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Why doesn't the city care about beauty? Its citizens do

By David Macfarlane
Wednesday, September 17, 2003 - Page A17

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'A brutal place." This was how a visitor recently described Toronto -- meaning not that its inhabitants are mean and nasty, but that its physical presence is.

Normally, I'd be inclined to agree. But not the other morning -- at least not at first. I was on the Prince Edward Viaduct, just east of Castle Frank, watching dawn break over the Danforth.

I've never heard anyone describe Danforth Avenue as seductive before, but early in the morning, with the eastern clouds washed in mauve and pink light, and with the buildings on the north side of the street catching the sharp, angled sunshine, the Danforth has a certain romance. From a distance, the odd combination of its impressively uninterrupted length, and its modest, low-rise streetscape makes it look intriguing -- an adjective that does not rub shoulders with many other Toronto streets.

From halfway across the Don Valley, with the cupola of Holy Name Catholic Church silhouetted against the light blue sky, the Danforth does look like the most un-Torontoish thing imaginable: a street that would be interesting to go down.

But the Danforth's appeal has a lot to do with what we think it might be, and not with whatever it always is. Its image -- the one that jumped vividly into my head the other morning as I pedalled east, over Broadview Avenue -- is of shopkeepers unwinding store awnings, and of the owners of corner stores hosing down the sidewalks in front of their laden displays of fruit and vegetables. I imagined block after block of small, thriving stores and restaurants and cafés and businesses. I pictured wide, tree-lined sidewalks. I imagined a street that ran straight to where the city ends and the open fields begin.

I have quite an imagination.

But, at first, my fantasy proves to be not so far from the truth. The thriving and exuberant blocks that exist at Broadview and Pape -- the predominantly Greek business area that people from across the valley think of as the alpha and omega of the Danforth -- is very much in line with what an approaching visitor might hope to encounter. The businesses are thriving. The fruit and vegetable stands are laden. Admittedly, the sidewalks are not all that wide, or particularly tree-lined, but the restaurateurs and the shopkeepers make the most of them. They hang pots of flowers, set up little hedge-like borders around their outdoor cafés. They bring in their own potted trees. They make things look good.

It's as I continue eastward, however, that things start to become a little less thriving and exuberant. Indeed, about the very opposite of thriving and exuberant can be found at the corner of the Danforth and Greenwood Avenue where, just past a boarded-up gas station, a sign that apparently got a little carried away with things proclaims that the "Fantastic Property" it's nailed to is for sale. Well, maybe it is fantastic. Anything's possible. Maybe it's in disguise.

Of course, a city as large as Toronto will always have bustling, successful commercial stretches and sections that are down at heel. And my complaint, as I continue farther east -- ever deeper, I might say, into a municipal ugliness that is, indeed, more than a little on the brutal side of things -- is not that there should be more trendy shops and well-appointed cafés and fewer cluttered Afghani grocery stores and struggling Pakistani restaurants.

I like the not-altogether-affluent sections of a city; they're interesting. And interesting is fine. As a Torontonian, I'll take what I can get.

What bothers me as that as you go east along the Danforth, heading out toward Victoria Park Avenue, it becomes obvious how little the city -- by which I mean the municipal government -- really cares about how it looks. Subtract the energy and pride of an effective business association, subtract the self-improvement of businesses that have the resources to think of self-improvement, and what's left? You are left with what the city has allowed. You are left with a shabby wasteland that only a little earlier, and seen from a distance, seemed to hold such promise.

Is there a city anywhere that so grudgingly plants trees along its commercial avenues? Could there possibly be containers uglier than the concrete boxes in which Toronto plunks down its saplings? On a street under which a subway line runs, do the sidewalks have to be so narrow? Would it kill us to have the occasional bench, or fountain, or, God save us, a piece of sculpture or bit of park?

Out at the eastern end of the Danforth, it's as if the City of Toronto, having found the issue of aesthetics troublesome, has given up attempting to preserve anything that might, by some Herculean stretch of the imagination, be called beauty.

Gas stations are allowed to be big and ugly. Malls are allowed to be big and ugly. Storefronts are allowed to be big and ugly.

The modest charm on which the businesses of the Pape and Broadview area have been able so successfully to build, has been largely bulldozed at the east end of the street.

Certainly, there's nothing interesting out here at Danforth and Victoria Park. I might as well go back the way I came.

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