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Culture

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cityscape

Historicist: The View From the Top

Toronto through the years, as seen from above.

Coming in for a landing on a clear day, we can pick out landmarks from the window of an airplane, identify streets filled with toy cars, and spot buildings that look miniature from that distance and vantage point. Seeing the city from above—from an airplane window, the top floor of an office tower, or the once-tallest structure in the world—is so commonplace today that we take it for granted.

The city’s early photographers, however, sought to find novel ways to capture the city in their lenses from the highest rooftops. Municipal officials were nervous about the city’s earliest skyscrapers because they cast shadows, altered wind patterns, and dwarfed the church spires that had once dominated the skyline as definitively as the CN Tower does today. But climbing the new office towers proved alluring for photographers. And, with the introduction of observation decks, the broader public could also marvel at views usually only enjoyed by construction workers, window cleaners, and the lucky few who occupied a top-floor office.

This vantage point altered the perception of the city, allowing the people who gazed out from the great height to mentally map the ever-expanding boundaries of the city without having to walk its full terrain.

Many of the photographs resulting from rooftop visits and passes in airplanes still remain fresh and fascinating today, providing an opportunity to view the historic city in new, unexpected ways. The city’s constant changes mean that many of the archival photos capture vistas impossible to see today. Sometimes, when the archival citations lack details, the unfamiliarity of the historic scene makes it difficult to identify from exactly where the photo was shot. Looking back on the city from above lets us identify not just what’s survived or what’s changed, but also what has been lost.

Other sources consulted: William Dendy, Lost Toronto (Oxford University Press, 1978); Gunter Gad, “Downtown Montreal and Toronto: Distinct Places with Much in Common,” Journal of Regional Science (Spring-Summer 1999); Peter Gzowski, “Growing Up With Toronto,” in William Kilbourn, ed., The Toronto Book (Macmillan, 1976); Derek Hayes, Historical Atlas of Toronto (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008); Franca Iacovetta, Such Hardworking People: Italian Immigrants in Postwar Toronto (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992); James T. Lemon, Toronto Since 1918: An Illustrated History (Lorimer, 1985); Alan Morantz, Where is Here?: Canada’s Maps and the Stories They Tell (Penguin Canada, 2002); and articles from the Toronto Globe and Toronto Star.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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