Condo Developments and the Curation of an “Urban Lifestyle”

VISD 4002

Contemporary Studies in Architecture & Design

A tall condo or apartment tower.
Schylar van den Helm

Suburbia as a Model

The 20th-century suburb was a reaction to the post-war climate in North America. Economic expansion, a growing middle class, extensive mass production, and rising xenophobia all contributed to the success and proliferation of the postwar suburb. Marketing played an immense role in the success of populating new suburbs (Ward). The success of suburbia can also be attributed to the emergent middle class’s growing disdain for city life, which was seen as dangerous, dirty, and immoral. These periphery developments provided white middle class citizens physical and psychological separation from inner-city low-income and immigrant households, while maintaining proximity to the resources the city afforded (Grzadkowska 9). Similarly, current condo developments in Toronto use visual signifiers as well as explicit claims that they will provide residents an escape from the perils of urban life below while savouring their proximity to the “amenities” that their siting provides. Today, the discourse between urban and suburban life is greatly different than it was in the mid-20th century. The polluting inner-city industries that employed working-class populations have been replaced with technology and finance industries that favour wealthy, university-educated professionals (Howell 32, 37-38). A growing “creative class” has transformed the image of cities into capitals for cultural and social progress, rather than breeders of slums (Howell 32). Centrality, authenticity, multiculturalism, and diversity contribute to the perceived “vibrancy” of cities, and the homogeneity of post-war suburbs is seen as unprogressive, boring, and undesirable (Whitzman 60). Where outright racism and xenophobia may have shaped the attitudes of the postwar suburb, NIMBYism and the dual city where “rich and poor living in close proximity but in different perceptual worlds” are more insidious forms of racism and class warfare (Whitzman 15) forming the reality of today's urban environments.   

The distinguishing features of the postwar suburb have provided the groundwork for the physicality and social underpinnings of modern condo developments. The role of marketing in creating an exclusive lifestyle, racial and economic homogeneity, reliance on mass production and economies of scale, and a diminished public realm shape the social and physical aspects of both kinds of developments. 

Capital and the City

In “The Right to the City,” David Harvey argues that the city has become a by-product of capital—with little other hope. The widespread acceleration of urbanization over the last fifty years has dramatically transformed global cities, essentializing and commodifying urban environments under a neoliberal, postmodern, transnational economy. Urban life has been commodified through “the sale of community and a boutique lifestyle as a developer product” made accessible to only those who can afford it (8). The reality of today's cities is that most planning decisions are based on their potential to contribute to economic growth. Harvey argues that cities have been socially, geographically, and physically based on the creation and absorption of a surplus product, making the process of urbanization inextricable to capitalism and classism (1-2). He argues that urbanization must be understood as a “class phenomenon” (2).

In order to make low-income neighbourhoods appealing to higher income populations, new spatial narratives are created based on metrics and statistics propelling neoliberal ideas such as privatization, decentralization, individualism and competitiveness. Rather than conducting a more social and holistic assessment, economic indicators such as walk scores, transit scores and price-per-square-foot become the determiners of spatial identity and “quality of life” (Tremblay et al.). This “quality of life” speaks directly to the economically privileged, by highlighting proximity to markers of gentrification.

The process of urbanization under capitalism perpetually displaces low-income residents from high-value land (Harvey 14). Drawing from the colonial concept of terra nullius, the realities and histories of marginalized neighborhoods are buried under marketing tactics that label well-established communities as “up and coming.” The “undesirable” aspects of marginalized neighbourhoods such as poverty, addiction, mental health, and neglected infrastructure are concealed by language that asserts these areas' potential for investment and economic growth. The communities that were displaced in the process of gentrification are denied access to the “new prosperity” their reinvented neighbourhoods afford (5). 

