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Book Club VII

You really have to read between the lines of Richard Harris’ Unplanned Suburbs to understand exactly what he’s getting at with the book’s subtitle, Toronto’s American Tragedy 1900-1950. How exactly ‘American’? American as in, North American versus European, rugged individualism versus a collective sensibility? unplannedsuburbsOr American as in, the postwar sprawling, autocentric land devouring suburbs that haunt us to this day?

In fact, ‘tragedy’ seems a bit of an overstatement unless I’m missing something, and I could be missing something since this book may be one of the more wonkish I’ve sat down with in some time. Unlike the scattered and ad hoc development of the early suburban push of Toronto it describes, Unplanned Suburbs is painfully detailed in its methodology and analysis. Harris wants no one doubting how he arrived at the conclusions he arrives at. The dude shows his work.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just, like an Atom Egoyan film, the story Richard Harris endeavours to tell gets obscured by the author’s attempt to show you how he put that story together. The people in it are rendered as little more than statistics, data points.

A bit unfair, perhaps. After all, I shouldn’t pick up an academic book and demand some ripping historical yarn. Harris does have to go through century old land value assessments to help piece his tale together. Unplanned Suburbs wasn’t intended as a page turner.

It does, however, provide enough interesting information about a specific period of time in this city’s past for a non-native Torontonian like myself to be a worthwhile (if dry) read. At the turn of the 20th-century Toronto was experiencing one of its boom periods. The population, if not exploding, grew mightily. Places like ‘Forest Hill’, ‘Leaside’, ‘Swansea’ and ‘Mimico’ sat outside the city borders. Etobicoke, York, Scarborough were townships.

In what is something of a familiar story to modern readers in Toronto, land in the city was at a premium. Even then, the idea of buying a house was something of a pipe dream for many families. Rents were high and the city in its Victorian xenophobic prudery frowned on living arrangements like boarders and rooming houses. (Hello, Councillor Karygiannis!)

So intrepid newcomers, many at the time from the British Isles, headed north-northwest, to exotic locals with names like ‘Earlscourt’ and ‘Weston’, outside of Toronto’s boundary, to establish a homestead for themselves. While some were following factories and industry that had set up shop in those areas, others simply wanted their own stake in the city, an opportunity very few had in their countries of origin or even in the established city of Toronto.

For most, this meant spending whatever money they had to buy a plot of land, build a makeshift dwelling and then add to it when there was extra money to spend and time to do it themselves. Being beyond the official lines of Toronto, there were little to no regulations about how and what to build. There were no services to speak of. People sludged to wells for water. They walked to school and work.

This was true urban pioneering.

What made the situation in Toronto fairly unique for a largish city at the time was this unregulated growth at the outer fringes. Having found itself uncomfortably (at least for its parsimonious British blood) indebted due to previous annexations of underserviced municipalities, by 1913 the city refused any further moves in that direction. So ‘owner-builders’, as Harris calls them, were largely left to their own devices for two or three decades. York Township was in no shape to finance any infrastructure development. These homeowners couldn’t afford the taxation necessary for such an undertaking.

In addition to which, Toronto’s public transit situation inhibited a concentrated effort at wider spread, organized development. Up until 1921, there was a private transit monopoly that, despite city efforts to force it to expand past the city’s 1891 boundaries when the agreement was signed, refused to budge. Nor was there, like in various municipalities in the U.S., any risk-taking real estate types willing to build transit to largely unoccupied areas of the region in order to spur development. (A loss-leader, I believe it’s called.)

So, for a while it was a bit like the wild west in early suburban Toronto. The opportunity for home ownership was open to anyone with a few bucks to spare and the sweat equity to get ‘er done. Basic ingredients to the (North) American Dream narrative.

Perhaps that’s the easiest explanation for the ‘tragedy’ in the book’s subtitle. Like many aspirational myths, the reality didn’t always measure up. What opportunity there actually was didn’t last that long. While some succeeded in building permanent homes, some serving as the foundations for neighbourhoods that are still with us, more failed to make any sort of lasting impression. Families trying to get by on a shoestring were vulnerable to even the slightest breeze of economic uncertainty, and there were a few of those in the early part of the 20th-century. A nasty recession in 1907. World War I and the ensuing downturn afterwards. The Depression.

As pressure to introduce service upgrades like water and sewage increased to these communities on the fringes increased, so did tax rates. This too could and send a family packing elsewhere. The homes many had built weren’t valued at the levels they were being later assessed at.

When ‘planned’ suburban development did come in the wake of World War II, it was not directed toward the lower income brackets. Where Silverthorn Park had been designed for the workingman in mind, modest homes near local factories, back in 1912, post-World War II development had different demographics in its sights. 2000 square foot houses costing in the neighbourhood of $5000 were intended for the middle-class, pricing lower income families out.

This created a fairly unique trend, as Mr. Harris sees it, in the theory of housing in these early unplanned suburbs of Toronto. The standard idea is that housing filters down, as families prosper and grow out of their homes, they move on to green, bigger pastures. In this case, housing filtered up. Economic necessity had compelled the economically marginalized to, well, the margins of the city and they forged space and established communities that would later be populated by a more monied class, looking to escape the city.

Early gentrification, you might call it, the reverse of what we’re witnessing now, the inner city attracting wealth back to it.

Unplanned Suburbs is not a breezy read. It falls somewhere in between a slice of history and a textbook. But it does put some faces to places in Toronto that, even today, can go largely unnoticed by everyone except those living there.

— bookishly submitted by Cityslikr

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