The View From Toronto

My first Toronto apartment was in a 32-story midcentury modern tower in the city’s midtown, a cluster of high- and midrise buildings with single-family homes scattered among them. The neighborhood is atop a mild escarpment, giving these buildings a height advantage on the city spreading south toward Lake Ontario.

From my south-facing perch on the 19th floor, I could see the downtown financial center’s skyscrapers and an east-west view of the city a dozen miles wide. It was like living in the cityscape backdrop on the evening news. Toronto was never abstract from that high up. I could watch entire storms pass by. If there was a house fire somewhere, I could see the smoke. Sailboats on the lake suggested that all was well in the world.

Later I lived in a series of houses in other neighborhoods, and now I’m in a midrise building farther downtown, but I do miss living high up. At lower heights only the street outside the front door is visible. High-rise living is often seen as being disconnected from other humans. But I loved looking out my window and seeing all the other apartments and the fishbowl lives within. Every day I tuned in to a dozen or more strangers’ pantomimed lives. I didn’t know their names, but they became the familiar faces of Toronto for me.

Down below was the typical Toronto mix of high and low. An unsung virtue of this city is its ability to accommodate a three-story Victorian next to a glass and steel skyscraper.

But the diversity of housing options doesn’t mean that their inhabitants live together in harmony. The old, subdivided Victorian or Edwardian house — with a quirky makeshift layout that gives the impression that living there is a bohemian act — is still seen as much more desirable. Torontonians tend to imagine themselves as the kind of people who have backyards, not balcony planters.

In other words, hipness here has a fear of heights, and there remains a general knee-jerk disdain for apartment and condo living. Toronto’s “condo hate” is legendary, and the higher the building, the more intense the snark. Part of this is attributable to Toronto’s Midwestern roots and ingrained provincialism; it’s a city that views condo and apartment living as a temporary station on the way to proper homeownership. In a city growing as quickly as Toronto, the towers also become the most visible scapegoat for the anxiety everyone feels about the inevitable changes that a strong economy and more new residents bring.

Toronto, as worldly and “big city” as it might like to think of itself, is really a teenage city, with all the body-issue awkwardness that goes along with that phase. There’s a failure to recognize how so many Torontonians actually live.

There are more than a thousand towers across the city, with a million people in the Toronto region living in high-rises built during the first rental apartment boom in the decades after the war or during the continuing condo bubble of the last 15 years. They’re found downtown and around the inner and outer suburbs, and Yonge Street, the main north-south artery, has become a Manhattanish spine with more tall buildings being added all the time. Last year it was reported that Toronto led the rest of North America in high-rise construction. Skyscrapers are Toronto, and have been for a while.

The disdain is even more curious because so many of our tall buildings, especially the older ones, are landing pads for immigrants. Toronto is a city that prides itself on multiculturalism and an openness to new arrivals, but rejects one of the only places most of them could ever afford to live. With more people coming and no room for more houses, taller buildings are an important part of the city’s future.

That, and some people just like to live up high.

For now, skyscraper dwellers remain citizens of an undiscovered city — big-sky Toronto — floating above the one we know, unloved but with fantastic views.

Shawn Micallef is a senior editor at the magazine Spacing, a columnist for The Toronto Star and the author of Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto.

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