Sunday, May 3, 2009

Looking Down on North York

If I tend to disparage North York in this weblog, it's because despite its pretensions of urbanity, to me the City that Mel Built represents some of the worst things I got away from up north and the poor strategies that continue to be followed throughout the developed world. The chain of gleaming steel-and-glass spires between Sheppard and Finch may constitute Metro Toronto's second downtown, but stray much more than a block to the west or east and you'll find yourself drowning in suburbia.

Back in 2006, James Bow put together a compelling travelogue of Yonge Street, which is frequently bandied to be "longest street in the world," even though not even its alignment is continuous to Rainy River as that sidewalk map at Yonge and Dundas suggests. In particular, what fascinated me about his journey was the transition between Toronto and North York, the switch from urban center to suburban sprawl. It wasn't until today that I was in the area and motivated to investigate it for myself.

Until January 1, 1998, Toronto ended at Yonge Boulevard. Before the Yonge subway was built, and for a few years afterward, the Yonge streetcar and, later, trolleybus looped for its southbound journey at Glen Echo Loop, now the parking lot of a Loblaws grocery store. Yonge Street as a pedestrian destination, built by a long tradition of reliable surface transit options until the 1970s and resilient enough to survive the tracks being pulled up, simultaneously continues and ends there today. North York's limits begin at the north end of the boulevard, and from there to Steeles the suburban ethic had free rein. Witness this video, also embedded below, of the wide divide that separates the two cities with a deep corridor of green. I love the flexibility video provides.

Part of this is due to geography. Yonge Boulevard is a natural border; just beyond it the terrain dips into the valley carved by the West Don River, and it does not climb out of it until beyond the footprint of Highway 401. Terrain separated the core of North York from Toronto in its early days, and with no continuous urban footprint as can be found along Yonge Street today, North York was free to invent itself along the lines that were dominant in the postwar period, when a township of connected villages and farmer's fields spread into the semi-urban conglomeration of today.

It's rare in Metro Toronto for natural geography to so bluntly determine the nature and fate of cities. Etobicoke is separated from Toronto by the Humber River, a boundary historically simple to overcome and thus contributing to a more gradual shift from urban concentrations to suburban constructions as one travels westward. In the east, Victoria Park Avenue represents a wholly artificial border between Toronto on one side and Scarborough on the other. York and East York have historically been so close to Toronto that it's difficult to tell when you've left one and entered another.

Here, though, it's different. Yonge Street has always been the core of Toronto, and this discontinuity as it dives into the West Don valley and Hoggs Hollow may have played a major role in the difference between the historical development of the two cities. The subway runs north to Finch now, and may soon extend to Richmond Hill, but it tunnels under patterns that were long determined before the first shovel was sunk into the dirt.

If not for the geography of the Don, I wonder what sort of city North York would have turned out to be.

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