Toronto and the Condo Kid: Best #Cityreads of the Week

A round-up of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.

Image
Axio on Flickr

Tweet us your favorites with #CityReads.

"Stuck in Condoland," Philip Preville, Toronto Life

Shannon Bury was 27, with a marketing job in the 905 and her own condo in Burlington, when the big city came to fetch her. The company she worked for was acquired by a larger firm, Pareto Marketing, which moved her job to Toronto. She moved along with it and traded up, selling her place in Burlington and buying a 607-square-foot, one-bedroom-plus-den unit in Charlie, a 36-storey tower proposed for Charlotte Street near King and Spadina. She got the unit pre-construction for less than $300,000, which was a steal, because really she’d purchased much more than space: she bought the dream Toronto and its developers have been selling throughout this decade-long boom. She was single in the city, blonde and svelte, with a well-paying career-track job and, soon, a condo on the edge of clubland. Toronto would be at her feet and at her service. It was the spring of 2008.

Then she met a guy. A great guy, Paul LeBrun, a Winnipeg native who’d landed in Toronto with a Bay Street securities job. They met at a mutual friend’s condo in February 2010, at a party to watch the Vancouver Olympics men’s gold medal hockey game. (The running joke among their friends is that Paul still doesn’t know who won; he was too busy wooing Shannon.) Before long they were living together at Yonge and St. Clair, with an eye to moving into her condo later that year, once it was finished. But the construction fell behind schedule, and their life together began to outpace the cranes. They got married in the ­summer of 2012, and when they moved into Charlie that November, they were already planning their family. “We figured it would take eight months or so to get pregnant,” she says. “Then there’d be nine months of pregnancy, so we’d have time to enjoy condo life before the baby arrived.” She conceived by Christmas.

Jacob, now 10 months old, is busy teaching his parents the true meaning of square footage. To make room for all the baby equipment, Shannon and Paul relegated to storage an armchair, an end table, a coffee table and, most recently, a loveseat. A lone couch remains from their brief childless-couple condo life. “Our time is spent in play dates, and play dates are spent with everyone sitting on the floor anyway,” Shannon says. Jacob’s playtime inevitably spills out into the hallway. The neighbours don’t complain, and neither does Shannon when, for instance, her 20-something party-boy neighbour has friends over for pre-drinks on the balcony before heading out clubbing. “I can’t hold it against him,” she says. “I’d be doing the same thing in his position. I’m jealous, really.”

"The Fight to Find John Wilkes Booth's Diary in a Forgotten Subway Tunnel," Joe Kloc, Newsweek

On a quiet evening in December 2010, Robert Diamond was watching television in his apartment, tucking into a bowl of franks and beans, when the telephone rang. There was an angry voice on the other end of the line: “You’re trying to dig up that damn locomotive again!” It was an official at New York City’s Department of Transportation. Diamond had worked closely with the DOT for much of the three decades since he had made his extraordinary discovery: the oldest subway tunnel in the world, which runs for a half-mile in Brooklyn. For years he had explored the tunnel unbothered, cataloging its ancient rail spikes, researching its alleged use as a hideout for thieves and pirates, and offering tours to curious locals on Sunday afternoons. But now, the official told him, the city wanted him out.

The DOT’s latest gripe, and the reason for the angry phone call, stemmed from Diamond’s long-held belief that behind a wall of rocky sediment sealing off the westernmost 400 feet of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel are two Civil War treasures: an 1830s wood-burning steam locomotive and the lost pages of John Wilkes Booth’s diary, which together, he believes, would prove the mayor and other top ranking New York City officials conspired to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Since the early 1990s, Diamond had been lobbying to excavate the tunnel, and while the DOT had always been irked by his historical detective work, it had for many years supported Diamond’s efforts to show the tunnel to the public.

The house where Abraham Lincoln died after being shot by John Wilkes Booth. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

"The Fight to Preserve a Model Public Housing Project," Maya Dukmasova, Chicago Reader

"It was beautiful to live there. There were trees all over the place, rabbits were running all over the place, every now and then you'd see a raccoon or something coming through," Miguel Suarez recalls as he sifts through memories of his neighborhood. "African-Americans, Latinos, whites—there was no real differences in whom we were as a class, as a people. We were just totally happy living amongst each other."

