The puff of black smoke staining the sky behind the shabby three-storey building was the initial sign of trouble. Then a young woman burst onto the street screaming “fire, fire” in Spanish.
Within minutes the first of more than a dozen fire trucks arrived on the scene at Bloor near Shaw Street, but by then flames had engulfed the web of wooden balconies behind the block’s middle building. The Good Friday fire started in the late afternoon and was doused within half an hour. The buildings — at least three of them badly charred — remain standing. But their near brush with oblivion made me think.
It made me think about old sections of the city and their continuing vulnerability to fire. A tougher building code restricting the construction of wooden structures was enacted after an 1849 blaze destroyed most of the block bounded by King, Church, Jarvis and Adelaide.
But it was last year’s devastating fire that destroyed century-old buildings and left a gaping hole on Queen Street, just east of Bathurst, that was top of mind as the Good Friday flames spread from the original location to structures on either side.
The three-alarm fire also made me think about why we value buildings like the ones along this stretch of Bloor. They date back to the early 1900s, they look their age and they aren’t going to win any beauty prizes. Each one is a different shade of faded red brick. Bay windows looking out from the apartments on the two upper storeys are their most charming feature.
Compared to the squat, soulless, brick buildings recently built next door, however, the places shriek character.
And as urban guru Jane Jacobs pointed out, there’s a lot to be said for encouraging a mix of new construction and rundown, old buildings because it means local businesses can find rents in their price range. That in turn ensures a vibrant neighbourhood with a variety of services. In this case, a printer, an upholstery shop and a flower shop. They change over time because change in the city is a constant.
Watching as fire threatened part of my neighbourhood, however, I thought about how that change should be gradual — not something that unfolds in one afternoon.