What is Toronto’s heritage worth?

Our definition of heritage must be broadened to embrace Indigenous history and the cultures of every part of the planet that Torontonians come from

Heritage Toronto releases Changing The Narrative, its annual state of heritage report, today (Thursday, February 21).

Since the province declared the first Heritage Week in 1985, the report’s scope has ballooned to include much more than historic buildings of the city’s downtown core – with some pioneering outliers in the suburbs.

While 700 of more than 10,000 buildings listed or designated as historically significant are marked by Heritage Toronto plaques (55 were added in 2018, including 10 to a self-guided walking tour of the Dundas-Carlaw industrial area), Heritage Toronto’s definition of heritage has expanded beyond buildings.

As well as the tangibles of built and natural form, heritage is recognized today for being richer still in the “intangibles” that were celebrated by Steven High in Heritage Toronto’s 2016 Kilbourn Lecture – the stories of the people who built those buildings, neighbourhoods and landscapes, who lived, and worked, played, prayed and raised families in them. These are the ingredients of the great cultural mosh pit in which we swim, that floods our present and our past and spills into the future.

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In Toronto, that mosh pit plunges down in time at least 9,000 years, to the end of the Ice Age when the first inhabitants were hunters of mastodons. That ancient First Nations heritage is remarkably resilient, considering how much has been obliterated by urbanization and suppressed by colonization. It’s being recognized at last by such projects as the moccasin identifiers at Trillium Park, the Ogimaa Mikana Street Reclaiming and Renaming Project and the Indian Residential School Survivors Legacy Project on the southwest corner of Nathan Phillips Square that will be completed in 2020.

Heritage Toronto’s definition of heritage is also broadening to embrace the cultures of every part of the planet Torontonians have come from, bringing their history and their culture with them. And it’s broadening locally into the suburbs, including in places where the majority of Torontonians were not born here.

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Richard Longley

Post-war housing in East York.

What have we been missing in those places that produce so many creative Canadians? Consider the numbers of buildings identified as heritage in Toronto and East York (10,654), North York (475), Etobicoke and York (403) and Scarborough (163). If these numbers reflect a traditional bias, what is heritage worth?

And property values? Heritage pumps them high, because people love to live, work, create business and raise families in heritage neighbourhoods. The result is damaging to diversity and disastrous for people with low incomes who are forced to live where heritage is elusive and unnecessarily bleak and where efforts to build affordable housing are so meagre.

There’s also the sustainability argument for conserving and re-using built heritage, considering the environmental, materials and energy cost of demolition (24 per cent of municipal waste is demolition debris) compared with conservation for adaptive re-use.

But what to do where heritage buildings occupy lots that are zoned for buildings that are much larger? The standard alternative to demolition and replacement is façadism – retaining and restoring the façade of the heritage building and constructing a new building above and behind it. This disturbs Heritage Toronto because it “trivializes the city’s rich and diverse history.”


Matt Wiebe/Flickr

The ROM is a rare example of facadism: new in front of old rather than new behind old.

Maybe it does. But where façadism is done with ingenuity, the results can verge on genius, especially when it includes the restoration of features that were lost through the original building’s history.

On February 20, members of Architectural Conservancy Ontario (ACO), which intervened to protect more than 130 buildings across the province over the past five years, met MPPs at Queen’s Park. This year they advocated for preservation of Ontario Place and finding new uses for the site that will make it economically sustainable without turning it into a casino, as well as for funding the conservation of heritage school buildings and the restoration of Green Investment Fund for environmental retrofits that would have been financed by revenues from the now cancelled cap and trade program.

As well as joining with Heritage Toronto in promoting the economic benefits of heritage conservation (which should appeal to the new provincial government), ACO delegates promoted TOBuilt, ACO Toronto’s digital database of Toronto heritage buildings – 10,000 so far.

Where the City is way behind in identification of its built heritage (as we learned when we lost Stollery’s men’s clothing store in 2015 and the 110-year-old Bank of Montreal at Yonge and Roselawn in 2016) TOBuilt might be the answer to that identification deficit.

As well as the heritage that proudly represents our past and is essential to keeping Toronto – and Ontario – open for business, there’s dark heritage that includes the brutal reality of homelessness, under the Gardiner, in shelters, in churches, on streets, steps from the core of the richest city in Canada. Will this shameful heritage be conserved by neglect or demolished by finding value in the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable Torontonians and creating decent homes for them?

This is not a problem that can be masked by façadism, nor will it be demolished without empathy, understanding and humanity. But if it’s not remedied, if homes are not made for the homeless, what is the rest of our heritage worth?


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