The place he's describing isn't a utopian paradise in a distant land. It's a Chicago public housing project, Julia C. Lathrop Homes. Suarez, a semiretired addiction counselor, has lived there since 1989, when there were nearly 1,000 families living in Lathrop's redbrick buildings. Now he's among the few residents remaining in the mostly shuttered complex. In recent years he's been actively opposing the redevelopment of Lathrop—one of the last public housing projects left standing in Chicago—into a mixed-income development that would include market-rate real estate.

Lathrop's two-story row houses and three- and four-story walk-ups occupy 35 acres on the western edge of Lincoln Park, and are often noticed by passersby on Diversey owing to the thick, white plumes of steam that rise from ground vents like jets from primordial geysers—the result of aging heating pipes. When the 925-unit development opened in 1938, it was one of the first public housing developments in the country and only the second in Chicago, built by a dream team of architects for the Public Works Administration's New Deal program. For 30 years it was one of four all-white public housing projects managed by the Chicago Housing Authority. When the first African-American families were finally allowed to move into Lathrop in the late 1960s, they were segregated in the buildings on the south side of Diversey. The project didn't become the melting pot Suarez describes until the 1970s.

Over time Lathrop evolved into a mini America, a home to immigrants from Puerto Rico, Japan, Korea, Great Britain, Lithuania, and elsewhere. Such diversity is rare in public housing, and its effects are clearly visible among Lathrop kids today, many of whom come from multiple generations of mixed-race unions. In 2012 Lathrop was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.

Lathrop Homes, Chicago. Image available through Creative Commons.

"Boston: There's an App for That," Ben Schreckinger, POLITICO Magazine

Boston’s City Hall is a 500,000-square-foot concrete monstrosity. Built in 1968, the structure is a prominent example of Brutalist architecture, and it screams, “large, impersonal institution.” For decades, Bostonians have despised it. Now comes the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a scrappy five-person team charged with making Boston better through clever, low-cost hacks. They’re talking makeover. Not the gazillions-of-dollars, knock-the-building-down kind. Something a lot cheaper. But still: a makeover. Finally.

Inside City Hall, right on the fifth floor near the mayor’s office itself, New Urban Mechanic Kris Carter, 33, gives me a tour of the proposals, which were marked up and arrayed along a wall. One of them, “Stairs of Fabulousness,” would cost less than $5,000 and cover the steps of the building’s concrete grand staircase in bright rainbow colors. I asked Carter if it would play xylophone notes when you stepped on it, as a staircase at the city’s Museum of Science does. Nope. It wouldn’t capture data about foot traffic either. But still, it would be fun, and cheap, and so the mechanics were giving it serious thought.

“Local government over the last few years has gotten used to the idea that the kinds of services we deliver are gray,” says Nigel Jacob, 39, who along with Chris Osgood, 37, has led MONUM, as the office is known, since its 2010 inception. It’s MONUM’s job to make those services more vibrant. Some innovations aren’t necessarily major breakthroughs in good government, like the whimsical project, undertaken in October, of lighting up a bridge in pretty, multicolored lights. But many others are practical revolutions in how local government can connect with its residents using technology, like the famous Boston pothole app, and another one to handle all manner of basic government service requests right on your iPhone.

"Four Reasons Why Portland Became a Cyclists' Utopia," Heather Smith, Grist

When I was young, I left the Motor City for a city that I would never have to drive in again. Years later, so did my sister.

Television commercials made the relationship between cars and humans look like a romance, but from a kid’s perspective, it looked like an abusive relationship. Automobiles had a way of breaking down when you needed them most, taking large amounts of your money without warning, and attracting unwelcome attention from law enforcement officers. Little in the movie 8-Mile feels like a genuine depiction of Detroit life, but one thing feels accurate: the way that no one’s car will start.

I moved to San Francisco. My sister moved to Portland. I love San Francisco, the way that you do, but whenever I visit my sister I cannot help noticing that — as far as gracious, car-free living goes — she made the better choice. When I visit her, I don’t have to look at every car that I pass and gauge the risk of being doored, because, in a lot of places, the bike lane is wide enough for both me and an open car door. I rarely have to merge into car traffic and route myself around someone who has double-parked in the middle of a bike lane, because some traffic engineer has thoughtfully placed a barrier between car and bike traffic. All is not perfect; my sister still got doored last winter. But Portland had zero bike deaths last year (and many years before it), which is more than you can say about San Francisco.

Bike commuters in Portland. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Top image available through Creative Commons.

About the Author