The most attractive house in our area had white exterior walls and an earth-brown, easy-sloping roof that gave it a country feel.
It was owned by our elderly backyard neighbours, the Wilsons. Their exquisite yard included lush flowerbeds, a small fountain and a stone bench. They held garden parties for their friends, and on a summer’s evening we would hear the tinkling of glasses and the gentle murmur of voices.
My wife and I liked the Wilsons. They were always willing to offer gardening advice and lend us tools from their shed. When Mr. Wilson died we felt as though we’d lost a kind and reliable neighbour.
A year later, his widow sold the house to a young couple with two children. The new residents replaced most of the garden with a kidney-shaped pool and gave the remaining beds over to a landscaper who tore out the flowers and put in low-maintenance shrubbery.
Last spring, we received a proposal from the city’s planning department for a new house on the property. It came with the required drawing and specifications, and stated that the Committee of Adjustment would entertain any objections we might have, either by mail or in person.I looked at the measurements and at the drawing, and a humongous stuccoed box arose in my mind’s eye. The homeowners were asking to erect a three-storey structure where all the other buildings were limited to two. Their hideous hulk would obliterate the skyline, blocking out sun and trees.
Angrily, I rushed to one of my neighbours, a contractor, and asked if he intended to object. “No point,” he told me. “It’ll pass.”
Another neighbour, an architect, told me the same. He explained that even if the Committee of Adjustment rejected the proposal, the decision could be appealed to a higher body, and sooner or later the homeowner and builder would get their way.
But three other fuming neighbours did prepare to meet the committee and voice objections. Unable to attend, my wife and I wrote the committee expressing concern over the proposed height. We received a polite e-mail advising us that our letter would be added to the file.
The day after the meeting, our neighbours told us their articulate objections were met with impassive faces, and that the proposal was approved. How ludicrous, I thought. Why have a committee at all, if it pays so little attention to the concerns of residents?
I knew it was only a matter of time before the racket of Caterpillars and hammers would be heard. I tried to convince myself that the new house might not be as bad as I imagined; that the city wouldn’t allow a ridiculously large and unattractive building to be put up in such an aesthetically integral neighbourhood.
But I was deluding myself. Toronto is not known for its architectural finesse. Unlike Montreal or Manhattan, our pattern is to tear down the beautifully old and replace it with … well, you’ve been to the Eaton Centre.
In July, the work began. My wife and I held our breath as the new house rose to the point where it towered over every other house in the vicinity, even over other recent rebuilds.
The view from our back windows no longer takes in the trees of the nearby park. As day progresses, a square shadow creeps over our garden.
My wife, as is her nature, has accepted the new reality and is making plans to create a shade garden next spring. She is busy researching which plants will thrive. I, on the other hand, am still angry. But what to do?
I considered writing to the members of the Committee of Adjustment:
“Dear ladies and gentlemen,
“Congratulations. By permitting my neighbour to erect this monstrosity you have added a new dimension to what the writer Lewis Carroll called ‘the uglification of the world.’”
I also thought of writing a sardonic poem that would place these plodding bureaucrats, à la Dante, in some teeming circle of hell. But when I checked The Inferno I saw that they were too mundane to make it.
There was a circle reserved for those who are “violent against art,” but what the great Florentine had in mind were vandals. The sort who’d take a screwdriver to a Matisse. Those who lack taste, those who have no feeling for beauty, aren’t worthy of Dante’s underworld. Even his “vestibule to hell” is reserved for rapacious opportunists. For that I’d have to prove that the committee members had been bribed. What an outlandish thought!
Eventually, I gave up the idea of a letter or a poem and got real. I phoned the building inspector responsible for our neighbourhood. His first name is Ed.
I asked Ed if the building was in keeping with the proposal, and he told me he’d been out to the site just the other day, and yes, it looked as though the structure was within the measurements provided. Of course, Ed added, a detailed survey would follow completion of the house. Everything would be in order.
I told Ed I was amazed that the city would allow such a massive structure to be built. “It sure sticks out, doesn’t it?” he replied.
Yes, Ed, it sure sticks out.