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Toronto Star: 2010 on Stephen Otto
Christopher Hume | April 25, 2018

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Stephen Otto: A tireless advocate for better cities

From Issue No. 269 | May 21, 2018

Remember the Toronto that worked? Meet one of its makers, Stephen Otto, with some of his useful reflections.

Stephen Otto in his light-filled apartment, March 17, 2010.
Stephen Otto in his light-filled apartment, March 17, 2010.  (MICHAEL STUPARYK / TORONTO STAR)

As one of Steve Otto's many admirers put it, he is the very opposite of a loose cannon. Quiet, effective but self-effacing to a fault, he is one of those quintessential Quiet Canadians who make a difference.

In Otto's case, that means heritage, history and preservation. Though these are topics about which we profess to care deeply, reality tells us otherwise; the past is under constant pressure from the forces of growth. In cities like Toronto, the losses have been heavy. And although the destruction wrought by the excesses of 1950s and '60s urban renewal has diminished, nothing can ever be taken for granted.

The heritage movement does what it can on painfully limited means; a myriad of organizations have sprung up to defend everything from old train stations and schoolhouses to streetscapes and entire neighbourhoods. But Otto's special effectiveness comes from the informal but influential network he has assembled over the course of the last four decades. It stretches well beyond the usual confines of a single-issue community to encompass a wide-ranging cast of characters.

And as Otto will tell you, preserving heritage, refurbishing and re-using it, only makes sense. It's not a question of being charitable, but of building and growing intelligently. In other words, history is a resource, not a hindrance.

"Steve knows how things work," says the Ontario Architectural Conservancy's Rollo Myers, a long-time friend and fellow fighter in the preservation trenches. "He's done a great deal, most of which people aren't necessarily aware of."

More than anything, that would mean Fort York, on whose behalf Otto has struggled for years. One of his legendary accomplishments was to reclaim large chunks of real estate around the fort from landlords as intractable as the railways.

He's also co-founder of the Friends of Fort York, a volunteer body whose dedication knows no bounds.

Otto's grandest gesture – certainly his most public – came late last year when he announced a $250,000 donation to the fort. Keep in mind that this gift didn't come from a man of vast wealth. Otto, who lives comfortably but modestly in his Rosedale apartment, travels by TTC and likes to walk. 

Perhaps that also helps him keep in touch with the city where he was born and raised and to which he has dedicated his life. What better way to stay current, especially for someone who talks knowledgeably not just about the obvious landmarks but individual buildings, specific houses, events?

Editors Notes: Worth revisiting this terrific tribute written with such affection by Christopher Hume in 2010
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