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As the city has evolved, it's gotten harder to determine what actually constitutes downtown anymore.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When I’m out of town and tell people I’m from Toronto, they sometimes ask, “What part?” I usually just say “downtown” or “the west side of downtown.”

I live near Dundas and Dufferin streets, the area often called Little Portugal or Dundas West. In the Toronto I grew up in, no one would have called that downtown. Downtown was Yonge and Dundas, King and Bay, Queen and University – the central business district. Where I live now would not have been considered even central, much less part of downtown.

But as the city grows, the definition of “downtown” is changing. This century, Toronto has graduated from big city to proper metropolis. It is now the fourth-largest urban area in North America, behind only Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles (and ahead of Chicago). In step with that growth, its downtown has grown taller (all those skyscrapers) and bigger.

But how much bigger, definitionally speaking? You can start a pretty good argument these days about what actually constitutes downtown. Some would say I am dreaming to think I live “downtown” when my place is all the way out there by Dufferin. After all, there is a big suburban-type mall – Dufferin Mall – just a few blocks from me.

Officially, Toronto’s urban boundaries changed in 1998, when the provincial government lumped the central city in with suburbs such as North York, Etobicoke and Scarborough to create an amalgamated city under a unified government with a single mayor and city council. You could argue that the former polity known as Toronto, and often referred to as the “old city of Toronto,” is now essentially downtown Toronto. One bit of evidence is that the men and women who represent that old city tend to be called “downtown councillors.”

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In fact I would argue that you could call anything south of Eglinton Avenue downtown without going seriously astray. But there are legions who dispute that. Some say it is madness to call anything north of Bloor Street downtown. Others draw the line a little farther north at Dupont and Davenport streets, or, at a stretch, St. Clair Avenue.

Times change, terms change. What used to be the distant suburbs are now called the “inner suburbs,” distinguishing them from the new suburbs and exurbs that have gobbled up farmers’ fields all around Greater Toronto. College and Yonge used to be considered midtown Toronto. Then Bloor and Yonge got that label. Now Yonge and Eglinton is sometimes called midtown. You would have seen the same progression in Manhattan in the 20th century as New York boomed.

Destination Toronto, the city’s visitors association, describes the boundaries of downtown as “Spadina Avenue to the west, Jarvis Street to the east, Bloor Street to the north, and the Gardiner Expressway to the south.” That embraces the financial district, the entertainment district and the shopping hub around Yonge-Dundas Square.

Wikipedia declares confidently that “Downtown Toronto is the main central business district of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Located entirely within the district of Old Toronto, it is approximately 16.6 square kilometres in area, bounded by Bloor Street to the northeast and Dupont Street to the northwest, Lake Ontario to the south, the Don Valley to the east, and Bathurst Street to the west.”

Similarly, city hall’s growth plan for the downtown, TOCore, refers to an area “bounded by Lake Ontario to the south, Bathurst Street to the west, the midtown rail corridor and Rosedale Valley Road to the north and the Don River to the east.”

I think that’s too restrictive. It excludes, for instance, Liberty Village, the bustling district of apartment buildings and condos just 20 minutes by bicycle from Union Station, and Parkdale, just a little further away. It also leaves out Leslieville on the opposite side of town. Tell me those aren’t downtown neighbourhoods.

There was a time, at the start of the 20th century, when my own part of the city was a distant rural subdivision, far from the urban core. Then it was a bustling west-end neighbourhood, drawing throngs of immigrants from all over.

And now? Now I call it part of downtown. The city’s relentless, astonishing growth has made it so. It’s about time we adjusted our terms and accepted it.

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