get clear. Will information win the day? Not if people aren’t listening or reflecting on it. Maybe the solution would be to make people aware that what they’re really reacting to is the idea of change. Like not wanting to change the “character of the neighbourhood” – wanting to protect “heritage”.
But protecting character and heritage does remind me of Nazis. Yes, really. Why, after all, do we resist change? Why do so many want a neighbourhood to remain the same? I remember feeling that way myself in my twenties, in Montreal, when a whole slew of beautiful old grey stone buildings were being torn down to make way for an expressway exit. That expressway exit eventually ran right up my street – St Marc St. I ran through the buildings taking picture after picture feeling as if the world were crumbling, not just a handful of buildings. I still have those photos.
When I visit Montreal now, decades later, I drive down that street that I loved. That street is – and was – an interesting mix of architectural styles. Some hundreds of years old, some built in the twentieth century, some two or three-stories, others 20 stories, some privately owned, some low-income rentals.
One of my professors at Concordia owned a very old house around the corner. He taught a course called “Sociology of Deviance”. Was he ‘deviant’ to live in such a neighbourhood? Walking distance to the university. Am I ‘deviant’ to want to live in that kind of neighbourhood now, in Toronto? A perfect “Jane Jacobs” neighbourhood it was and is.
Urban life. That’s what it seems to me. But many of my neighbours don’t think of our street as an urban street. They don’t like it when one of the old houses is demolished – especially if it’s replaced by an architecturally modern one. Today, when I think of St Marc Street, I think of a street which tells the story of our real heritage, through its varied architecture. But my street here in Toronto tells a short story of only a narrow slice of Toronto’s heritage.
If the resistors were being honest with themselves, they’d acknowledge that even among the ‘beautiful old buildings’ are some built in the 1890s, others built in the 1920s. Why not include some built in the new millennium? Even the old church at the end of the street is a combination of different styles – some old and elegant, some added more recently and not elegant at all.
In any case, what does it all mean, to ‘retain the character’? And if saving the character of a street means that people have to leave Toronto, what does that mean? At the end of the day, we are choosing one of those narrow ‘meanings’ – whether we know it or not. Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew what we were doing.