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Margaret Wente

A tale of two Torontos Add to ...

Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I moved into a charming little cottage in Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood. He'd bought it as a fixer-upper. The older working class was moving out, and the young professionals were moving in. By the time we sold the place, it was almost the only little cottage left. Soon it will be bulldozed and replaced by a McMansion.

As went our street, so goes Toronto. It's becoming a city of extremes. The middle class is disappearing, and the affluent and the poor are increasingly segregated by neighbourhood. The two groups live in different worlds. And these worlds rarely overlap, except perhaps in ethnic restaurants or, occasionally, on the subway (but not the bus).

Wednesday's front-page story in Toronto editions of The Globe on this accelerating trend drew a blizzard of highly emotional responses from readers. Right-wing policies are to blame! No, left-wing policies are to blame! There seems to be only one point of agreement: Toronto is no longer the city that works.

In fact, Toronto is no different from the rest of the developed world. "It's the pattern you see in all big cities," says Joel Kotkin, an expert on urban demography. As cities reach certain levels of affluence, the middle classes move to the periphery. Just look at New York, London, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Chicago - once middle class, now sharply polarized between rich and poor. Even cities in egalitarian Scandinavia are splitting into income extremes.

The most extreme example of this trend is London, where, a few blocks from the Thames, you might think you've stumbled into the Second World. As Mr. Kotkin has written, "Cities often offer a raw deal for the working class, which ends up squeezed by a lethal combination of chronically high housing costs and chronically low opportunity in economies dominated by finance and other elite industries." Once the cost of living is factored in, more than half the children in inner London live in poverty. In Toronto, the child poverty rate is as high as 32 per cent.

Meantime, as real-estate prices soar, middle-income folks move out. From Toronto, they move to Ajax, Barrie, Guelph and anyplace where they can buy a house for less than $466,000 (the current Toronto average). Jobs have migrated, too. In Southern Ontario, the greatest job growth is outside Greater Toronto.

Even people who can afford the high cost of city life are choosing to get out. Over the past decade, Mr. Kotkin points out, the biggest migration of Americans has been to cities with populations between 100,000 and one million. Who needs the hassle of congestion and commuting when you can live in a secondary centre, make the same salary, and get twice the house? The same thing is happening here, too. Of course, Toronto's latte classes may look down on you if you move to Guelph. But these days, even Guelph's got latte.

But poor people can't afford to leave the city. They need access to public transit (however lousy), subsidized housing (however crummy), social networks and social services. Besides, as Mr. Kotkin says, "there aren't many jobs for poor people at RIM."

The income polarization of the cities is almost universal. Yet, the answers are elusive - especially when, as Mr. Kotkin argues, many city governments have been focusing on all the wrong things. He is highly critical of "progressive" governments that believe the future lies in bike lanes, sustainability and better ways to attract the hip, cool, creative class. Like it or not, he argues, the real challenge is how to grow, promote and sustain the middle class. "Cities have been so dominated by promoting hip coolness that they haven't focused on creating good new blue-collar jobs."

That won't be an easy task. More business-friendly policies would help. But cities such as Toronto also face the larger challenges of the post-industrial revolution, where upward mobility is sharply diminished and where education and technology are creating much greater separations between the haves and have-nots. Toronto's struggle to restore the middle ground will be long and hard. It will be the greatest challenge the city's leaders face in the coming generation.

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