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Taking stock of fast-changing streetscapes

I'm not sure if it's because I came into my own in the 1970s or because Toronto came into its own, but I've always felt that if the downtown core had a soundtrack, it would be the 1976 album Breezin' by George Benson.

Benson's tour de force is an understated yet mature album that seamlessly blended jazz, funk, R&B and, with Claus Ogerman's sophisticated stringed accompaniment, aspects of easy listening, and it managed to place high on the popular, jazz and middle-of-the-road charts.

Toronto, too, is an understated yet mature city that manages to blend people of every nation and, to varying degrees of success, all eras of architecture. Sometimes, standing on a street corner, one can take in popular architecture (the CN Tower), jazz (the Flatiron building) and middle-of-the-road stuff (the splendid 1970s First Canadian Place, currently being outfitted in a new white summer suit).

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Yes, this is all very subjective, but just as I took an early spring walk in suburbia in April, 2006 and related it to Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain, on a brisk, breezy day last week I took a downtown walk to see if Mr. Benson's fabulous fretwork would resonate in my head.

10:30 a.m. St. James Park/St. Lawrence Market: En route to St. Lawrence Market, my wife and I admire the symmetrical "Nineteenth Century Gardens"- presented to the city by the Garden Club of Toronto in 1980 - as we discuss the incredible similarities between our landmark (1803) and Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market (established 1893). Once inside, we're struck by how diverse the selection has become: I can buy a leather fedora, a choice cut of meat or a Paua shell from New Zealand. We note that much of the signage seems bigger and more colourful, and that those fantastic, old square stools surrounding the staircase will be completely full by lunchtime. When I come back to grab a sandwich from Mustachio's two hours later, they are.

1-1:30 p.m. West on Front Street to Bay Street: Everywhere I turn, there is affirmation of the new confidence in downtown living. From the wasteland across the street from the Gooderham Building that will become the mid-rise Berczy condos to the L-Tower now rising beside the newly restored Sony Centre, it's hard to avoid seeing a construction site. In fact, when a couple from Detroit asked me for directions, they kept repeating, "We haven't seen a crane in decades." There's a great deal of film work, too: at Wellington and Scott streets, a small section of the street is, as Mr. Benson sings, "This Masquerade" of Paris, France. As lighting technicians fiddle, I watch a crewmember remove Ontario licence plates from vehicles and replace them with French ones.

1:45-2 p.m. North on Bay Street to Queen Street West: If any intersection will contradict my Breezin' theory, it's King and Bay. Here, one would expect to hear that frenetic, orchestral, 'rhythm-of-the-printing-press' music that 1950s and 60s movie directors would always marry to establishing shots of a skyline … but no, here are relaxed office workers out for a smoke, a cherry-picking window-washer taking his time above Brooks Brothers, a long-haired guy in a rumpled suit jacket cancelling a lunch date on his cellphone and a couple of tourists checking out Trump's new tower. In other words, it's as mellow as a Ronnie Foster electric piano solo.

2-2:20 p.m. Bay Street north to College Street: At Dundas and Bay, another chasm in front of the completed One City Hall project (more condos?). Further north, I check the progress of the YWCA's new Elm Place at the corner of Elm and Elizabeth streets. The striking two-toned blue building contains 300 affordable apartments for women. Architect William Thomas's Edward Street 1848 House of Industry façade (a workhouse for the poor, which became Laughlen Lodge for the Aged in 1947) has been incorporated into the project.

After passing Lumiere condos and Peter Dickinson's underrated 1959 Continental Can building at College, I find another bit of history reapplied to the corner of Bay and Grenville streets. The restored face of the 1925 McLaughlin Motor Car building has been wrapped around the base of the Burano project. While I am warmed by how it once again pokes its face out at the Bay Street jog, a cool breeze accelerated by all the new skyscrapers around here gives me a chill, and I can't help but think of the sad state of another former automobile showroom, the 1930 Pierce-Arrow building at Yonge Street and Marlborough Avenue, now an office supply store (look up to see carvings of a muscled god holding a winged wheel and a tiny automobile).

2:30-2:45 p.m. East on Wood Street to Church Street, then south: On my way home, I pass Peter Caspari's still-crisp City Park (built in 1954-55, it's considered the first Modernist complex built in the city) and then enter Ryerson country. As a gaggle of giggling students pass, I wonder what decade will define Toronto for them in 30 years.

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My guess is the great condo boom of 2000-2010, but as for what songs they'll choose for accompaniment, only time will tell. Happy spring.

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