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How 4 Toronto Neighbourhoods Have Transitioned Over The Years

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By Sonia Bell

Neighbourhoods are always in a constant state of flux -- real estate developers continuously build new communities, cities enhance public spaces and, as neighbourhoods evolve, the population begins to change over time.

Four neighbourhoods in the Greater Toronto Area in particular -- Liberty Village, Mimico, Financial District and Willowdale -- have experienced pronounced transitions to date.

Liberty Village

If you asked someone to define Liberty Village today, they would likely describe its trendy restaurants, the burgeoning tech companies that have started to set up shop and the new home and condo development with architecture that pays homage to the area's industrial past.

Before its manufacturing beginnings, however, the area was part of Garrison Common, a military fortification for Toronto (then called "Town of York"), which served as the base for the Battle of York against the Americans in 1813. It wasn't until the 1850s, when the railway was built that Liberty Village transitioned into an industrial hub, home to factories such as Irwin Toys, John Inglis and Company and the Toronto Carpet Factory.

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Bombs stored on Liberty Street, looking east from Dufferin Street (Photo: City of Toronto Archives)

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Looking east on Liberty Village train tracks (Photo: City of Toronto Archives)

Real estate builder CanAlfa would eventually reimagine the area and create a master plan for Liberty Village. In the early 2000s, it built the first phase comprising townhomes, followed by several condos, including, Liberty Place, Liberty on the Park and Liberty Central by the Lake.

Strolling through Liberty Village, you'll still find traces of its industrial past -- railway tracks can be seen on a brick-laid walkway; former brick warehouses have been converted for modern use, such as Irwin Toys factory becoming the Toy Factory Lofts by Lanterra Developments; tall chimney smoke stacks that serve as landmarks in the historically-rich area.

Fun fact: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the area was home to the Men's Central Prison and the Mercer Reformatory for Women. It is believed that these institutions inspired the name of the neighbourhood's main artery, Liberty Street (the namesake for the entire community), as it was the first street reformed convicts would walk once released.

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Liberty Village looking east towards the CN Tower (Photo: Elisa Krovblit)

Mimico

Part of Waterfront Toronto's revitalization of the Toronto lakefront, Mimico has become one of the hottest new waterfront communities in Toronto.

However, the area looked and felt much different before big-time developers such as Mattamy Homes, Empire Communities and Stanton Renaissance left their imprint. Mimico's history dates to the 18th century, as a location where wealthy families built their summer homes. However, when Grand Trunk Railway was established in the mid-1800s, more residential development started to take place as more workers moved to the area.

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Lake shore Rd. at Mimico Creek on July 17 1930 (Photo: City of Toronto Archives/TTC Fonds, Series 71, Item 7810)

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Lake Shore Boulevard's motel strip (Photo: City of Toronto Archives, Series 1464, File 5)

By the late 1960s, Mimico had a relatively seedy reputation due to its infamous motel strip that was located south of Lake Shore Boulevard and east of Park Lawn Road. However, in the late 1990s, the city set out to transform the motel strip into a brand new neighbourhood, Humber Bay Shores.

The motels are gone but the 'strip' remains, populated by shiny new highrise condominiums. The Beach Motel was the last original motel standing. It was demolished in 2012, making way for Empire Communities' Eau Du Soleil.

New condos continue to take shape in Mimico, attracting residents due to the area's key asset -- the waterfront.

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Humber Bay Shores (Photo: Wayne Karl)

Financial District

While the Financial District has changed significantly over the years, one aspect of this neighbourhood has remained; it was, and continues to be, the very heart of Toronto. The area took form in the mid- to late-19th century when several banks moved to downtown Toronto. By the mid 20th-century, the Big Five banks were all headquartered in the Financial District.

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Noon hour traffic on Bay Street looking north from Adelaide Street West (Photo: City of Toronto Archives)

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Queen and Bay streets circa 1960 (Photo: City of Toronto Archives)

The area epitomizes Canadian capitalism (even its subterranean city, The Path, boasts a healthy economy of retail and services), but the Financial District has evolved into an area where people not only work, but also live and play. The area is now home to iconic skyscrapers and glossy condominiums oozing luxury and convenience.

With more than 200,000 people coming in and out of the neighbourhood daily, in addition to the condo residents, the neighbourhood is considered the most densely populated in the city. Congestion in the financial core isn't new; even the earliest photos of the Financial District showcase cars lined on the streets and pedestrians packed on the sidewalks.

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Financial District (Photo: Theresa Lemieux)

Willlowdale

Located in North York, Willowdale was largely considered a bedroom community of single-family homes. But over the past decade, it has transformed to appeal to two very different types of buyers -- urban and suburban.

The residential landscape is varied, comprising homes from the early to mid-1990s, "monster homes" from the 1990s, and more recently, high-density housing found along the main thoroughfare, Yonge Street.

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Sheppard Avenue and Yonge Street on July 9, 1934 (Photo: City of Toronto Archives/TTC Fonds, Series 71, Item 10528)

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Yonge Finch Plaza at the intersection of Yonge Street and Finch Avenue (Photo: City of Toronto Archives)

Menkes, an established real estate developer in the GTA, was significant in the commercial and residential transformation of Willowdale. In 1984, Menkes developed the 15-storey Proctor & Gamble headquarters at Yonge and Sheppard. In 1988, it introduced Place Nouveau, one of the first towers in North York. In the late 1990s, Menkes began the development of Empress Walk, a staple in the North York community that was a turning point for the neighbourhood. With condos, entertainment and shopping all in one place, Empress Walk was the area's first mixed-use development. Menkes continues to develop in Willowdale, with Gibson Square being its most recent.

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Menkes' Empress Walk, a staple in North York (Photo: Sonia Bell)

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