STREET FIGHT AT TREFANN COURT
How federal bureaucrats shot down the hopes of an old neighborhood
Three years ago, when the idea that neighborhoods could control their own futures was becoming more and more widely promoted and even believed, Trefann Court was a symbol and a dream for urban working-class areas across Canada.
It was a symbol of resistance: homeowners and tenants in a downtown Toronto neighborhood had organized, with the help of community workers, and had blocked the original plan to bulldoze their homes. It was also a symbol of citizen participation: not only had the residents stopped something, they had managed to have an effective say in the replanning of their area. After two years of meetings, they had succeeded, with the help of a city planner, in producing a plan that retained as many of the original houses as possible and, where new ones were necessary, made sure they fitted into the area and would be available to people from the area.
From 1970 to 1972, while all this was going on, Trefann Court represented a dream much bigger than itself: that people in all working-class neighborhoods could and would have some real power over the way their cities shape their lives. Instead of accepting the arbitrary decisions of anonymous officials, they would be able to work with all levels of government to ensure that lowcost housing actually met people’s needs. In short, that urban renewal would come to mean more than mindless expropriation.
Now, three years later, the dream is dead. Almost nothing that the Trefann Court plan called for has been done. What little new housing has been built has stood empty for months. The working committee — residents, area businessmen, city politicians and officials — no longer meets. The people of Trefann Court now feel angry and betrayed, or gloomily resigned to hanging on to the little that’s left. The population of the area, about 1,300 before urban renewal was announced, dropped at one point to some 400. It has since risen a bit as some of the old houses have been sold privately at prices nobody in the area could afford, renovated, and now are occupied by the chic and wealthy.
I say that with some bitterness, because two years ago I wrote a book entitled Fighting Back about the planning process in Trefann Court, and I believed in that dream. I concluded that it would be extraordinarily difficult, but nevertheless crucial, for neighborhoods in cities across Canada to make the dream come true. And, to the extent that I helped perpetuate the Myth of Trefann
Graham Fraser covers municipal politics for the Globe and Mail.
OTTAWA APPROVED THE PLAN, THEN AFTER
Court, I feel obliged to try to sort out how things went wrong, and why the dream died.
Trefann Court has been, almost by accident, the focus of city planners’ thinking about slums and working-class neighborhoods in Toronto for almost 40 years. About a mile east of City Hall, it’s a five-block strip of houses, small ware7 houses, counter-and-booth restaurants, secondhand stores, small factories, small apartment buildings, small shops — and, increasingly now, chic, sandblasted, architect-designed, expensively renovated Victorian town houses. The city named it Trefann Court after one of the small streets where the worst housing was located. The Trefann Court Urban Renewal Scheme of 1966 formally scheduled the destruction of the area, and that was the point at which people in the area organized and fought back. From that fight came an unprecedented opportunity for people to participate in urban planning — and the creation of a myth.
Ironically enough, one of the clearest public statements of the Trefann Court Myth came from the federal government — the body which, in my view, has been largely responsible for the failure of the Trefann plan.
On June 29, 1972, Ron Basford, then the Minister of State for Urban Affairs, came to Trefann Court for the signing of the agreement for the first phase of the plan, which had been approved by the Trefann working committee, the city of Toronto and the province a year previously. (The pattern of federal delay could be seen even then.)
“This scheme is a unique one,” Basford told about 100 residents and a cluster of newsmen, “because ... we used the model of this kind of development to put into federal proposals that require, as a prerequisite to any renewal or rehabilitation, that the citizens and residents be involved in developing the plan for the neighborhood.
“We’ve changed from an emphasis on tearing down a neighborhood and sending in the bulldozer and pushing the houses and the buildings and the people out of the way — changed to going back into those neighborhoods and trying to preserve those neighborhoods for the quality that they give our cities, and trying to put emphasis on repairing and rehabilitating the homes and the buildings of the neighborhood.”
Two and a half years later Basford’s statement reads like a sad joke.
Why did things go sour?
The essence of the problem was that the plan, in proposing an alternative to simply destroying an area and rebuilding, demanded an implementation process more flexible and responsive than the earlier planning had been. Instead, it was hampered by delays, evasions, reversals of position, contradictory policies and outright betiayals — all characteristic of the way Ottawa dealt with Trefann Court.
The lag could not have happened at a worse time. Between 1972 and 1974 — with the fever pitch being reached in the fall of 1973 — housing prices in Toronto skyrocketed, particularly in areas of old Victorian houses. The residents on one of the streets in the area, Sumach, were virtually evacuated in a matter of months. Houses that had inspired generations of planners to designate the area for urban renewal were bought, traded between speculators, renovated, and resold at triple the price.
The helplessness of the working committee in the face of the frantic activity of the private market was sadly ironic. The committee had been determined to avoid expropriation if at all possible, as it had long been the homeowners’ greatest fear. The working committee wished to aid existing residents by getting new housing for tenants in inadequate accommodation, and by getting rehabilitation grants for low-income homeowners so repair costs wouldn’t force them to sell. Delays, however, made this impossible. The private renovators did not have to wait for Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation to approve their mortgages, or for any other bureaucracy to approve their plans. So while officials exchanged innumerable letters, speculators bought furiously.
There had been two principles absolutely central to all of the planning that went into the Trefann Court Urban Renewal Scheme. One, houses were to be rehabilitated wherever possible (whether they were bought as part of the scheme, or remained with the original owners) rather than demolished. And two, there would be provision for home ownership in the scheme.
