When you picture Toronto or any city in your mind’s eye, you likely conjure an image of the skyline, the kind of picture that serves as the backdrop for local news anchors.
It’s the classic, grand view, yet we don’t live our day-to-day lives at that scale. Instead, we interact with the city in many more intimate ways. Small places and spaces are easy to overlook though, especially in a city that builds a lot of big things.
A recent essay by Darran Anderson in City Lab, a web magazine that explores city issues, celebrated the charms of small structures. It got me thinking about Toronto and the state of small things here.
There’s a bigness to Toronto, especially the newer parts. Tall residential buildings often have large podiums at the bottom with retail spaces that are equally big, attracting chain stores that lead to a bit of a generic urban landscape.
There are exceptions, such as some of the newer buildings in North York along Yonge St., south of Finch Ave., where smaller retail units have attracted dozens of independent businesses, along with some of chains mixed in, making it an interesting place to walk and explore.
Kensington Market is a beloved, older part of the city that has quite a bit of small-scale life, with some of the smallest shops in the city. That intimacy is what people love about it, but the market would be impossible to build today under the city’s planning codes. Too jumbled, too narrow, too nonconforming: there’s a real tension between the desire for small, and the rules that make things bigger.
Laneway housing is another type of structure that has been difficult to create in Toronto, but city council has recently loosened up the rules around where they can be built, and some people are already dreaming of narrow, European-style streets evolving here. To accommodate smaller scales like this, the City of Hamilton recently purchased an “urban pumper” — a scaled-down fire truck that can fit into tighter spaces.
In his essay, Anderson also praises the kiosk — small, versatile structures selling various goods or providing services that make sidewalks interesting. We haven’t mastered the kiosk in Toronto and they’re few and far between. One that comes to mind is the cute cobbler’s hut on the corner of Crawford Ave. and College St., a rare example.
Fotomats, drive-thru photo-developing kiosks, used to be a common sight but few are left. A vestigial one can be found in the parking lot at the corner of Sheppard Ave. and Bathurst St. It was converted into an installation called “Share the Moment” in 2013 by artist Stephen Cruise. Speaking of parking lots, the ramshackle parking attendant huts that once proliferated the city landscape have largely disappeared along with the lots they once presided over. Small is fleeting here.
The great thing about kiosks is the looseness they represent, both temporary and permanent seeming, but Toronto is anything but loose. Consider how fraught the struggle to make different kinds of street food available beyond the lowly hot dog was. The “A La Cart” project, with “one size fits all” food carts that were supposed to allow for a variety of foods, was a bureaucratic failure.
Other cultures do kiosks much better. In some Asian countries you can do most of your business using kiosks. In Malta, a place I go to visit family often, kiosks are everywhere, mostly serving as hybrids of corner stores and snack bars, though some operate as full restaurants and have busy patios. They’re colourful, bright and bring sidewalks, beaches and parks to life.
Over the last decade or so, shipping containers, versatile, kiosklike boxes, have become the go-to urban design element that allows small spaces to be installed in the city easily. In 2013, Market 707 opened, making a rather barren stretch of sidewalk at Dundas and Bathurst Sts. next to the Scadding Court Community Centre much more inviting with food and retail stalls.
On a bigger scale, Stackt Market opened at Bathurst and Front Sts. in April with 120 shipping containers providing 30 units of varying size. The grounds are landscaped and there are multiple outdoor patios. Though not crowded the last few times I visited, should it become wildly popular it’ll be another gauge of the desire for small-scaled kiosks here.
The historic Joy Oil gas station on Lake Shore Blvd. W., south of Swansea, is another example how hard it is to think small here. Renovated and moved to its current location in 2008, its potential to become a cafe or tourist bureau has never been realized, and it remains behind a chain-link fence.
If you’ve got a favourite small spot in the city, cherish it, as they’re hard to come by here.
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Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef