When we first moved to Toronto, I quickly became fascinated by St. James Town. While most of Toronto’s highrises are brand new, these ones hailed from an earlier age. Clearly one that didn’t catch on. The low prices and easy subway access were pretty tempting, but everyone told me it was a bad neighborhood. It seemed fine to me, but we ended up moving to the Garden District.
St. James Town, Cabbagetown, and Regent Park all began life as the same neighborhood. St. James Town and Regent Park were moulded by utopian redevelopment projects, while Cabbagetown escaped the wrecking ball. Obviously, we know how the story ends. St. James Town is a notorious slum. Regent Park was bad enough that the city has since redeveloped it a second time. But how did we get here?
St. James Town began as Homewood estate, a neighborhood of upper middle class Victorian homes. It had more in common with Rosedale than today’s Sherbourne and Dundas. Then the car came, freeing wealthy Torontonians to decamp for the suburbs. As Toronto’s elite abandoned the area, entire neighborhoods were converted into apartments and boarding houses.
Photo: Homewood estate plan, 1855.
Boarding houses used to be quite common. Boarding houses would provide tenants with individual rooms and shared bathrooms and kitchens. Usually the owner of the home would live on site and provide meals. Rooms could be rented by the week or the month and some houses had strict rules of conduct. Boarding houses were an affordable option for people who cannot afford an apartment of their own, have a bad credit history, or lack a stable income. They also provided temporary housing for lots of people. This was long before anyone was debating if air conditioning should be a right; the facilities could be quite spartan.
While boarding houses provided a wide range of people with affordable, flexible housing options, most of the boarding houses in downtown Toronto were quite grim. Vermin were common and heat was sparse. Houses cut up into tiny apartments can easily become firetraps. Landlords argued that they couldn’t afford to repair buildings because the rent was so low. Plenty of the tenants couldn’t afford to pay rent on time as it was, so they couldn’t raise it. They’d lose money if they made repairs, nevermind improvements.
If you’ve been to Manhattan’s tenement museum (or stayed on a friend’s couch in an ungentrified section of Brooklyn) you have a pretty good idea of what it was like.
The city decided to do something about it.
The prevailing history is that north Cabbagetown was a slum, but there are other voices claiming that the area was no worse off than the majority of Toronto.
Given this view of Dundas and Sumach in 1951, that could very well be true. Some of the buildings demolished to make way for Regent Park look perfectly respectable in 1947 when it was decided they had to go.
Once landlords caught wind of the redevelopment project in the 1953, things got even worse. The city rezoned St. James Town for high-rise developments, bringing private developers into the neighborhood to snap up properties. Developers attempted to minimize publicity about the rezoning to keep the land values from jumping up.
If north Cabbagetown wasn’t a slum before, it quickly became one. Anyone who had been maintaining their buildings stopped, since it was a waste of money to invest in something that was going to be torn down. Developers didn’t evict people from buildings they bought until construction was ready to begin, so maintenance could be neglected for up to a dozen years. Development began in 1965.
People who were stuck with houses they couldn’t sell suddenly knew they could cash out. Or, depending on who you listen to, suddenly the only ones willing to buy a house would be a developer, since blockbusting had turned the area into an undesirable neighborhood.
Not all of north Cabbagetown was slum apartments. Some were private family homes. The more stubborn homeowners refused above-market offers and their homes can still be seen today. Torontonians don’t like to move.
Towers in the park
Le Corbusier provided the vision. A range of architects carried it out. At the time it was Toronto’s largest urban renewal project. The boarding houses were closed and everyone was moved to four new public housing buildings, built specifically for this project by the Ontario Housing Coalition.
When they were done, 18 high-rise towers stood across 32 acres of Toronto. Between 1959 and 1967, the population of St. James Town had risen from under 1,000 to nearly 11,500. It’s now home to 25,000.
Le Corbusier’s urban modernism wasn’t followed closely. No vast green space provided a buffer between residents and the city. While there were recreational facilities, they were hardly lavish considering the number of residents. While the project appears to be a planned community at a glance, numerous developers were involved and there was no official cohesive vision. Buildings were built by different developers and maintained by different property managers.
