Diverse homes on Toronto’s Brunswick Avenue show city’s history

The Globe and Mail

Walk down a residential street in downtown Toronto and you can’t help being struck by the odd jumble of housing types.

A stately red-brick Victorian stands beside a modern three-storey job with black cladding and picture windows. One side of a semi-detached has a cottagey look, with a roofed porch and turret windows. The other side is done over like a suburban bungalow. One house is covered in that fashion crime of the housing world, angel stone. Another has a second-floor facing of green shingles. One family has put patio bricks over its front yard and a mosaic portrait of the Virgin Mary next to the door. Another has a yard of wildflowers and a back-lit street number by the door.

To an eye that likes visual order, it can look like a dog’s breakfast. Wouldn’t it be better if we had like next to like, with uniform streets of matching dwellings from a similar era? Shouldn’t the city have enforced some sort of standard instead of letting these streets become so adulterated and mongrelized?

Historian Nicole Schulman has a different view. To her, the crazy-quilt streetscapes of central Toronto are a window into its history and a testament to its diversity. One sunny morning earlier this month, she led a group down Brunswick Avenue on a Jane’s Walk, the wonderful annual series of guided tours through parts of the city.

Brunswick runs north-south and lies between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue. Ms. Schulman took the group from Bloor Street south to College Street, stopping on the way to point out how it has evolved over the generations as the city grew. “This has continually been happening,” she told us. “The neighbourhood has been constantly reinventing itself and changing to meet technological changes, demographic demand and people’s aspirations.”

The first houses that went up on Brunswick in the 1870s were primitive even by the standards of the day, with no flush toilets or gas lighting or basements. But when the city’s population began to boom, builders started putting in more substantial houses, creating what were in effect some of Toronto’s earliest subdivisions. Middle-class people moved in and the neighbourhood was coming up in the world.

By the 1920 and 1930s, when the Great Depression came along, the neighbourhood was changing again. Many houses were broken up and converted into multiple apartments for low-income families and immigrants from eastern Europe and other places.

By the 1970s, educated and affluent people resisting the flight to the suburbs started moving in. Today, the vogue for downtown living has made Brunswick a wildly popular street of million-dollar homes (for contrast, some of the biggest, nicest houses on the street were assessed at a little over $3,000 in 1905).

But the evidence of its ups and downs is all around. Some of the old Victorians were replaced by modern houses in stucco or brick. Some have additions slapped on front to add space. Some have aluminum siding, a post-War innovation. One actually has a driveway, a rarity in this dense quarter, but a sign of what happened to the street with the rise of the automobile.

As Ms. Schulman puts it, “People always want their houses to be nicer.” So, over the years, they have updated, renovated and renewed. The result is the endlessly varied street of many colours that we see today.

Heritage buffs may not like it – she loves old houses herself and ends her tour with some of the big, handsome Victorians on Brunswick just north of College – but “it’s a very different thing to say all these changes are bad and we have to restore it just the way it was.”

She is surely right about that. Cities are always changing. On a street like Brunswick, you can see all the phases of the city’s history. The effect is a visual mishmash, a mix of styles and influences. What could be more Toronto?

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