Deconstructing St.James Town

Graham Flett, 2001

ABSTRACT: this was a short essay I wrote a long time ago for an urban studies class I took while I was at university. The information here is by no way up-to-date and is not heavily cited because at the time, and this still seems to be the case, there was a lack of information about St James Town. I decided to put this up online to help anyone who is interested learn more about one of Canada’s most unique, and definitely not well-planned, neighbourhoods.

There still seems to be a lack of online information about this urban area in Toronto and in light of recent fires in one of the apartment buildings in the St.James (see: 2010, fires in St. James Town) I decided to re-visit and self-publish this old essay. I also made a link to this cite through the Wikipedia entry about St James Town. Hopefully somebody will find this information interesting? Please let me know if you do. Cheers.


If urban space is a representation of built-thought than St. James Town is the physical embodiment of imposing modernist planning principles into Toronto’s downtown core. The architectural style of the buildings, as well as the hyper-planned approach to structuring the neighbourhood all exemplify characteristics of the urban modernist movement. St. James Town is now generally regarded as an unsuccessful attempt at imposing modernist principles into an urban centre, which stands as a reminder of how not to build large housing developments. Originally designed to be a fashionable residential locale for young downtown white-collar workers (Caulfield 26) the neighbourhood has now become a popular spot for recent immigrants who often overcrowd the small apartments with four or even five people. Its historical context as well as its present day sociological and ethnic reality need to be understood in order to fully comprehend how the egalitarian social vision of the modernist movement was distorted and even disregarded in order to benefit the property development and management companies who built St. James Town.

In the mid 1950’s the block between Wellesley and Parliament was rezoned by the Toronto city council who recognized this area as being a perfect site for the construction of a high density downtown housing. (Fox 4) City council’s decision to rezone this area did not go unnoticed and was met with considerable opposition by the ratepayers association of the Wellesley / Bloor area.

“…this is a residential area in moderate or fair condition and it is probably similar to nearly 75% of the residential areas throughout the whole of the city of Toronto…In our view the acceptance of the present proposal would constitute a violation of sound and established principles, a tyrannical interference with property rights, and a precedent which could threaten the security of every home owner in Ontario.”(Fletcher 8)
Despite the vocal opposition from the rate-payer’s association, and the area was rezoned for high density housing. The official rezoning of the land increased interest among investors and after this point development companies also began to acquire residential properties in the area.” (Fox 4)

Although the houses in the area were on average 60 years old, the majority of them had been well kept and needed only minor renovations (Simon 14). However beginning in the late 1950’s, development companies in association with real estate firms began to buy out many of the homes owners. In order to prevent the land value from rising, plans to build a high density development were kept quiet and were not mentioned to the homeowners (Fox 3). Gradually as the development companies acquired more property the land value began to fall. Houses that may have needed only minor renovations were then handed over by the real estate companies to slum-lords who were well aware that there was no point in fixing up an old houses that were going to be demolished. This gradual acquisition of property helped the deterioration of the neighbourhood and by the mid 60’s the area had become an ‘undesirable’ place to live (Fox 11). By this time the remaining residents had accepted the fact that their best option was to sell their homes for the best offer they could get from a developer, (since they were the only people willing to buy the houses) and after 1965 the main developers of the St. James Town project had acquired enough land that intensive development could begin.

The slow undermining of the residents who lived in the area was not a democratic process. The scheming of the property management companies was a well calculated ploy to use market forces against the residents of the area. A tactic which eventually gave the residents no other choice but to accept the best offer from the developers. City council’s compliance with the developers also appears to fit in well with the overall attitude of the time period, a mind set that generally thought introducing more high density housing into the downtown core was a positive change for the city. Using the guise of beneficial environmental authoritarianism many modernist projects were approved in Toronto, such as Regeant Park, the Gardiner Expressway and the demolition of historic sites like the Temple building. The practice of drastically reshaping a neighbourhood was a trademark of the modernist movement and the development of St. James Town was no exception. However in many cases the implementation of these urban forms often disregarded the social vision that had originally inspired the modernist movement in the first place. St. James Town is just one example of how the private interests of the developers and property managers became more important than the social needs of the people — a fact which was paradoxical to the fundamentals underlining the modernist movement.

