The ill-fated Spadina Expressway tears through a neighbourhood south of Lawrence Avenue in 1967.
Sam Cass surely smarted. “STREETCARS ARE STAYING,” read a short headline in the Toronto Daily Star on June 9, 1971. It identified a small news item, just four paragraphs long, at the bottom of the page. But, for those who could read the signs—and Samuel Cass was pretty good at it after almost twenty years as Metro Toronto’s traffic commissioner—the notice would have been, at this tender date, explicit, prophetic, stinging.
A few days before, on June 3rd, the Ontario cabinet had cancelled the Spadina Expressway, and Spadina was Cass’s Yellow Brick Road. Throughout most of his career, with his help, Spadina had been edging its way toward Oz—the towers of downtown Toronto. Its journey had begun on paper in the nineteen-fifties, gaining steady momentum until, by the early nineteen-sixties, land was duly expropriated, houses demolished, and a large trench dug from Highway 401, deep in the Toronto suburbs, to Eglinton Avenue near the borders of the city proper.
“Lack of money. If we had enough, Metro would be a motorist’s dream,” Cass had declared many years earlier in a guest column that ran in the Star under the heading “MY BIGGEST HEADACHE.” When it was published, on December 13, 1957, Spadina was still a paper route, and Cass had been traffic engineer for Metropolitan Toronto, a county-like, upper-tier level of municipal government, since its founding four years earlier. In that time, he had worked out the new conglomeration’s ideal road network down to the smallest detail. “Two things come to mind immediately for improving pavement markings, but both are very costly—plastic patches and cat’s eyes,” Cass declared. “Plastic lane markings glued to the pavement are being used in Buffalo and work well, but they cost at least four times as much as paint. Cat’s eye markers make an excellent centre line and are particularly good for fog and rain. They are reflectors buried in the pavement, which catch the headlights of oncoming cars….However, to install them on all Metro roads would cost three times the present Metro roads budget of $600,000.”
Next to such pavement deluxe, street-cars, not unlike mass transit itself, must have seemed to Sam Cass so nineteenth-century: clanging, creaky, communal, car-blocking. Virtually everywhere else but Toronto, trolleys were gone, shuffled off to railway museums, the tracks torn up in their wake so they were safely, permanently beached, out of the way of the era of individual mobility in which Cass so deeply believed.
“No one has found a way to get the motorist out of his car,” Cass would declare during the construction of the Bloor-Danforth subway in the mid-nineteen-sixties, after construction on Spadina had begun, but when it seemed to the traffic czar that Toronto was committing inordinate sums of money to public transit infrastructure. “He cited critically loaded local streets as evidence more expressways must replace subways,” a reporter noted Cass saying. “Continued emphasis on subways in Metro’s budget plans—$136 million for the next five years—is ‘building ourselves into a box.’” And the traffic commissioner frequently singled out the city’s existing streetcar network as an impediment. “Cass said he would like to introduce a one-way street system in downtown Toronto, but is hampered by the TTC’s trolley system. He indicated he would like to see Toronto emulate Detroit, with widely distributed bus lines and no street cars or subways.”
So why did a roadblock fall in the path of the Spadina Expressway on June 3, 1971? Cass himself blamed, for a time, flower power, “a tremendous change in the attitude of some people generally which has resulted in protests by primarily youth, but not necessarily, against almost every social and physical institution that has been accepted in the past.” Flower power, and other things “left,” was surely visible in a button protesters commonly wore—it was union-made (by Allied Printing), white with a red octagonal stop sign in the middle and the words “THE SPADINA EXPRESSWAY” in capital letters around the edge.
Flower power, too, may have been demonstrated by youthful alderman William Kilbourn. Cass’s name, said Kilbourn, “was synonymous with pollution, the destruction of communities, bad planning and putting cars ahead of people.”
