I grew up in the suburban city of Brampton, just north-west of Toronto. Today, it is one of the most interesting suburban cities in Canada, experiencing rapid population growth and demographic change. I hope to make this one of several tours of my hometown over the summer here at Spacing Toronto. I may have left, wanting something closer to downtown Toronto, but it being so close, I pass through Brampton and can remark on some of the changes over the past few years. A few days ago, I attended a local meeting and took the opportunity to walk around after getting off the GO Train.
Until it was influenced by Toronto’s rapid suburban growth in the 1950s, Brampton was a small town of about 5,000 to 6,000 people, the seat of Peel County and a minor railway junction. Its main industries were mass horticulture (the massive greenhouse complexes gave it its nickname, Flowertown), brick production and a few smaller industries (namely shoe and skate production), a tannery, and a paper cup plant. The shoe and skate plants still stand, but only the paper cup plant is still operational. Today, with a population of nearly 450,000, Brampton could be a mid-sized city in its own right if it weren’t so integrated into the Toronto region.
The first subdivisions were built immediately surrounding the old town in the 1950s and early 1960s, but with the construction of nearby Bramalea (the gigantic post-Don Mills “master planned” community) and piped water access from Lake Ontario with regionalization, the city was consumed by sprawl.
Lost in the suburbanization of Brampton was the historic downtown core. The new city government of 1974 abandoned the downtown by moving to a generic civic centre built for the amalgamated Township of Chinguacousy next to Bramalea City Centre. The courts were relocated to a modernist complex in a field near the new Brampton-Mississauga border. Highway 7 by-passed the downtown, and Highway 10’s through traffic was supplanted by Highway 410.
By 1990, the municipal government saw that its downtown core, one of the only unique aspects of the city, was dying. It moved its city hall back to downtown, in a post-modern building on top of the old bus terminal. The bus terminal was moved beneath a new office building, but with the advantage of being directly across from the GO/VIA station. New lamp posts and other street furniture were installed, and more parking was added. Across the street, Gage Park was improved, with an innovative circular skating path through the park under the mature trees which is very popular in the winter. Still, that was not enough, and the downtown commercial blocks still looked rough.
In 1995, the city tried revitalization again, announcing a new condominium tower and a new retail and movie theatre complex, to be called Market Square. The condo was built, but only the parking garage for the commercial centre was constructed. The city later built a new post-modern performing arts centre (called the Rose Theatre) on the site, that opened in 2006. Unfortunately, that left the old Heritage Theatre, once an Odeon cinema, vacant. A more creative use (an arts and/or Bollywood theatre) is deserving and would bring in more people.
Finally, the downtown core became attractive for new medium and high density residential in the past few years. Several townhouse blocks were built on the area’s periphery, and two more condo towers are now under construction. Another historicist post-modern rental tower was built near the railway station, with some streetfront retail space. The Region is building a low income tower as well, that will also include an underground municipal parking garage.
The Brampton railway station, built in 1907 by the Grand Trunk, sees 6 VIA trains and 9 rush-hour GO trains a day. While the station has the ubiquitous parking lot, it is not that far removed from the rest of the city; the bus terminal (below) is through a tunnel. There will be some limited midday GO train service next year when trackwork is complete, but there is an excellent opportunity to develop a frequent rail service connecting Brampton, the Airport, Weston and Mount Dennis to Union Station and strengthen the communities along the way. The Brampton station parking lot also presents a great opportunity for further urban development. A LRT line between here and Port Credit along Main/Hurontario Streets is planned, and there are major bus-based improvements coming. A strong urban and transport-focused central area might help to keep mostly car-dependant suburbs like Brampton afloat as energy prices continue to increase.
Two of the old factories near the railway station; their presence gives the area a small railway town feel.
Along with the Heritage Complex (the former 1867 courthouse, registry office and jail, one of the only fully intact collection of county buildings left in Ontario) and many other downtown buildings including the Dominion Building, the Carnegie Library and various churches , the area has a wealth of 19th-century and early 20th-century architecture. Perhaps the stagnation of Brampton’s core helped keep these buildings standing.
Surrounding the core are some lovely Victorian and Edwardian houses, in varying degrees of upkeep. Some have been converted to apartments or rooming houses. Others are in pristine condition. I saw a few houses being renovated, perhaps there is some gentrification occurring here.
One of the things that Brampton was lacking was a good coffee shop, though several businesses tried to make a go of it. The latest attempt, part of a small Western Ontario chain, seems to work, with a small patio, and a comfortable interior. It was busier than I expected; and had a decent menu for light meals as well as good coffee and pastries. The late opening hours (it closes at 11:30 each night) helps to bring a small, but important draw to the downtown. Hopefully having more people live here will add needed street-level vitality.
The 1867 Peel County Courthouse.
The 1860s stone jail, closed in 1977 and the site of three hangings, is now a local museum and archives (photo taken June 2007)
Building the new affordable housing tower.
The new post-modern rental complex near the GO station.
Nearby, the abandoned Peel Memorial Hospital (where I was born) awaits its fate. Residents, angry with the distant and overcrowded new hospital on the other side of town, feel that the city deserves two hospitals and want the old facility re-opened. The hospital board wants the site partially or wholly demolished, with the site being a glorified day clinic.
FInally, I noticed what looks like surveillance cameras around the downtown. Some Canadian cities, such as London and Hamilton, have installed these throughout their downtowns. Interestingly, the notice posted on the light standards say that the cameras are web-cams, and images are not monitored or stored. Yet.
Later installments will focus on my old neighbourhood and on the “master planned”community of Bramalea.