How the wide-ranging HIGHRISE documentary film project influenced the lives of a group of Toronto tower residents.
TORONTO—Universe Within is the final installment in the years-long, many-media HIGHRISE interactive documentary series, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. The immersive site is a globe-spanning expansion on the themes that the filmmaker Katerina Cizek developed in Out My Window (2010), One Millionth Tower (2011), and A Short History of the Highrise (2013). So it’s appropriate that the very first story she produced for Universe Within, which makes its U.S. premiere on CityLab, takes place at the same anonymous-looking tower featured in One Millionth Tower.
“This is one of the most vertical cities in the world. There’s New York, and then there’s Toronto,” says Gerry Flahive, a former senior producer for the National Film Board and the producer of HIGHRISE. “But the towers are scattered all over the city. People don’t see them.”
Cizek has returned to the highrise at 2667 Kipling Avenue many times over the years. The tower, along with its twin at 2677 Kipling, is located in a part of Toronto that used to be Etobicoke, which was a suburban municipality before the amalgamation of the city in 1998. For as long as anyone can remember, Kipling Avenue has been a home to immigrants, mostly of Caribbean descent.
All that changed in 2010, when a catastrophic quake struck Haiti. A continent away, it was as if the ground under 2667 Kipling had shifted.
“It was quite an exodus of folks who left from here,” says Russ Mitchell, senior manager for community development at MicroSkills, a nonprofit service organization for women, children, and immigrants in greater Toronto. Through an initiative called Action for Neighborhood Change, Mitchell maintains an office for the area at the bottom of 2667 Kipling; he’s known the residents there for years.
When the earthquake struck Haiti, Mitchell says, the Haitian immigrants who called Kipling home set into motion. “They went to Scarborough”—another former municipality, in eastern Toronto—“or they went to Montréal,” he says. “They had a community here, but it wasn’t the wider community.”
In no time at all, the towers on Kipling Avenue regained their population. Refugees from Iraq—primarily Chaldean Catholics—filled the vacancies in 2667 Kipling. That’s where Cizek met “Angel,” a UN–sponsored refugee, when the director returned to the tower in 2011.
Angel, who participated in the film using a pseudonym, could only be called a resident of the building in the loosest sense. She owned just two pieces of furniture: a bed and a desk. She spent the entire day online, Skyping with friends in Germany and Jordan. “When I sleep, the Internet is always on,” Angel says in Universe Within. (Three months after the segment was filmed, Angel left Canada to join her fiancé in Syria. Her current whereabouts are unknown.)
Cizek has documented stories from just one of the more than 1,000 towers in the inner suburbs of Toronto. Haitian families left Kipling to live in dense configurations elsewhere, in hopes of sending more money home. Syrian and Iraqi refugees living there today experience extreme isolation. The demographics of these suburban towers swing in tidal shifts—with the city none the wiser for it.
One of the major findings of Universe Within is this elaboration of the global suburbs, the subject of a great deal of research at the University of Toronto. A highrise in the inner suburbs of Toronto may have much more in common with a highrise on the outskirts of Hamburg than it does with the city of Toronto itself.
“In general, there’s been a widespread assumption that a lot of the new immigrant communities in Toronto are not as engaged, period,” says Deborah Cowen, a professor of geography at the University of Toronto. She and Emily Paradis, a researcher also at the University of Toronto, have surveyed many of the residents living in these inner-ring towers.
“There was a sense that the downtown cared and the suburbs didn’t,” Cowen says. But really, “it’s that the issues that they care about are different.”
The failed administration of former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who was born in Etobicoke, only amplified the misunderstandings between downtown and the inner suburbs. But the researchers in Toronto—as well as the entire HIGHRISE series—say that it’s to the city’s detriment to allow this cultural confusion to linger.
Worse still, the city fails to grasp even basic demographic data about its inner suburbs. It’s not a problem that’s limited to Toronto, either. “The old ways that poverty expressed itself politically don’t look the same,” Cowen says.
Today, residents at 2667 Kipling Avenue continue to pay sky-high rents for not very much in terms of service. But some things are a little better. The property managers built a new playground behind the towers a while back.
For the folks who live there, the greater value may be intangible. One of the great benefits of the HIGHRISE series—from the perspective of the residents—has been the opportunity to meet their neighbors. Some of them now meet weekly in a tenants’ association meeting, and in fact, the group hopes to take over the office space managed through Action for Neighborhood Change.
Residents who mean to stay think there’s still a ways to go.
“I live on the 13th floor. Everybody thought that the 13th floor was bad luck,” says Faith, a resident who’s been involved in the HIGHRISE project from the start. “Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s the whole building that is bad luck.”