Not so flowery was The Bad Trip, the slim, slick 1970 volume by midtown resident David Nowlan, a University of Toronto economics professor, and his wife Nadine, later a Toronto city councillor. The Bad Trip, in considerable detail, and with persuasive sobriety, argued for a “pause in the headlong rush to pave and pollute.” Was a five-minute-fifty-three-second time-saving for commuters—an average estimate, if traffic was moving well—worth the trouble and expense of building Spadina? Said media thinker Marshall McLuhan, after reading the book, “Citizens of Toronto, reach for your Cass-masks. Get ready for the world’s most supercolossal car-sophagus—right here on old Bloor St. Toronto will commit suicide if it plunges the Spadina Expressway into its heart.” Rather ahead of his time, he added, “In an age of software Metro planners treat people like hardware.”
And it was protests that stopped Spadina—protests whose message questioning the wisdom and utility of superhighways became compelling, by 1971, even to Ontario’s Conservative ruling establishment. “The almost cruel social cost in terms of disruption of established communities seemed to engender growing opposition and resentment,” declared none other than Joseph Aloysius Kennedy, chairman of the province-appointed Ontario Municipal Board, an appeal body with the power to overturn municipal decisions. On this occasion, it didn’t. Kennedy’s remarks were a dissenting statement in a split 2–1 ruling approving the partly built road—the last official sanction it got before Premier Bill Davis pulled the plug.
June 3, 1971, is remembered as a seminal moment in Toronto’s history, when “the people who stopped Spadina danced on Yonge St.,” as the Star’s David Lewis Stein put it in 1992, and hindsight has made it clear that “[t]hey not only stopped Spadina, they killed the whole grid of expressways Metro had planned.” What Torontonians hardly remembered in 1971 was that, in the bigger picture, Spadina was only the cut-off point—and not assuredly a permanent one—in a long evolution in which the pressures of motor traffic had vastly, and not prettily, changed the city and the way it worked. Some of these events were as atomic and immediate in their effect as Spadina would have been, and more widespread, but, in the climate of their particular time, passed with limited notice.
Most dramatic of these earlier events was the widening of city streets, which began in the nineteen-twenties and accelerated rapidly after the Second World War. Indeed, with other improvements it amounted to a one hundred million dollar public works project, which by 1950 spanned the city. Motorists could now speed along the newly widened Dufferin, Beverley, River, Sherbourne and Wellesley streets, Lansdowne and Ossington avenues, and the now jog-free crosstown route following Annette-Royce-Dupont. Approvals took place in an atmosphere of crisis, even panic, which was not caused by any sense of loss or fear of damage to the city, but by fear of what would happen if this damage were not done. “CLAIM TRAFFIC CONGESTION CUTTING DOWNTOWN VALUES,” read a headline in the Star on July 7, 1948. A Star reporter later posed the question, “Is Toronto approaching the day of the last traffic jam, when cars, buses, street cars and trucks will become so congested they will stand still in the streets?” Declared the Toronto and York planning board, “We should not have to watch established central business districts die…because traffic congestion had choked communications, blocked accessibility, and smothered usefulness in the economic process.”
Grave rhetoric was an important fuel in pumping up support for road expansion, because, without it, the broader public might have realized that those “improvements” would serve a relatively small minority, at everyone’s expense. As late as 1951, “[e]ighty-eight out of every hundred people who work downtown in Toronto go home by T.T.C. street cars,” the Star reported. So it seems incredible that the city of Toronto, even in the nineteen-forties, stood poised to adopt a one-way street system that would have smoothed the way for automobiles, while handicapping the city’s most important transit lines. The King and Queen streetcars, for instance, both operated east-west services. If those streets were made one-way, one eastbound and the other westbound, their combined capacity would be halved. It didn’t happen, but there were recurring demands to remove streetcars altogether from main streets, and some succeeded. This was achieved on Avenue Road, a heavily-used transit route, but also the favoured road of wealthy, motor-minded North Torontonians into the downtown core.
Yonge Street was the most congested street in the city, its transit lines considered the highest-capacity streetcar operation in the world. Even to motorists, the benefits of a subway may have been apparent; in a landmark plebiscite, the Yonge subway’s construction was approved.