Constructed Spatial Narratives  

In "“Dreams of Oriental Romance”: Reinventing Chinatown in 1930s Los Angeles," Josi Ward describes “capitalism’s corrupting influence on place” and the effects of slum narratives by analyzing the revival and inventions of three Chinatowns in LA during the booster era (20). In the early 1900s, a new narrative of LA was fabricated by city officials and developers to sell a version of the city that would appeal to European-American tourists and draw in new (white) residents and businesses. This pursuit rewrote the immigrant history of LA and led to the forced displacement of immigrant communities from newly desirable, central locations (19-24).  

The Plaza was a contested site during this period. Between the 1880’s and 1920’s, the Plaza had served as an entry point for Mexican and Chinese immigrants. It was the location of LA’s long-standing Chinatown (Old Chinatown) and in 1926, the proposed site for a new Union Station (Ward 23-24). The demolition of Old Chinatown to make way for LA’s new civic center suited the goals of the booster’s reinvented LA, “Shifting the demographic makeup of the downtown core, changing the public function of its spaces, and refashioning its aesthetic appeal to visitors” (23).  

The Plaza was described as a space of blight and “prematurely [put] in the past” by publications at this time (Ward 24). Popular newspapers were used as propaganda to promote an image of Chinatown based on racist rhetoric, aiding in the campaign for Chinatown's removal.  Ward argues that the outside perception of Chinatown as a slum was predetermined and used as a tool to oppress and segregate Chinese people in America (24). This narrative of decay and abandonment was incongruent with the realities of the well-established immigrant community. However, under the guise of beautification and civic improvement, these falsified external narratives were successful in justifying the demolition of Old Chinatown and the displacement of its residents (23-24). “China City” was then created as a commercialized, Chinese-themed tourist park, designed by white developers to offer visitors an experience of the “adventure of discovery, the strangeness of the foreign” (Ward 28). The developer-created China City hired a Paramount Studios set designer to fabricate a commodified Chinatown to appeal to wealthy, white consumer tastes (29). Although China City offered opportunities for Chinese Americans to own and run businesses, they were not permitted to live in the development. China City drew upon an idealized, rural Chinese aesthetic which disregarded the modern realities of Chinese communities and their contribution to American urbanity.

The spatial narratives surrounding Chinatown in LA created zones of exclusion, intensified racial divisions and produced and reinforced biases. Developers commodified Chinese culture and marketed Chinatown as a place for tourists to visit and observe. While boosters and developers undoubtedly made every effort to exploit and oppress Chinese Americans, Ward explains that many architectural historians' critiques of aestheticized Chinatowns contribute to damaging ideas of racial “authenticity” and ethnicity and disregard stories of resistance and agency within these communities (Ward 21). 

Case Study: XO Condos

XO Condos is a new development that will be built at the corner of King and Dufferin in Toronto’s Parkdale. In the late 1800s, Parkdale was developed as an upper-class residential neighbourhood, making it one of Toronto’s earliest suburbs. Throughout the century, Parkdale experienced many transformations. As the population and industrial activities in Toronto expanded, working-class and immigrant households began moving to fringe neighbourhoods like Parkdale, disrupting the idyllic image of the “pristine suburb” (Grzadkowska 3). The construction of the Gardiner Expressway and the neighbourhood's proximity to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health further contributed to the neighbourhood's shifting demographic and “tainted” reputation. By the 1950’s many of the neighbourhood's large residential homes were separated into single room boarding houses and high-rise apartment buildings were created to house workers coming from nearby industrial areas (Whyte). Parkdale had a late onset of gentrification and until recently, it was one of the last affordable centrally located neighbourhoods in the city. The neighbourhood has been an entry point for many immigrant communities and in the last decade, it has become the largest Tibetan community outside of Tibet, contributing to many of the neighbourhood’s businesses and community centers (Whyte). Today Parkdale is relished as a neighbourhood “bursting with eclectic flavor, multicultural landscape, an artistic (and newly established hipster) vibe” (Culture Trip). The gentrification of Parkdale has already transformed much of the neighbourhood as buildings and blocks get bought up and torn down by developers, displacing long-term residents and businesses and replacing them with “Trendy shops, cafes, restaurants and bars” (Culture Trip).   

In “'My Parkdale is Gone': How Gentrification Reached the One Place that Seemed Immune”. Murray Whyte outlines the looming fate of the neighbourhood:

Parkdale has become one of those neighbourhoods, following a familiar script. Inner-city working-class suburb, the last bastion of affordable rent, becomes popular with artists and students, who lend it a certain zeitgeisty sheen; property speculators follow; rent and property value increase; condos sprout like weeds; neighbourhood becomes a whitewashed nowhere, like so many before it… (Whyte)

While the sense of community and diversity initially attracted developers and new residents to Parkdale, gentrification will inevitably displace the existing multicultural community and culture. 

The Boutique Condo and the Creative Class

XO is a boutique condo development. It borrows from the ethos of the design hotel—aimed to attract young, wealthy professionals in “creative” industries (Strannegard and Strannegard) and is smaller than a typical high rise condo with fewer units. Instead of being situated in newly developed downtown entertainment and financial districts, boutique condos are plotted in “authentic neighbourhoods” with “unique history”, a “sense of community” and “eclectic urban amenities” (“XO Condos”).  

In “The 'Creative Class' and the Gentrifying City” Ocean Howell illustrates how “'bohemian' or 'countercultural' lifestyles are becoming institutionalized as instruments of urban development” (Howell 32). The transformation of industrial cities into creative cities has created a mode of cultural production which fetishizes the grit of working-class neighbourhoods. In his paper Howell explains that an “organic street culture” stimulates urban growth, attracting both large tech-based industries and the “creative-professionals” that follow (32). XO Condos location between the historically working-class neighbourhood of Parkdale and tech-transformed Liberty Village, places it physically and temporally in the midst of Howell’s interpretation of the gentrifying city. 

Producing Space and Lifestyle through Images

XO Condo has clearly targeted the creative class as their aspirational residents. When we arrive at the XO Condo website, the homepage reveals a large banner image of a young couple kissing in front of a graffitied wall (one of several featured on the website). As we scroll, a trailer for the development begins. The video follows another young, white couple as they explore nearby neighbourhoods: getting lattes, shopping, visiting trendy bars with neon signs, buying fresh produce at markets, and meeting up with peers who look much like themselves. The actors are dressed stylishly but casually in black turtlenecks, long wool coats and leather jackets. The trailer also features several shots of unstaged street scenes to articulate the desirable “street culture” in the neighbourhood. There is a clip of a well-dressed skateboarder smiling slightly at the camera and an artistic teen wearing an experimental outfit. These meshed together street-life clips and scenes of curated consumption create a familiar but falsified reality. Without ever presenting the actual condo, the XO website fabricates its own idealized future through the presentation of cultural products and consumer activity.  

The XO Condos Instagram account represents its desired resident in an even less discrete fashion. White bearded men, artisanal coffee, a forearm with a large XO tattoo and other familiar representations of “millennial hipsters” populate the development’s profile. Another category of themed photos on the account are images of other international metropolitan streetscapes- a street corner in the Ukraine, a shopping alley in Korea, a streetcar in China—all with embedded XO advertising. Perhaps this is a nod to the transnational citizenship of the desired creative class resident, or an articulation that in the essentialized myth of the urbane spread by XO Condos, the location of the development does not matter.

Producing Space and Lifestyle through Language  

The language used across XO’s digital marketing explicitly articulates the type of resident the condo is looking for: young, educated and wealthy. One caption reads “Located in the heart of Toronto’s most dynamic, up and coming neighbourhoods, XO Condos is ideal for young professionals and families...” In boasting about the neighborhood surrounding the condo, a statement on the website reads, “Shrewd urban residents troop to the Liberty Village neighbourhood for numerous reasons. This historic downtown locality...has a wonderful nightlife and a vibrant environment which caters for the lifestyle of its residents” (“XO Condos”).

Hashtags used in Instagram posts further describe the lifestyle put forward by XO,  #kingwest, #libertyvillage, #torontoentertainment, #condolife, #investmentproperty, #modernliving, #torontoluxury. Searching these hashtags offers one of the most succinct representations of who this marketing aims to attract and the lifestyle produced by the condo. These feeds are flooded with well-dressed, primarily white couples and business professionals in luxe interiors, trendy restaurants or looking out onto the rest of the city from their condo balcony.

The XO’s digital marketing actively avoids stating that the development is located in Parkdale. Parkdale, which is economically and ethnically diverse, has had a lingering negative reputation due to stereotypes surrounding low income and immigrant neighbourhoods. Although phrases like “eclectic urbanism” and “colourful creativity” are used to allude to the Parkdale neighbourhood, the Condo clearly prefers to identify with its Liberty Village and King West neighbours. Across the development’s website and social media, the location of the condo is stated to be in King West, Liberty Village or in its own entirely invented neighbourhood, KingXDufferin.

On the “Neighbourhood” page of XO’s website, a map is shown with concentric rings surrounding the condo’s location. The kilometer distances on this map are completely inaccurate, claiming XO  is closer to parks in entirely different neighborhoods than it is to Parkdale. The condo is actually situated in the heart of Little Tibet, an enclave of the Parkdale neighbourhood. This thriving neighbourhood is not mentioned anywhere on the website. Instead, this page highlights the shopping districts of Queen Street, the tech businesses in Liberty Village and upscale dining as far as Spadina Avenue (“Neighbourhood”).

Both the language and imagery used in XO Condos digital marketing attempt to erase the history and community of Parkdale. By framing multicultural neighbourhoods as “eclectic urban amenities”, XO Condos decontextualizes the history and lived experiences of the populations responsible for the “authentic street culture.” XO appropriates and obscures the neighbourhood's history of poverty and immigration, and puts forward an aestheticized version of “urban grit,” capitalizing on less controversial and easier to consume anecdotes while displacing the neighbourhood's marginalized communities.

Creating an Insular Urban Community

XO Condos further distances itself from the perceived unsavory aspects of urban life through its physical self-containment. The condo has integrated an exhaustive list of amenities accessible to the buildings residents. The most chilling of these stowed away amenities is the condo’s Kids’ Zone. On the “Amenities” page of the XO website, the Kids’ Zone is positioned to:

Encourage their imagination, and help them socialize with other children in the community...this valuable amenity brings all the summer fun of a park, indoors right in your building for year-round activities. (“Amenities”)

This private play area keeps children living in the condo separate from the racialized and lower-income children in the wider neighbourhood.  

The full list of amenities that will be available within XO Condos include a Kids’ Zone, Lounge and Dining Room, Spin Room, Think Tank, Outdoor Terrace, Fitness Facilities, Yoga Studio, Outdoor Yoga Spa, BBQ Terrace, and Entertainment and Gaming Lounge (“Amenities”). These privatized “shared” amenities create an insular community much like a suburb. While XO Condo residents may venture outward to “explore” the amenities provided by the neighbourhood, much of their work, home, and recreational lives can be lived out within the “safety” of their tower walls. The XO Condo dweller is guaranteed the ability to live in the heart of the city without ever leaving the feeling and sentiments of suburbia.  


As this paper outlines, Condo developments contribute to socio-spatial segregation in urban environments by creating compartmentalized lifestyles that maintain physical and ideological distance from the urban life below them. The contained “community” resources accessible only to residents and the manufacturing of new spatial identities actively excludes the existing neighbourhoods where condos are placed. Boutique condos like XO make palpable how classism and racism manifest spatially and how spatial narratives can be used to oppress marginalized communities. What you see in the production of condo developments is a series of centrally located micro-suburbia’s that both praise their proximity to urban amenities and emphasize their safe distance away from city life. The disjuncture between the vices of the city and the virtues of the suburb continue to shape socio-spatial narratives and urban form.

Schylar van den Helm

Schylar is finishing her degree in the Industrial Design program at OCAD. Her interests and favourite writing topics include architecture, urban planning and popular culture. She is currently the Co-Editor of WHOIS Journal, a publication about the internet, a place she spends a lot of her time. 

Works Cited & Consulted