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Marcus Gee

The death of the middle class has been greatly exaggerated Add to ...

A much-discussed new report by University of Toronto researcher David Hulchanski portrays Toronto as a polarized city, with an increasingly well-off central city, more and more poor neighbourhoods and fewer and fewer middle-income ones. Prof. Hulchanski calls his findings "disturbing, because of the clear concentration of wealth and poverty that is emerging." Commentators have pounced on the report as proof that unleashed market forces and government inaction are turning Toronto into two cities, one rich, one poor - a betrayal of its ideals of diversity and equality.

Are things really so bleak? Look at it another way. The fact that many prosperous people are choosing to live in central Toronto is a very good thing for the city. In a reversal of the "white flight" to the suburbs that emptied many American downtowns in the 1960s and 1970s, people are flocking to live in central Toronto, filling up scores of new downtown condominiums and renovating century-old downtown houses.

Gentrification has transformed neighbourhoods like Riverdale, the Annex and the Beach. Leslieville, Liberty Village and the Junction are on the rise. Even once-sketchy Parkdale is getting its share of coffee bars and yoga studios. As house prices rise, some older residents are cashing in and moving out. They get a windfall, the incoming gentrifiers get an old house with character. Those hated market forces are working.

It would be easy to come away from Prof. Hulchanski's report with the impression that central Toronto is becoming a monoculture, populated by wealthy white bankers and lawyers in what amounts to a gated community.

In fact, places like my own gentrifying neighbourhood in the west end of downtown have become more diverse than before. On the main street, new cafés, bars and art galleries are popping up, but the Portuguese butcher with the neon pig in the window is still packed on the weekends, the Portuguese wedding hall is thriving and a Portuguese evangelical church just took over the space vacated by a Korean-run video store.

In the inner suburbs, too, the picture is more complicated than the report lets on. Prof. Hulchanski notes that in the northwestern and northeastern stretches of the city, many neighbourhoods have seen incomes decline compared with the city average. The reason is obvious. Many new immigrants have gravitated to these areas to take advantage of the low rents in local townhouses and apartment blocks. Instead of heading to tenements in Cabbagetown or Chinatown, as their forebears did in generations past, they go to high-rises in Rexdale or Agincourt.

As in the downtown, there is more diversity in the inner suburbs than the income numbers suggest. In Mayor Rob Ford's Etobicoke, for example, leafy tracts of single-family homes cohabit with areas of low-income housing. On the eastern side of the city, well-off Don Mills is just up the road from the low-income apartment towers of Flemingdon Park. Like the downtown, the inner suburbs have plenty of residents who are neither Bay Street lawyers nor taxi drivers. The death of Toronto middle-class has been greatly exaggerated.

Income disparities are widening because Toronto is simultaneously the country's leading magnet for immigrants and the country's leading hub for high-end, high-paying service industries. Would we want it otherwise?

The boom in the downtown is a boon for the whole city, bringing new construction, new tax revenue, livelier streets. As for the inner suburbs, the obvious task is to make sure that immigrant gateways don't become immigrant ghettos, trapping newcomers in poverty. Better transit is one remedy, better public education another. It's a huge challenge, but not an insuperable one. It's too early too despair about our civic divisions.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

 

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