A strange tangent that emerged from the hand wringing was the scolding of past generations. Toronto “has inherited the narrow streets planned by a generation which had not yet dreamed of the motor car,” the Mail and Empire’s Guy Morton wrote in an investigative series, published in the winter of 1929. Morton blamed the problem squarely on the city’s gridiron street arrangement, laid out in the nineteenth century. “That [city plan] was unfortunate, for the lack of dreams on the part of our forefather city builders was largely responsible for the situation to-day.”
Just how gridlocked Toronto was in 1929, 1948, or 1971 is not so easy to ascertain. Those generations’ angst cannot have been imagined. Yet the size of Toronto, and levels of car ownership and use may have been presumed to be higher in 2001 by manyfold, and the city still moved. Many solutions had been proposed, some applied, but the result always seemed to be more congestion, followed by a period of settling down in which the congestion was either tolerated or, quite possibly, a maximum level of toleration was reached, after which transit use picked up the slack. In A Transportation Plan for Metropolitan Toronto, a 1948 report to the Toronto and suburban planning board, consulting engineer Norman Wilson walked a tightrope between expanded transit and expanded roads. He recommended improvements to both, while sounding a cautionary note about one side of his equation: “Increased roadway and parking facilities will attract traffic to the full extent of the increased facilities.” In other words, new or bigger roads would soon fill up.
Newer, bigger roads were being built. The University Avenue Extension Act, passed by the Ontario legislature, gave Toronto power to expropriate for widening the street, which was done—one of the few things actually realized from a grandiose 1928 plan to cut wide boulevards and create great traffic circles in downtown Toronto. In the nineteen-forties, several so-called “speedways” were opened up. They included an extension of Mount Pleasant Road in North Toronto to Jarvis Street downtown by a fast route through one of the ravines bisecting the ritzy Rosedale neighbourhood. Conceived by the end of the Second World War was the larger-scaled “parkway” through the hitherto unspoiled Don Valley. (The concept, emphasizing roads as journeys through parklands, pulled the right levers in most people, but, in the end, the D.V.P., as it is called today, was never very park-like.) Also planned, and finally built, were the freeway along the city’s waterfront and the superhighway bypass across the top of Toronto, known today as the 401.
The extent of the damage these highways brought to the city has been long debated and from time to time acknowledged and acted upon. In 2000, demolition began on a segment of the by-then crumbling elevated waterfront highway known since the nineteen-sixties as the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway, after the Metropolitan Toronto chairman who, among other things, pushed the Spadina Expressway’s approval through Metro council at an all-night session. But before the big roads, there were the small ones, for which the city had big plans.
Beheaded elms on St. George Street, looking south from Harbord, 1948.
There are pictures in the Toronto archives of St. George Street, showing the old American elm trees that lined both sides of the road, occupying a strip of grass between curb and sidewalk. Early in the twentieth century, their shade had gained favour among University of Toronto students, who lounged under the famous “cathedral effect” that the elms’ high crowns and filtered light brought to city streets. These elms never had a chance to succumb to Dutch elm disease. Sometime in 1948, they were chopped down, and the strip of grass they occupied added to the width of St. George. Another archival photo, looking south, shows them in partial dismemberment, their crowns gone, but their dead trunks standing in two rows of giant sticks. On the left, two men in overcoats, and, on the right, two women in light jackets walk north on the sidewalks, seemingly oblivious to the decapitation. “At first you say, ‘Oh, that’s progress,’ and then after awhile, ‘Oh, no trees,’” Rosie Schwartz, who grew up at Spadina Avenue and Baldwin Street in the nineteen-thirties and forties, said in 2000.
That word, “progress,” innocuous today, had a lot of meaning in the mid-twentieth century. As commonly used, the word embraced the future, without hugging it. “That’s progress” was code for the resignation people felt in the face of a change that seemed distasteful, but was thought necessary—the price to pay for moving forward.
It was to record progress that the city of Toronto’s public works department sent a photographer to the corner of Bedford and Davenport roads twice in 1948 to shoot before-and-after pictures, similar to the images of St. George Street, looking south down Bedford Road in the east Annex. When he got there the first time, mature trees hid the houses in deep shade. Their crowns met overhead so the street appeared, from the photographer’s vantage point, as a tunnel with misty light at the end. It was a romanticized view of city life recorded that day, and it was for real in the Toronto of 1948, the commonplace residential streetscape.
After the street was widened, the photographer went back and recorded an image that, except for the pair of streetcar tracks with cobblestone pavers between the rails and a manhole cover in exactly the same position, was a view of another planet: a wide swath of pavement now opening up where Bedford meets Davenport. Parked cars had multiplied at the curb, and the fronts of houses, formerly hidden by foliage, emerge into full view. They are fine homes, it seems, but suddenly seeing them on these pictures, above their newly truncated yards, is like catching the stare of a sheepdog after trimming it a bit too much around the eyes.
That year on Spadina Avenue, the same busy central street that Spadina, the expressway, would later threaten to obliterate, “scores of ancient shade trees were felled so that the pavement could be widened.” The reference was to the boulevard of elms that ran down the centre of the street, on either side of the streetcar tracks. The “improvement”—as such widenings were called—cost three million dollars, which was a fantastic sum in 1948, the equivalent of twenty-five million dollars in 2001. At Bloor and Spadina, one of the city’s infamous “jogs” (Toronto parlance for sections of a street that skips a bit up or down a cross street before continuing) was removed.
Such jogs were the legacy of the city’s grid of streets, whose pattern was not as tidy up close as it looked on the map. Beginning in the nineteenth century, as large square chunks of land were opened up for development, the streets serving them were not aligned with those of the abutting, previously developed areas. As a result, many streets met cross streets but did not go through. “If there was ever a city not built for the automobile, this was it,” transportation writer Greg Gormick said in 2001. “That is why it costs so much to widen a Toronto street or carve a new artery,” wrote reporter Ross Harkness in a story on the street widenings that appeared in the Star Weekly on February 5, 1949. “It’s not a simple matter of slicing six feet off a lot of people’s front lawns. Houses, even business blocks, have to be bought and torn down.” Harkness estimated that of one hundred sixty-six streets meeting Yonge Street, which divided the city’s east and west sides, only twenty-three went across.
Some bizarre events were connected with the street widenings of the nineteen-forties—such as the slicing off of the front steps of whole blocks of buildings on University Avenue, the same road that had already been widened in 1929. Newspaper archives suggest the biggest year for the widening program was 1948, when sleepy residential avenues like Bedford Road became busy arterials in the space of a kid’s summer vacation. People must have felt it was progress, because protests were few and far between; occasionally press reports refer to “narrow interests,” which seems to mean individual residents. People in the Beach made it known that an eastbound freeway hugging the waterfront, which was then being planned (and would later be partially built, and torn down in 2001), might ruin their parks and beaches (no mention was made of homes).
One old man spoke up. He was G. Howard Ferguson, a former premier of Ontario, who lived, as Harkness described his circumstances in his Star Weekly piece, with his wife Ella Jane in “a beautiful old tree-shaded house on Avenue Rd.” The road was long slated for widening, with attendant tree removal, but Ferguson, a Conservative who held office from 1923 to 1930, deployed his Tory and, perhaps, business connections (he was big—president of Crown Life Insurance, chancellor of the University of Western Ontario, and a member of the University of Toronto’s board of governors), and blocked the project for years. The ex-premier must have seemed way behind the times, though he was way ahead. He “feared the beauty of one of Toronto’s finest streets would be destroyed,” Harkness wrote.
Ferguson’s considerable clout expired the day he died of a heart attack, at home, on February 21, 1946. He was seventy-six. Within a year, the widening of Avenue Road north of St. Clair Avenue got a green light, with “40 splendid 60-year-old shade trees being cut down in the process,” Hark-ness tapped out on his Underwood in February, 1948. Of course, no judgement was implied. Without even pausing for a new paragraph, he continued, “Upper Canada College gave the city a slice off its east side.” This was progress. It came at a cost.
Before and after the widening of Bedford Road, looking south from Davenport, 1948.
