Manhattanization Toronto

Photo: James Bombales

As Toronto’s City Council approved an unprecedented amount of development this week – some 755 storeys of space or 18 new buildings – headlines raised the issue of the “Manhattanization” of the city.

Councillor Joe Mihevc told the Globe and Mail, “We’re experiencing the Manhattanization of the downtown core. This is going to be a very different city in 20 years when these developments all get built out.”

The term “Manhattanization” has been used in big cities undergoing big changes, usually due to a boom in downtown skyscrapers. In many cases, there’s an uneasiness around the term. More recently, it’s been used as short-hand for a kind of gentrification on steroids. Those are the two current sides of the term: a huge boost in density or the moneyed classes pushing out lower-income residents.

Even New York City isn’t immune to the trend. A recent New Yorker article pointed out how it’s frequently used by residents to describe the influx of wealth into boroughs like Brooklyn. Manhattanization is about “turning a city into a playground for the wealthiest inhabitants.”

That wasn’t always the case. Concerns about the Manhattanization of San Francisco may have been focused on new skyscrapers, but also the darker side of city living. It’s an evolving term that’s been used for entire cities, specific neighbourhoods and even Dublin pubs. Here’s a look back at how the term has been used for nearly fifty years:

San Francisco

In the 1971 mayoral race, candidate Dianne Feinstein, who would serve as mayor in 1978 and is currently a state senator, used the term as a warning. Here’s the usage in a Spokesman-Review article from October 1971:

“San Francisco has too many ugly new skyscrapers. Too much pornography, too much drug abuse, too much crime, declares Mrs. Feinstein. Even the bus drivers are rude, she claims, promising to do something about it.

‘We want to prevent the Manhattanization of San Francisco,’ says Mrs. Feinstein, a political activist since her college days in the mid-1950s.”

While the term is now more in line with new money gushing into cities and pushing people out, in this case, Manhattan signified something darker: a dense, gritty metro with too many big city vices. The term has evolved with the city as New York City has transformed from the crime-addled, debt-ridden city of the 1970s to one of the most expensive places to live in the United States.

The West Coast clearly chafes at any comparisons to its East Coast counterparts. The spectre of Manhattanization came up frequently in late 1960s and early 1970s San Francisco. It was invoked by Telegraph Hill Residents concerned about losing their views of the bay. In another article from 1971, some of the language regarding a proposed development was more than a little dramatic. Here’s a sample:

“The prospect of a 550-foot waterfront office building blocking the view of the bay has stirred a fury over what has come to be known as the Manhattanization of San Francisco.

…’High-rises are like heroin,’ Gardner Mein, a former planning commissioner observed, ‘Once you start you can’t stop except by drastic means and by then it’s too late.'”

San Francisco Manhattanization


Back in 1988, a Globe and Mail article used the term to describe how the booming real estate market was changing Cabbagetown, a neighbourhood with a history of rooming houses and working-class residents:

“For the city, which is mired in acute shortage of low- and moderate-priced housing, it means fewer people can afford its prices. It also means the acceleration of a process dubbed “Manhattanization” – pushing out a city’s middle classes until its occupants are either rich or poor.”

Manhattanization Toronto Cabbagetown

The term popped up again in 2012. Developer Brad Lamb, no stranger to stirring up controversy, effectively rained on the parade of countless renters dreaming of owning a house in central Toronto. His use of the term married references to tall towers with concerns over high prices:

“In New York City, even if you’re an investment banker making $1 million a year, you still can’t afford to buy a house in Manhattan, so you’re buying a condo…If you want to live in central Toronto, you’re going to have to live in a condo. Families will be forced to buy into high-density living. It’s the natural evolution of a city.”


In the late 1980s, a group of Seattle citizens banded together to help curb the downtown’s growth spurt. Tall towers had cut out city views of the nearby mountains and Puget Sound. A 1989 article in The Bulletin described the efforts of the Citizens Alternative Plan (CAP):

“Some residents have seen enough skyscrapers and have pushed an initiative to a Tuesday vote that would set height and density limits on new downtown buildings…While the [38-story] Smith Tower was a source of pride, the 975-foot Columbia Center, now the West Coast’s tallest, has come to symbolize what some feel is runaway growth downtown at the expense of the rest of the city.

That Manhattanization is the target of the citizen’s initiative, which sets a 10-year limit on downtown development and clamps a 450-foot lid on new buildings.”

Days later, the CAP won at the polls and Seattle’s height measures were in effect until 2006.

Manhattanization Seattle


In 1995, Miami Beach residents were concerned over a proposal to build big:

“Plans for a towering transformation of the southern tip of trendy, low-rise South Beach have been derided as heartless Manhattanization but approved by the city commission.

…’This is a Faustian bargain,’ Mark Needle, a leader of the South Pointe Citizens Coalition, told the commission. ‘It has no heart, no soul.’

That just scratches the surface. The issue of Manhattanization has been brought up in other cities including Los Angeles, Paris, Baltimore as well as Vancouver. Even Manhattan is currently in danger of being too Manhattanized! As city living continues to be attractive for many North Americans, we don’t imagine the term going away any time soon.

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