UrbanToronto is celebrating 20 YEARS throughout October with stories and images looking back over the last two decades. Today we begin with a look back at UrbanToronto itself and its evolution over the the period, the first of many in-depth articles to come this month.

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Flashback to the summer of 2002 and the media was enthusiastically reporting that TTC's Sheppard Line 4 was likely just a few months from opening. Cynicism runs deep in Toronto’s transit quarters though, and well, I wasn’t sure I believed it. So I dropped a few keywords into Google which instantly populated many articles about the coming line with most suggesting it would open as predicted. But it didn’t stop there, this search also led me to a seemingly magical thread where hundreds of users were posting the line’s merits, while others suggested it was a white elephant and wouldn't open at all. Heck, there were even some first-glimpse photos from deep inside the stations and a few very illegal ones from someone’s urban exploration escapade into the tunnels. This thread was part of a site called ‘UrbanToronto’ and I had apparently just found my people!

Yonge station on Sheppard Line 4, image by Craig White

I was working in Toronto’s film industry at the time and our office went through many boom-and-bust cycles that matched the industry at large. It was very much in a bust period though as I was on an overnight shift where the phone rang about once an hour. This gave me 55 minutes of each 60 to dive into hundreds upon hundreds of UrbanToronto (“UT” to users) threads that touched on all aspects of the city’s development. Literally a thread for every project – big or small. To be frank, these were augmented with some truly nuanced discussions about architecture, transit, politics, planning, and even the arts. Most members didn’t use their real names either, so there were and still are monikers for each (i.e., BuildTO, Wonderboy905, AreBe, 3Dementia, AlchemisTO, etc.) who entered my life daily through my computer monitor. At least then, many of us had never met, so you’d create images of what each member looked like, sometimes with corresponding backstories that rarely panned out to be anywhere close to the truth. Sure, there were some disagreements online that required moderation and plenty of “vertical yahoos” (those who want every building proposed to simply be taller), but in general, it was a respite from the daily grind and somewhere to turn long after that overnight shift ceased. It was also a place where I could post any possible question that I could fathom about T.O. and someone would have an answer within an hour. As I suggested earlier, magical!

The York/Bay/Yonge off-ramp coming down, image by Jason Paris

It was a bit of an insecure period in Toronto’s history though. The mid-late 1990s had been all about downloading and cuts, and even projects that did somehow come to fruition (like the Eglinton subway) were literally buried shortly after commencing. But here we were with Line 4 opening, condos starting to spring up around the core again, new provincial ‘SuperBuild’ funding to expand most of our larger cultural institutions, plus some serious talk (and corresponding money) to give Toronto a waterfront it could be proud of. Despite our own Gehry and Libeskind buildings rising, there was still a genuine unease on UT that these better times were fleeting. There was even a giant stump still at the corner of Bay & Adelaide that reminded us of this daily. I even recall some talk at the time that ‘the Forum itself’ would likely peter out with the next recession or change of government as there just wouldn’t be anything to talk about again. Perhaps some of this city’s inferiority complex concerning global status was at play here. Still, even the most pro-development and optimistic Torontonian couldn’t have foreseen just how long this period of expansion would come to be.

The Frank Gehry-designed addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario from the Sharp Centre for Design at OCAD U, image by Jason Paris

Friends always knew to ask me, “Hey, what project is that crane for?” For many years, I could honestly link the project to the crane anywhere in the GTA. Sometimes they even got a lot more information that they didn’t ask for - including architect and developer. I can now confidently say though that those days ended a while back — not because my interest waned or that UT was no longer reporting it all (they were and still are) — but simply because there was just too much for any layperson to follow to that degree. For instance, there are over 230 cranes in Toronto’s sky currently which is about double North America’s other fastest-growing cities. We also have four subway projects being built concurrently, which nobody who lived through the 1990s would ever believe (some still don’t, I’m constantly reminding them). Even our downtown river – The Don – will soon have a new termination point with Lake Ontario where it will pass 11,000 new residents on a new human-made island called Villiers. Ironically, my inability to follow it all has made UT even more valuable as it does much of the work for us. The Forum still remains central to it all and where one can really get into the weeds about critiquing massings, debating window qualities, and fetishizing heights. 

The, ahem, St Regis Hotel and Residences rising, image by Jason Paris

Of course, some members would eventually meet IRL. The first I recall was at the old Ben Wicks Pub in Cabbagetown where nobody looked how I pictured them. Because of course they didn’t! We also quickly realized there were relatively few women in our midst (a fact, I think, that mostly remains true today). Still, friends were made, even a marriage/divorce was had, and a few mortal enemies sprung up as some just couldn’t get around the fact that their opinion of Transit City didn’t match someone else’s. But that’s life and in that sense life on UT isn’t that different from life off of it, except maybe for the fact that it is a safer space for geeks to wax poetic about city building. And that’s something that Toronto has never been short of – opinions. And it’s not like politicians, columnists, and developers haven’t noticed this cornucopia of opinion either. There have been many sightings of them on the Forum too, despite how cleverly some try to hide their true existence behind what they thought was a Teflon-coated handle.

An early meet-up of UrbanToronto Forum members, image by Jason Paris

At its heart, the UrbanToronto Forum is a motley collection of urbanites who simply enjoy watching the city grow, documenting it, debating it, and generally feeling optimistic about its future. Yes, I said optimistic! While the Forum’s genesis was during a bit of an uneasy point in history, it then witnessed the city literally grow up for a generation. While there are always a few outlier members, I’d say the board has a modernist-leaning consensus on design, a belief that increased density is almost always good, that public space needs to shine, and that the devil has reserved a special place in hell for this city’s NIMBYs. While some of this optimism may stand in contrast to today’s prevailing chatter of Toronto being in an unaffordable lull, there is still, at least to me, an umbrella opinion that while there are a host of challenges for this ever-growing metropolis, the fundamentals are good and perhaps even getting better. This optimism about Toronto, and most big cities, including their ability to create good, continues to stand against Canada’s perception of itself, even though it is very much the country’s reality. UT has ridden that reality and increased in prominence along with the sheer stack of development applications to be an important part of Toronto’s conversation. And these conversations aren’t going away. In fact, I’d suggest they are now more mainstream. For instance, when I now listen to the younger generation, including groups like More Neighbours Toronto, I see pro-development progressives thinking big, believing in urbanity, and arguing that everyone who wants a piece of Toronto should be able to achieve just that. So, maybe it was always right there in the first half of our group’s name. Congratulations on 20+ years and here’s to an ever more UrbanToronto!

Jason Paris, um, image by Jason Paris!

(And yes, Sheppard Line 4 opened that November, so perhaps there is still some hope for Eglinton Line 5!)

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Jason Paris is a one of UrbanToronto's earliest Forum members and a moderator on the site. He currently lives in Corktown, Toronto and, when not on UrbanToronto, is the Manager of Audience & Production Support for CBC Podcasts.

UrbanToronto will return tomorrow with another story celebrating 20 YEARS. A second look back at transit over the period, this time on regional plans, will appear next week. In the meantime, check back often to our front page and Forum to keep an eye on all the current and emerging trends, and you can always leave your comments in the space below.

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Thank you to the companies joining UrbanToronto to celebrate our 20 years in business.