Apartment Housing Then and Now: Vignettes from Toronto and Montreal/Le Logement En Appartement Alors et Aujourd'hui: Vignettes De Toronto et De Montréal

By Dennis, Richard | British Journal of Canadian Studies, July 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Apartment Housing Then and Now: Vignettes from Toronto and Montreal/Le Logement En Appartement Alors et Aujourd'hui: Vignettes De Toronto et De Montréal


Dennis, Richard, British Journal of Canadian Studies


The apartment house has had a chequered and controversial career in Canadian cities. In the early twentieth century it was regarded with suspicion if not downright opposition, especially in Toronto, ostensibly on grounds of undermining family life - apartments were no place to bring up children - and providing too 'easy' an environment for young housewives who, with few domestic chores to keep them occupied, might be tempted to succumb to more hedonistic pleasures of big-city life. It was a short step to blaming apartment houses for 'race suicide', the failure of British Canadians to maintain a high birth rate in the face of increasing numbers of immigrants from non-British backgrounds (especially, in the first half of the twentieth century, from Southern and Eastern Europe). Critics equated apartments with 'tenements', implying insanitary, unhealthy, and overcrowded conditions. They also worried about the impact of apartment buildings on neighbouring single-family dwellings, whose owner-occupiers might suffer loss of light, increased noise, and a reduction in property values, potentially undermining the virtues of a property-owning democracy (Dennis 1994, 1998). In Montreal, attitudes to apartments were more mixed (Choko 1994; Huppé 2011). Apartment-living was commonplace in continental European cities and we might, therefore, assume it to have been culturally acceptable among francophone Canadians, but most Montreal francophone families were too poor to aspire to more than a flat in a walk-up, three-storey triplex or sixplex, and the luxury apartments that colonised the west side of downtown drew their inspiration from New York rather than Paris and mostly catered for a well-off anglophone elite. In middle-class suburbs such as Westmount and Outremont, there was the same suspicion of apartments that characterised Toronto.

These prewar attitudes may seem quaint in cities now reconciled to and, in their skylines, dominated by high-rise condominiums; apartment-living is taken for granted in large Canadian cities. Some pre-First World War apartment buildings have survived as down-at-heel lodgings for poor First Nations urban migrants and others on the margins of middle-class metropolitanism, such as those with addiction and mental health problems. Similar rundown or neglected inner-city blocks have also become targets for aggressive redevelopment, to be replaced by higher-value, more intensive, usually ultra high-rise buildings. But other early, originally walk-up, apartment houses in single-family residential neighbourhoods - north of St Clair and around the Annex in inner Toronto, for example - are now treasured as 'heritage', praised for their more 'homely' domestic scale than recent high-rise towers, branded as 'boutique' living environments for professional singles and small middle-class households. The very buildings that were once condemned for being out of scale with their one- and two-storey neighbours are now perceived as appropriate and acceptable forms of 'densification'.

Alongside this re-presentation in real estate and lifestyle magazines and advertising, there has also been a variety of representations in fiction, cinema, and news reporting, sometimes harking back to the image of apartments as discordant, 'modern', 'bohemian', or 'alternative', but also on occasions as safe, reassuring retreats from the outside world. In the light of this diversity of attitudes and experiences, both in the past and today, my intention in this article is to explore the representation of apartment housing then and now, and the changing place of historic apartment buildings in present-day cities, primarily by tracing a variety of case studies from Toronto and Montreal.

My method of selection is in some respects serendipitous. There is no comprehensive register of apartment houses recording their fate over time, let alone their presence in media representations. Literary representations rarely feature 'real', named, and identifiable buildings; film and television employ the exteriors of 'real' buildings, inviting enthusiasts to identify locations that are seldom made explicit. …

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