This is noticeable in the difference between St. James Town and the high density buildings envisioned by Le Corboussier. There are no vast green spaces to buffer the residents from the city and there are only a few recreational facilities in the area — not nearly enough for the dense concentration of 15,000 or more residents. Instead the only modernist ideal which was successfully implemented was the architectural form of the buildings. There are 18 buildings in total, all of them are high rise apartments which are characterized by the modernist aesthetic of being functional, utilitarian and monumental in size — curiously enough many of them have inspiring patriotic names such as ‘Ontario’, ‘Quebec’ or ‘The Edmonton’.

At first glance these 18 high rise towers look quite similar. However upon closer inspection there are many interesting social factors which characterize the buildings. Underneath the aesthetic veil of modernist egalitarianism St. James Town appears to be unified as a single neighbourhood, however upon closer analysis it is clear that it does not function as one.

There are three distinct clusters of high density apartment buildings in St. James Town and within each of these groups there are vast differences in the ethnic distribution as well as the social class of residents. This is predominantly due to the fact that each cluster of apartment buildings is owned and maintained by a different property management company, and each of these clusters was originally built by different developers.

The Evergreen Property management company owns eight of the buildings, the Belmont company owns six buildings, and the Ontario Public Housing Coalition (known as the M.T.H.A.) owns four of the buildings. (Simon 4) Two of the buildings were built by Candec Mortgage and Housing, another 12 were built by private developers and the remaining four were built by the Ontario Housing Coalition in order to accommodate the residents who were displaced by the St. James Town development. In fact the original plan of the St.James Town development was to mix the professional middle class with the lower class groups which had been displaced by the project. (Fox 54)

Overall the condition of these buildings differs depending on which property management company now maintains them. The 8 buildings owned by the Evergreen company are clearly in the worse condition, while the six buildings owned by the Belmont company are in moderate to good condition — in fact most of the residents who live in these buildings exclude themselves from being part of the St. James Town neighbourhood. The M.T.H.A. built by the Ontario Housing Coalition seem to be a in constant state of repair, however off setting this is the high percentage of people who receive social assistance in this apartment cluster — many of them who are retired and take it upon themselves to see to necessary minor renovations. (Simon 65)

Furthermore, in an extensive 1986 social analysis of St.James Town a dramatic amount of social and ethnic variation can be seen between three clusters of apartment buildings. These distinctions do not appear on the federal census tract because of the area is lumped into one all encompassing study. But when each apartment cluster is examined on its own, the degree of social and ethnic variation in St. James Town becomes much more obvious.

While the 1996 federal census tract reports that half of the residents in the neighbourhood have a gross household income of less than $20,000, it does not reveal the degree of difference as to how that revenue is acquired. The municipal study of 1986, unlike the 1996 federal census, presents a broader spectrum of data which helps to deconstruct the social reality of St. James Town and it indicates that 84% of the tenants in the M.T.H.A. buildings earn below $20 000, and in addition to this information it also shows that 75% of this group receive social assistance or are supported by pensions. In contrast to this, 45% of the tenants in the Evergreen and 20% of the tenants in the Belmont buildings earn less than $20,000 per year. Yet 80% of the residents work full time and only a small percentage of the residents receive any form of social assistance. These figures help to illustrate the differences of lifestyles led by the tenants in each respective apartment cluster.

In the past twenty years St. James Town has become a common location for housing new immigrant arrivals to Canada. Its image of being an ideal location for housing single and married middle class professionals has long been abandoned, and instead its central location as well as its affordable low rent has made it a popular choice for new immigrant families. This multicultural aspect is noticeable on the federal census tract which shows the total immigrant population to be 10,410 — accounting for two thirds of the total 15,358 residents living in the area. The census tract also breaks down the neighbourhood into the three largest ethnic groups, which are South Asian, Filipino and English. However, the municipal study goes much further in unraveling the degree of social complexity that is wrapped up with the ethnic reality of living in St. James Town.

