Skip to main content

If, like many Torontonians, you feel that your city has too many people, too much traffic, too many condos and not enough space to park, try going to a place that has the opposite problems. Try going to Buffalo. A visitor from Toronto who makes the two-hour trip down the Queen Elizabeth Way notices a few things right off the bat. There aren't many people on the streets. The roads are amazingly clear most of the time. No soaring condo towers block the the sun. And there is lots and lots of space for parking.

In Toronto, surface parking lots, once plentiful downtown, have disappeared one by one as developers snap them up to build office and residential towers. In Buffalo, they're everywhere, even in the heart of downtown. Parking is no problem.

Buffalo's story helps put Torontonians' never-ending complaints in perspective. When the 20th century dawned, Buffalo was bigger and richer than Toronto. Connected to New York and the Atlantic by the Erie Canal, it became a hub for milling, shipbuilding, steelmaking and meatpacking. Hydroelectric power from nearby Niagara Falls fed the boom. Captains of industry built grand mansions on Delaware Avenue, Buffalo's millionaires' row.

The Great Depression began the city's long decline. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, an alternative to the Erie Canal, hastened it. As with many American cities in the 1960s, Buffalo was hit by race rioting. Many residents fled to the suburbs. The city's population dropped by half to about a quarter million, less than what it was in 1900.

Today, it is enjoying a modest revival. Cool new craft breweries, bakeries and coffee shops have opened in patches of the central city. Tourists come to visit Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, with its Picassos, Gauguins and Rothkos. Guides show off Buffalo's outstanding collection of 20th-century architecture, including the towering art-deco city hall.

But Buffalo faces a long road back. Drive along the Lake Erie shore and you pass the rusted shells of abandoned steel mills and grain silos. Tour around many central neighbourhoods and you find the usual evidence of urban blight.

The hipster outposts are few and scattered – a little independent bookstore here, a juice bar there. The new bike path on a redesigned avenue seems optimistic in a city where the car is still undisputed king. The process of urban revival and refurbishment that sniffy critics deride in Toronto has barely begun. Buffalo boosters would kill for a little more gentrification.

Seeing all of this, it is hard not to marvel at Toronto's good fortune. At one time, Canada's leading city risked going down the same path as Buffalo. Toronto, too, saw many of its downtown industries collapse and move to the suburbs. Many of its residents fled for greener pastures, too. Once-proud central neighbourhoods went into decline. Stately old homes became rooming houses.

Brick warehouses and factories stood abandoned. Many were torn down, the land turned into parking lots. Look at old pictures of downtown from a few decades ago and you see acres of them right in the city core. It was easy to find parking in those days.

But, somehow, Toronto turned things around. Far-sighted planners eased zoning rules so companies could move into those abandoned warehouses or redevelop the land for offices and condos. A movement for urban reform fought to protect leafy central neighbourhoods and halt the Spadina Expressway. Thankfully, Toronto didn't build a highway through the heart of its downtown, the awful mistake made by so many American cities. People started flocking back downtown to live and work.

All those towers that people love to hate are a sign of a glorious revival. All that traffic is a sign that the city is growing and thriving. All those people trooping along the sidewalks give a life to the streets that Buffalo and many other North American cities can only envy. If motorists can't sail into a surface parking lot in the heart of the city or park on the street for a song, it shows that land is valuable and the city dynamic.

Toronto should thank its lucky stars. It could have been Buffalo.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe