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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Not your father’s towers in the park

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From a distance — especially from the east, across the Don Valley — St. Jamestown looks like one of those stylized cityscape illustrations where a cozy cluster of skyscrapers quickly gives way to a lowrise suburban or rural landscape. It looks as if it's a solid mass, but up close, from any direction, St. Jamestown is porous: there is no right or wrong, "main" or "backdoor" entrance; it can be entered from any direction.

On a number of occasions people who should know better — smart newspaper columnists or even friendly city-minded folks — suggest that walking through St. Jamestown is something that just should not be done, as if it's some kind of wild urban adventure akin to a Death Wish film set. That isn't the case. With around 17,000 people — the highest density in Canada — living in this cluster of towers, there are always people around, at noon or at midnight.

Subway stops make for good gateways to neighbourhoods, and the Glen Road exit of Sherbourne station should be St. Jamestown's grand entrance. But along this first stretch are the oft-lamented demolition-by-neglect Victorians that are often used as film sets because abandonment is such a rare site in Toronto. Boarded up homes continue around the corner, down Howard to Sherbourne itself — one even collapsed in on itself a few years ago and is now an empty lot.

Though many if not most St. Jamestown residents are pedestrians and transit users, to cross Howard into the neighbourhood there is no crosswalk to stop the steady flow of cars. Across from where this crosswalk should be are a row of Second Empire buildings, some of the few remaining remnants of the original neighbourhood that was here before much of it was cleared to make way for the swinging '60s. Today only a handful of buildings — like the "World laundry" on Parliament at Wellesey — remain from this era. The ones along Howard appear as if the march of towers suddenly exhausted themselves at the last second before they were demolished.

Ghosts of those former streets also can be found in the neighbourhood. Though cars can't make it through, Ontario Street still cuts a straight line down the middle of St. Jamestown and with a little work could become a fantastic linear plaza. Bits of Rose Street can be followed and Bleeker Street still connects from Wellesley to Howard.

Between Bleeker and Sherbourne is a raised space that connects the three apartment towers along here in much the same way public spaces do in Toronto's Crescent Town or the Barbican in London, England. While people and cars pass constantly underneath — it's a busy entrance to the neighbourhood and connection to the No Frills grocery store — the parkland floating above is derelict and a modern ruin. Two eroding staircases lead from either street up to this platform of broken tiles and concrete-framed lawns. The soothsaying white- and block-letter development sign down on the street, announcing an upcoming remake of the retail podium of these towers, is likely the reason it's been left to rot. For now, though, its possible to be alone in the middle of 17,000 people, with a near-bird's-eye view of St. Jamestown itself and the city to the east, including the rather stunning and un-Toronto-looking Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Sherbourne.

Inside St. Jamestown there are more block letters, this time used more elegantly to name many of the buildings after Canadian cities, including The Winnipeg, The Halifax, The Montréal, The Calgary, The Edmonton, and The Vancouver. Never let them say Toronto doesn't think about the rest of Canada — we do and we proclaim our connection to other cities via the most appropriate form: the skyscraper. The northernmost tower, The Toronto, has a mature pine forest (as do many institutional and residential buildings in Canada from this era) in its rather large "front yard" along Howard, along with half-round planters and interesting angular pathways through the trees with benches for resting. What might be a well-used space is often empty because of the fences that surround it, leaving nowhere to go once inside.

While St. Jamestown is porous on its edges, wandering around inside can be a challenge because there are even more fences that separate the various tower properties from each other, making natural and desired routes on foot often impossible. More than once I've walked a logical route through the buildings only to be blocked in by chain link or a cheap knock-off of a wrought iron fence. Some of those fences have been turned into inadvertent and somewhat beautiful sculptures as they have many dozens of bikes in varying states of tune locked to them.

In the middle of St. Jamestown, along that ghost of Ontario Street, there are often impromptu markets set up selling fruits and vegetables. Closer to Wellelsey, by the Food Basics grocery store, a flea market runs when the weather is good, including a man who sells rugs along the Wellesley sidewalk and who, at the prescribed time, can be seen kneeling in the direction of Mecca on those rugs. All this hints at the tremendous capacity that is locked up in the surrounding towers. The people in them know how to make and do things, and if given the chance would likely create a flourishing local economy.

It doesn't take much to make it nice: remove the fences; make sure landlords keep their properties in shape (and plowed in the winter — often a problem); get some lighting that doesn't burn the retina; and keep it clean. The citylife is already there, it just needs some respect. Nicer spaces will bring more people out — but add in some infrastructure that could support the markets that already exist, and Toronto could have a new best-kept secret.

Shawn Micallef writes about cities, culture, art and whatever is interesting in books, magazines, newspapers and on blogs. He co-founded [murmur], the mobile phone documentary project, and the Toronto Psychogeography Society. His upcoming book Stroll will be released in 2010 by Coach House Books.