This was the 1960s, a time when young singles were no longer living with their parents until marriage. St. James Town was designed with them in mind. They could enjoy the lights and glitz of downtown Toronto for a few years before moving to the suburbs to raise a family. The new subway gave them access to the entire city, while the neighborhood provided them with all the necessities, all with plenty of grass and fresh air.
St. James Town was full of luxury apartments, offering the height of 1970s amenities. There was an on-site restaurant — and discotheque. The problem is, Canadians have never been big on apartment life. These luxury apartments were not a hit with their intended market. Instead of spending a their 20s downtown, upwardly mobile young people moved straight to the new developments in Scarborough, Etobicoke, and North York.
This plan, devised in the years immediately after World War II, was not a hit with the young professionals of the late 60s and early 70s. The world had changed too quickly.
St. James Town South
The developers had planned on St. James Town extending all the way south to Carlton Street. Residents were able to stop the development. Meridian Building Group bought numerous buildings in Cabbagetown when the area was rezoned. John Sewell, the ward alderman and future mayor, got Meridian Building Group to let him lease and manage the buildings in order to prevent them from becoming rundown prior to their demolition, while people were still living in them. Sewell then managed to win a dramatic police confrontation during which protestors chained themselves to the buildings and refused to be evicted to make way for highrises. The story is told in Bleecker Street, a film by Chris Alexander.
The homes that had already been purchased and demolished were replaced by non-profit housing co-operatives. These buildings were funded by the CMHC in exchange for 15-20% of the units being rented based on the income of the tenant, with the federal government paying the difference. The rest of the units are rented at market rate.
None of the St. James Town development had happened without controversy. The project was plagued by nail houses and squatters. In 1969, an inter-union battle on Bleecker Street led to physical confrontations and arrests.
By the 1970s, half of Toronto’s population lived in apartments. This was a time of urban crisis and apartment dwellers grew increasingly worried about their safety. Arson was a major fear.
Young professionals may not have had any interest in the large, well designed apartments of St. James Town, but immigrants and working class families are plenty interested. Over 40% of residents moved to Canada within the past five years. This may explain why unemployment is high, despite more residents having a college degree than is typical for the city as a whole. People leave the neighborhood once they can afford to, so there’s a high turnover rate compared to the rest of the city.
Unfortunately, rents haven’t kept up with expenses. The buildings have slowly lost their amenities, as they became too expensive to maintain. While built well, decades of neglect have taken their toll on the buildings themselves. Some of the buildings have been consistently maintained, while others are severely neglected. This is because of the different companies that own and maintain each building and the mix of residents in each.
There wasn’t enough business to keep the commercial spaces open, so the stores and restaurants of St. James Town have been shuttered. As a result, the neighborhood lacks any commerce beyond six bodegas and a grocery store. Luckily, there’s tons of commerce on Bloor and the Sherborne stop on the TTC is at your doorstep.
It’s Canada’s densest community, perhaps until people start moving into City Place’s 20 towers. It’s also one of Canada’s most diverse, with only 1 in 3 residents being Canadian born. While the neighborhood has an impressive linguistic array, 95% of residents speak English and over half speak English at home. However, the difference in income distribution between St. James North and South (south being Cabbagetown) is stark: 5.3% v. 39% of families make over $100k a year; 38.5% vs. 14.7% making under $30k.
In 1997, Toronto approved a plan to revitalize the neighborhood. By 2004, there was a new library and a new community center. The buildings and parks had all been improved. New towers were built.
While St. James Town is notorious among Canadians, as an outsider it hardly seems dangerous or particularly derelict. It just seems time-worn. As an affordable and centrally located home to new immigrants — giving them easy access to jobs and settlement support — it serves an important purpose.
Perhaps the community’s original vision hasn’t entirely failed. As of 2011, 60% of St. James Town’s residents were single. I can’t say if they’re swinging.
Deconstructing St. James Town, Graham Flett, 2001
St. James Town library, Toronto, Canada