16 July 2008

City Lands

islands of plurality: the case of Toronto Foreign Island Concept: Infrastructures reinforce distinct communities which stand separated. This middle ground island becomes a shared platform for exchange.

Neeraj Bhatia
Debates on immigration policy often focus on the number of immigrants a country can absorb without threatening the nation’s overall identity. Immigration is predicated on the notion of the assimilating melting pot, imposing a common bond between constituencies. From Hannah Arendt to Richard Sennett, it is felt that this common bond not only creates the public sphere, it reaffirms a sense of reality, reduces isolation and promotes trust. Arendt posits that the public sphere, while rooted in the common bond, also requires distinction, or plurality — the dialectical condition of our equality, in that we are human, and our distinction, in individual viewpoints. The melting pot, however, sought homogeneity to tame the chaos of diversity. More recently, a ‘salad bowl’ model, based on the dialectic notion of the heterogeneous whole, or multicultural pluralism asks ‘what is the common bond’, or the ‘salad dressing’? Where does the multicultural city come together to celebrate its collective concerns and distinct characteristics?

To answer this question, we can look to cities wherein multiculturalism is prevalent. Toronto and Vancouver top the list, only to be superseded by Miami. Intriguingly, all three cities sit in geographically separated zones; Miami as an appendage to the United States embracing the Caribbean, Vancouver behind the wall of the Rocky Mountains adjacent to the Pacific, and Toronto in Southern Ontario – a peninsula that effectively digs into the United States. Unlike Miami or Vancouver, whose separation is largely morphological in nature and attracts a more homogeneous immigrant population, Toronto’s ambiguous position, created through its adjacency to a political divide, absorbed a mosaic of immigrants. Presently, Toronto is made up of 44% foreign-born residents, 43% visible minorities, and a variety of religious groups.

Toronto’s location has linked it more directly to the United States than other Canadian cities. For instance, Queen Elizabeth Way, built in 1939, was one of the first major highways in Canada and connected Toronto to Buffalo’s industry and tourists. An expressway between Toronto and MontrĂ©al was not built for another twenty years. As far back as the 1920s, massive investments from American companies poured into Toronto5, continuing into the 1950s and 60s: in 1954, Toronto had 48 foreign-owned branch plants, including Ford and American Motors. More than two-thirds of the companies in New York City sought sites in and around Toronto6, which was preferred to MontrĂ©al because of its location (situated at the point of convergence of transport lines leading in all directions), language, and larger labour market.

Being a convergence and distribution point between Canada and America contributed both to Toronto’s growth and early identity crisis. Robert Fulford describes pre-1960s Toronto as a city which ‘denied that it had an identity worth exhibiting,’ and before the 1970s as ‘too British to be American, too American to be British, and too cosmopolitan to be properly Canadian’. It is the ambiguity of southern Ontario’s geographic position that has given the city a unique position, or lack of position. Without a coherent and overpowering identity, and situated in a nether zone, Toronto successfully hosted a large number of immigrants without assimilation. In Toronto, the immigrant condition became the norm.

At the scale of the city, the notion of the ambiguous but strategically sited ‘foreign island’ can be applied to discrete areas that lack a coherent identity and sit at convergence or distribution points. In Toronto, one such island created by infrastructural separation is the Railway Lands (CityPlace). Situated between the CN Railway and Gardiner Expressway, CityPlace has remained vacant and trapped at the city’s centre since railway transport reduced in scale and moved out of the city. CityPlace epitomizes the critique of large-scale infrastructure projects — complete separation of communities and civic morphologies. Local street grids, park systems and built form are interrupted by infrastructures; they cannot find a way around these and simply dead-end at their intersection. In addition to the morphological divides produced by major infrastructures, there are demographic divides. The pattern is such that a wealthier and ‘more Canadian’ (in terms of citizenship) population lines the southern edge of CityPlace along the waterfront. A substantially lower income bracket lines the east and west edges of the site, while visible minorities are in higher concentration on the southeast, southwest and north edges of the site. What results is an ambiguous island bounded by infrastructures that enforce distinct communities and morphologies around their edges.

While the foreign island of CityPlace causes separation, it is simultaneously the site of converging flows and associated user groups, such as local and commuter populations who occupy the adjacent airport, ferry, highway, buses and trains. The intriguing dialectical quality of CityPlace through separation (causing distinct communities) and convergence (allowing for common interaction) alludes to Arendt’s definition of pluralism. Just as Toronto’s immigrant plurality was contingent on its location as a foreign island of separation and convergence, CityPlace is home to none and all. It is within ‘foreign islands’ such as CityPlace that a public project of plurality could be carried out.

There are other characteristics inherent in these infrastructural islands that make them ideal for a public project of plurality. Inadvertently, CityPlace tends to collect massive public and cultural programs. In many cities, large programs are often too large to fit into the regular urban fabric and are therefore pushed to the periphery11. In Toronto’s case, CityPlace offers an island for these oversized public projects such as the CN Tower, SkyDome, and Air Canada Centre, with direct links to public transport that absorb and distribute large crowds. Another characteristic of these foreign islands is their central location because of the historic centrality of railway yards. They are often government-owned and are easily fitted with public projects. Lastly, the infrastructural isolation has allowed many to remain undeveloped. These qualities of neutrality, convergence and separation, accommodation of large programs, central location, public ownership and emptiness make them ideal for a grouping of public projects that create a shared platform of exchange. The promise of foreign islands such as Toronto in Southern Ontario, or more locally, CityPlace in Toronto is that they lack an overpowering stance and therefore appeal to a diverse multicultural population. Current private condominium construction on CityPlace, however, obstructs the emerging public project, and threatens to bring a consistently affluent population to the island. The latent public project inherent in the structure of foreign islands like CityPlace is fundamental to the public realm in the increasingly globalized and multicultural city. Without it we are just a grouping of unrelated people in the space that was once known as the city.

Bhatia, Neeraj. 'Isolated sites: Toronto'
On Site review, no. 18 Fall/Winter 2007/2008
© Neeraj Bhatia and On Site review

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