This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.
Toronto’s Corktown has seen the worst of modernist planning. In the 1960s, the neighbourhood, which extends from roughly south of Shuter Street and east of Berkeley Street, saw exit ramps from the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway built across its southern reaches, demolishing buildings and leaving others cut off from surrounding streets, small strips of brick houses sitting incongruously next to concrete supports.
To the north, meanwhile, the city hoped to tear down the Trefann Court section’s rowhouses, and replace them with the sort of towers-in-parking lots development that had already overtaken Regent Park. Residents, however, banded together to stop them. Their protests were successful and, today, the battle to save Trefann is considered one of New Urbanism’s great 1970s victories.
In many ways, the revitalization of the West Don Lands unfolding on Corktown’s doorstep is that movement come full circle.
A massive, mid-rise development will add thousands of new residents in a mix of condominiums, social housing and student buildings south of King Street. A new streetcar line will bisect the area and shops will line its sidewalks. Unlike most gentrification and development in Toronto, which tends to unfold haphazardly, this project has been meticulously master-planned by Waterfront Toronto, the tri-government agency charged with revitalizing parts of the city’s lakeshore.
“We want to build a community here, a great neighbourhood. Not just sell to developers who then sell condos. In order to build a neighbourhood, you need schools, daycares, community centres, parks, beautiful streetscapes,” says Meg Davis, the Waterfront Toronto executive in charge of planning for the area. “When we did the design for the West Don Lands, we really looked at how do we integrate this whole area back into Corktown.”
From the cozy confines of Fusilli Ristorante, in a Victorian commercial building renovated to resemble a Sicilian villa, chef Giuseppe Pelligra has watched a generation’s worth of change in the area, named for the Irish immigrants that called it home in the 1840s.
When he set up shop in 1988, the neighbourhood was dominated by industrial businesses and an office building or two. At night, it was a poorly-lit ghost town.
But over the years, creative types and young families have colonized its red brick houses, while new condominiums have filled in parking lots and replaced warehouses.
“A neighbourhood – it’s people who make it, right? You have a lot of young people moving into the neighbourhood, people with kids moving in,” Mr. Pelligra says. “It’s a big difference…I keep seeing new faces.”
The changes to date will pale compared with what is to come.
The first two condominium buildings, at River and King streets, are scheduled to open early next year. A nearby Toronto Community Housing project will house senior citizens and families by fall. Further south is Don River Park, also slated to partially open in 2013. Sitting on top of a gigantic berm, it features lowlands with ponds, marshes and boardwalks, hilltops with slides, and an amphitheatre.
To the west is a massive construction site, which will see a series of buildings completed for the 2015 PanAmerican Games, to be turned into condo and rental housing afterward. The area will also feature an elementary school and a YMCA, among other amenities.
Much of Waterfront Toronto’s job also entails correcting the planning mistakes of yesteryear. Underpass Park, whose first phase opened this summer, brought playground equipment, skateboard ramps and a public art installation to a previously empty space beneath the Eastern Avenue overpass. It provides a way for people to walk across the barrier that has long cleft the neighbourhood in two.
“This was no-man’s land. It was dead-empty,” says Ole Calderone as he stands in the park on a recent Saturday, sheltered from the pouring rain by the road above. “That kind of connection has taken something that was inaccessible and linked it together.”
Mr. Calderone moved here three years ago, buying a house on Percy Street, a narrow, cobblestoned strip of modest residences built for factory and brewery workers in the 19th century. A transport planner by training and a sales analyst for a high-tech company by occupation, Mr. Calderone is typical of the urban-minded residents colonizing Corktown.
Another is management consultant Kara Isert. When she arrived two years ago, the neighbourhood could seem a little dead at times, with empty storefronts and a scarcity of street-level activity. But that’s changing, and she is hopeful the West Don Lands will help.
“It’s not just going to be blocks of high-rise towers like you get around the SkyDome, where there isn’t a real community,” she says. Her partner, Joe Harmatiuk, has charted the course of the West Donlands growth with photographs.
Heritage architect Sandra Iskandar, who moved into an area condominium with her partner and two young children a few months ago, was attracted there partly by the redevelopment and in part by the relatively decent housing prices.
“I think it’s really exciting – it’s nice to see there’s a lot of activity,” she says. “I would hope that Corktown maintains its urban-village quality.”
Meshing new development with historic blocks is only one aspect.
“There’s going to be the integration of the old and the new residents,” says Larry Webb, who heads the local community association, as he sips a pint at Dominion on Queen, a bar in a converted historic hotel that serves as the neighbourhood’s hub. “There’s a lot of tradition in the area, and now you’ve got a lot of upwardly mobile twenty-somethings moving in.”
And the locals have some gripes: The ground floor of one recently opened condominium on King Street, for instance, houses a large car dealership clearly not targeted at area residents. There are stretches of King and Queen, meanwhile, that are still quiet, particularly in comparison to the busy shopping areas across the bridge in Leslieville or south at the Distillery District. Some are also disappointed that some of Waterfront Toronto’s most ambitious plans – such as building a district energy system for the West Don Lands – have been shelved for lack of funds.
But from Mr. Pelligra’s perspective, the neighbourhood is coming along well. During the early years of his restaurant, he and his wife lived in the apartment upstairs. A growing family eventually prompted them to move to a larger house in the suburbs, but he wants to move back to Corktown once his son goes off to university.
Besides the many advantages of being closer to work, the area, he says, is where he likes spending his time.
“I know everybody in the neighbourhood. When I go out, especially in the summer – ‘hey! Hey!’” he says, demonstrating passersby greeting each other on the street. “It’s – how you say? – nice people, honest people, no phony people. Corktown is, to me, a really little small village. And it’s home.”
Today, Corktown is a sliver of 19th-century row houses and storefronts, sandwiched between the Regent Park social housing project to the north and a tangle of expressway ramps to the south. It’s a neighbourhood that most people glimpse – either from an overpass or the window of a streetcar heading into downtown – but few know it is one of the oldest parts of Toronto.
Constructed largely in the first half of the 1800s, the area housed immigrants who worked at distilleries, factories and brickworks nearby. At one point, it was part of a stretch of working-class east end neighbourhoods that ran from Bloor Street all the way to the train tracks near the lakeshore.
The neighbourhood’s name has two putative sources. One is the provenance of its early inhabitants, many of whom immigrated from County Cork in Ireland. The other is the prevalence of breweries and, by extension, stoppers needed to plug the bottles.
Among the historic buildings are Little Trinity Church on King Street East, built by low-income residents in 1843 to avoid paying rent at the city’s Anglican Cathedral. Nearby Enoch Turner Schoolhouse was among the city’s first education institutions. The Dominion on Queen, meanwhile, began life as the 19th-century version of a brewpub: The booze was made on-site and served in the hotel bar.
In the 1940s, the city demolished a large section of Cabbagetown to build Regent Park, which ends just north of Corktown, at Shuter Street. In the early 1960s, the Gardiner Expressway and Eastern Avenue overpass were built along the neighbourhood’s south, demolishing part of Corktown and eventually giving rise to a series of car dealerships and mechanics in the area.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article, which has been corrected, misspelled Sandra Iskandar's name.