Despite the municipal study being slightly out of date it does provide a very in depth focus on the ethnic distribution of the three apartment clusters. What the study shows is that 25% of the tenants living in the 12 Evergreen apartments are newly arrived immigrants. 45% them are from Asian countries, 10% are from European countries, while another 10% reside from North American countries outside of Canada. Only 30% of the tenants claim Canada as their ethnic origin. This by far makes the Evergreen buildings the most ethnically diverse in the area.

In stark contrast to this, the Belmont apartments seem to be more culturally homogeneous and are predominantly made up of English speaking ethnic backgrounds (Simon 94). 70% of the Belmont tenants are Canadian and the next largest ethnic group is represented by people from European countries who make up only 12% of the population. 10% of the remaining residents of the Belmont buildings are from other North American countries and only 5% of the tenants are from Asian countries.

The publicly run M.T.H.A. buildings are predominantly a mix between Canadian and European ethnic backgrounds — 54% are Canadian, and 25% are European, 15% of tenants are from a North American country outside of Canada and only 4% of the population are from Asian countries.

These figures all help to illustrate the dramatic degree of difference between the three apartment clusters found in St. James Town — especially between the privately run Belmont and Evergreen buildings. It should also be remembered that although the Belmont and M.T.H.A. clusters have a small percentage of immigrant residents, there total contribution to the population of St. James Town is much less than the impact of the 12 Evergreen buildings. The municipal study also stresses that the living conditions are clearly the worst in the Evergreen buildings, which have the highest amount of complaints in regard to landlord tenant relations and also have many more reports of four or even five person families over-crowding the two bedroom or even bachelor apartments.

The modernist social vision has obviously been distorted in the St. James Town project and its failure is most evident in the Evergreen buildings. The vision of the developer to create one single functioning neighbourhood of middle class residents is completely at odds with the present reality of St. James Town. The distinctions between the living conditions found in each apartment clusters has obviously added to the social and ethnic segregation found in the neighbourhood.

Despite the undesirable living conditions of the Evergreen buildings these houses offer many immigrants an affordable foothold to begin a new life in Canada — and because of this St. James Town must also be recognized as one of the few low rental options left in Toronto’s downtown core and therefore an integral part of the urban landscape. However, due to the overcrowding, especially in the case of the Evergreen buildings, the buildings are inevitably in a constant need of repair and renovation, and it is also interesting to note that suggestions made by the St. James Town revitalizing committee no longer has the hyper-planned trademarks of urban modernism, but is instead seeking a plan of action that is much more in line with the post-modern approach to solving problems of urban design.

“…we suggest that any re-design of the neighbourhood or its structures be implemented in an evolutionary manner to allow for the active participation of interested tenants…”(Simon 94)

Perhaps the development of St. James Town would have been more successful if such an integrated outlook had been adopted from the beginning (as was done in the case of the St. Lawerence market). Instead we are left with urban space which represents a strange mix of two different ways of thinking. On the one hand there is the idealistic modernist vision that has in some ways helped to provide affordable inner city housing, especially for pensioners and recent immigrants — but this social vision became grossly entangled with the haphazard actions of developers and property managers who sought to maximize their profits by allowing the buildings to gradually deteriorate. However, the bottom-line of such reserved economic policy is experienced daily by the residents residing in St. James Town, who must unnecessarily endure a lower quality of living


Works Cited

Caufield, John. Contrasts, Ironies, and Urban Form. “City Form and Everyday Life: Toronto’s Gentrification and Critical Social Press.” copyright 1994, University of Toronto.

Fletcher, Erwin. Report on Redevelopment Proposal Submitted by Parliament Syndicate. Submitted by the President of the Wellesley/Bloor Ratepayers Association. June 25th, 1956.

Fox and Winton. A Study of Private Development: St. James Town North. MA Thesis. Unpublished, 1966.

Simon Associates’ Study Team. Sanford, Barbara. Andre, Claude. Simon, Charles. St. James Town Revitalization, Social Analysis. May 1988, produced for Planning and Development Department. Nov — Dec 1987.

Toronto Planning and Development Dept. St. James Town Revitalization. Submitted 1987.