The idea of saving the city by destroying it was the dominant theme of city building in the twentieth century. In 1961, Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities exposed the destructiveness of urban expressway building. By the late nineteen-sixties, journalist Robert Caro was at work on his Pulitzer Prize–winning exposé biography of Robert Moses, the New York public works mogul whose expressway-building obsession destroyed dozens of neighbourhoods and displaced thousands of people. (Compared to Moses, Sam Cass was a boy in a sandbox.) Caro wrote of Moses in The Power Broker, “His highways and bridges and tunnels were awesome—taken as a whole the most awesome urban improvements in the history of mankind—but no aspect of those highways and bridges and tunnels was as awesome as the congestion on them.” Urban renewal projects, often linked to slum clearance and urban highway-building, had failed to renew. Even in the late nineteen-sixties, rationales were still being sought and found to build superhighways through cities.
“Maintaining mobility in a growing economy clearly requires the continued growth of highway transportation,” wrote Lowell Bridwell, the U.S. federal highway administrator, in his forward to The Freeway in the City, a 1968 brief to Alan Boyd, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s secretary of transportation. “On the other hand, highway transportation cannot be allowed to function apart from or in conflict with its environment.” So there was a problem, the couched language acknowledged, and the brief’s mission was to solve it through mitigation by providing, for instance, guidelines for better-looking, more neighbourhood-compatible freeways, to be sold to doubting communities with a warmer, fuzzier approach. “The question is not, for example, whether to preserve an historic site or to build a highway,” Bridwell wrote. “Rather, the question is, ‘How do we provide needed mobility and, in the same process, contribute to the other important social goals—such as the preservation of historic sites?’”
Paradoxically, it was just this—alluring design and fancy public relations—that sold North Americans on freeways and, arguably, set in stone the automotive course the continent then took. The critical moment was probably the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where millions of people toured automakers’ pavilions, finding an alluring, memorable World of Tomorrow where city and countryside alike were reorganized around frictionless, limited-access highways.
“The outstanding feature of the Ford Building is an ele-vated highway more than a half-mile long—The Road of Tomorrow—rising upon a series of spiral ramps,” the U.S. Federal Writers’ Project reported in its 1940 volume, New York City Guide. “On this road, with its forecast of the elevated highways that are expected to solve the traffic problem of future cities, visitors may ride in Ford V-8’s and Lincoln-Zephyrs.”
But General Motors stole the show with its now-famous Futurama exhibit. “[Y]ou were put into a moving chair; and a voice began to speak with calm certainty,” actor Jason Robards recalled, narrating a documentary about the fair, The World of Tomorrow, which was shown on U.S. public television in the nineteen-eighties. “And before you opened…a wonderland, three thousand square miles in scale; a plane ride over an America from which the past…had vanished seemingly without a trace.” You rode along in your armchair, looking at the projected world of 1960, created by designer Norman Bel Geddes, the foremost futurist of the day. It was an amazing, orderly landscape of futuristic skyscrapers and teardrop-shaped buses and cars, which were moving swiftly on ‘limited way’ roadways. The voice opined, “Here is an American city replanned around a highly developed, modern traffic system. On all express city thoroughfares, the rights-of-way have been so routed as to displace outmoded business sections and undesirable slum areas whenever possible.”
“I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE,” said the button visitors were given when they left the General Motors building. They had seen future policy, anyway, sold skilfully to the public and in the U.S. embraced almost to the letter—at public expense and to General Motors’ benefit—in the nation-defining public work that became the interstate highway system, which is now, in the twenty-first century, the backbone of the U.S. transportation system.
But at the New York World’s Fair, Americans—and no doubt quite a few Canadians—had seen a showroom of the future, not exactly what would be delivered. “Now traffic is a monstrous force,” a writer for Fortune, the business magazine, cautioned in a look at “modern motor traffic,” published in the August, 1936, number. “Some look upon it as a wasting force that has weakened our sense of security with its smashups and killing, our sense of freedom with the humiliation and hindrances of traffic jams, and has blighted the land with a cheap architecture that Walter Prichard Eaton calls ‘motor slums.’” These were, in 1936, prescient observations, anticipating upset over traffic deaths, angst over congestion, and unhappiness with sprawl that would not be shown at Futurama, or understood by the well-meaning folks—businessmen, politicians, engineers—who pushed more mundane street-widen-ings and one-way streets.
The reality, it turned out, was that roads and traffic shaped communities in ways quite different from futurists’ models, or the old Main Street model. The “cheap architecture” the Fortune writer referred to sounds a lot like today’s sprawl. And he and others had doubts that the smoother, faster roads—promising so much—were delivering. “They thought that the cure-all for the congestion and deaths was more and still more hard roads,” he wrote. “And now that the killing is livelier and the congestion thicker than ever, it is dawning upon them that what they built were too often deathtraps and bottlenecks.” Design might solve some of these problems, it was suggested, but, over all, a large question remained—whether highways, soon filled and so hard to make safe, were the only way to go. Fortune thus reported, “The same friction factors that make for brutality on the highway make for the congestion that of itself has caused people to ponder whether the huge investment in highways and motorcars is socially and economically ruinous.”
The Ferguson home (right) and lawn, before the widening of Avenue Road (seen far left).
“So, Mr. McCallum believes that before Toronto can go in for any Norman Bel Geddes dream highways, other levels of government will have to relinquish their grasp on some of the taxes raised in Toronto,” the Globe and Mail reported on January 1, 1949. The newspaper was referring to Hiram E. McCallum, the city’s mayor, who had learned something else about “those super expressways”—they didn’t cost just a bit more than other “improvements,” but vastly more; in built-up areas, almost impossibly more. “The dash of cold water comes with cost estimates,” Fortune had also found, in 1936, reporting that one stretch in New Jersey cost (U.S.) six million dollars per mile (a fantastic seventy-two million dollars today). In such light, the mayor of Toronto said in 1949: “[T]here are other, and equally urgent, demands on the city’s tax rate. The board of education, for instance, wants some new schools.”
It was hesitancy, that’s what it was. In the short run it would not prevent the construction of the waterfront Gardiner Expressway, or the Don Valley Parkway. But Toronto would hedge, hedge, hedge its bets. It would let Scottish-born Toronto Transit Commission managers squeeze every mile of use they could from the old streetcar network, which, unlike those of virtually every other North American city, would never be dismantled. It would build, apart from those expressways, the Yonge Street subway line, then the Bloor-Danforth, even as Sam Cass dutifully pleaded the case for the likes of the Spadina, for the Cross Town, for the Christie-Grace, for the Toronto Hamilton—expressways all.
And a strange thing happened after these expressways were cut short. The city’s traffic doomsday never arrived. The cars did not go away, but, incrementally, a different sort of region emerged, moulded by different forces of movement, in new balance. For the old city—the widened gridiron of the nineteenth-century streets—the road not taken led to riches: soaring real-estate values in preserved neighbourhoods, condominiums sprouting like topsy, the rise of ever higher transit-dependent office towers in the core, and Canada’s most intensive retail shopping, where great nineteenth-century-style department stores covering whole city blocks survived alongside twenty-first-century big-box bookstores and push-carts selling hot dogs on the sidewalks. In the face of motor-age thinking that withdrew financial support, the public transit system paid a vastly higher proportion of its costs than any road ever built in the province.
What of the new city—the ever-vaster regional suburbs more or less beyond the reach of transit, and which had followed the World’s Fair model of accommodating the car, with vast road networks and, except for commuter trains into downtown Toronto, virtually no public transit? They had almost everything the city had, but only one way to get there—by car. “GRIDLOCK INCHING UP PRIORITY LIST,” read a headline in the Globe and Mail on February 19, 2001. “For the [Mike] Harris government, the tie-ups on Toronto area highways are of growing political concern because the complaints increasingly come from constituents in Toronto-area suburbs—the major support base for the Conservatives.” Where would it lead? “ROAD MONEY WHEELED OUT BY PROVINCE,” a headline in the Star had declared on August 22, 2000. It was reported on February 24, 2001, “Premier Mike Harris says a major expansion of Ontario’s highway system is in the works.” Like plastic patches and cat’s eyes, it must have seemed like a good solution. It wasn’t.
Sam Cass with one of his beloved speedways, in the nineteen-seventies.