These two fundamental assumptions suffered more than anything else from the grinding wheels of bureaucracy.
Three separate rehabilitation programs for Trefann were submitted. All were rejected by the federal government. Finally, people in the area found out they would be restricted to the new federal legislation Ottawa naively believed could help such people: a loan program. What the people needed was an outright grant program. People in Trefann do not need more debts.
On the question of home ownership, the bureaucratic zigzagging is even clearer. Home ownership had always been an essential part of the plan. The people had seen enough examples of families in urban renewal areas being expropriated and not receiving enough to buy a replacement home. Residents were determined that homeowners who had their houses acquired by the scheme literally would be able to get “a home for a home.”
Then, in February 1974, despite agreement in writing from CMHC, the federal body notified the working committee that the 17 new houses they were mortgaging could not be sold to the people they had been intended for; CMHC had fears that the Trefann Court people would merely sell out to the highest bidders. Instead, the houses could be rented.
The fight over that has taken a year. The 17 houses have stood vacant since last June as residents, city officials and politicians have met, unsatisfactorily, with cabinet ministers and the president of CMHC. Residents insisted on fairness and equity for residents; and federal officials were determined to have safeguards to prevent speculation. It appears now that a complicated formula acceptable to both sides has been worked out, but it is typical that despite two years of planning endorsed by the other levels of government the search for agreement took place while the houses were standing vacant.
The 1966 urban renewal scheme had been a classic of neighborhood destruction. All the houses were to be expropriated and leveled; part of the area was to be developed as public housing, part was to become an industrial park.
With the help of four community organizers, including a young lawyer named John Sewell, the Trefann people managed over the next few years to fight the plan to a standstill, get it formally withdrawn, and make it clear they were not going to give in until they were guaranteed an opportunity to participate in the planning of their neighborhood. They had used every community organizing method: door-to-door canvassing, meetings, newsletters, deputations to City Hall, picketing politicians’ homes.
But the four years had taken their toll. Like a lengthy strike, a long-drawn-out neighborhood battle creates tensions, bitterness, resentments. For two years, the Trefann Court Residents Association was united; in 1968, a group of tenants broke with the association, and the bitterness increased. The group of tenants, small businessmen and landlords that formed the breakaway association wanted urban renewal — to get
STALLING FINALLY KILLED IT ALTOGETHER
the agony over with. The homeowners, the backbone of the residents association, were determined to fight to the end. It was a classic split in many ways, and the municipal politicians would use the two warring groups to argue that citizen participation could never work.
But a 1969 change in the makeup of city council, the election of community worker John Sewell as an alderman for the area, and an agreement between the two groups set the stage for what was supposed to be the great experiment. Reform was in the air, and Trefann seemed to be a chance to see if citizen participation could work. After several meetings to sort out the terms of reference — meetings that were tense, dramatic, but very encouraging — the Trefann Court Working Committee was established in the spring of 1970.
I had followed the Trefann Court story since 1969, when I started reporting on city politics for the Toronto Star. When they managed not only to fight off the urban renewal scheme but win the working committee that would help replan the area, the people in Trefann seemed to me to have opened the door to the kind of planning that community groups across the city — and across Canada — were just beginning to talk about.
Then, and in the years I watched the working committee as I worked on my book, I felt that this was the most exciting and important political arena in Canada.
The most impressive of all the people in Trefann — the person who, more than any other, was responsible for keeping up the fight — was Edna Dixon, the first secretary of the Trefann Court Residents Association, and editor of the newsletter; later, she was one of the key members of the working committee, president of the residents association, and a member of thé board of the nonprofit housing corporation that built the 17 houses in the area. Her reputation was to spread wider than just the area of Trefann Court; in 1973. she was elected to the Toronto planning board.
Edna Dixon is a thin, grey-haired woman of about 50 with a wide, expressive mouth, large almost buck teeth, and the harsh guttural drawl that marks a Prince Edward Islander. She speaks very little; expressions flicker across her face like northern lights. When she does speak, her words come out tersely and abruptly, with a sardonic tilt to her lips. She says very little, but manages to say almost everything in a single sentence; there’s almost nothing to add.
Although her role was probably the most crucial, she never worked alone
but as part of a solid group of people in the neighborhood who became involved at various stages in the process and worked extraordinarily hard: tenants such as Margaret LeMay, who was forced to move when the house she had lived in for years was sold to speculators; Noreen Gaudette, whq had been active in her fight with the school board over the quality of education in innercity schools; George Brewer, a quiet but determined Scot; homeowners such as John Wawrin, Ray Tomlinson and Noel Guerin, who had formed the core of the residents association’s fight with the city; and three businessmen — longtime local bookstore owner Morton Montgomery and two partners in a small furniture factory, George Morrison and George Brown — who served on the working committee, although they had less to gain than the residents.
I returned to a meeting in the area for the first time in many months shortly before last Christmas. It was not a formal meeting; the working committee had dissolved months before in protest over the federal government’s refusal to allow home ownership, and had never been reconstituted. But most of the members of the working committee were there, and when the details and specific problems had been discussed, the meeting turned to the question of the future: should the working committee start up again? Some, like George Brewer and George Brown, argued that it should; similarly, Morton Montgomery worried that without a formal committee the neighborhood wouldn’t have enough clout at City Hall. Edna Dixon argued against it, saying that there were new people in the area whom she didn’t represent, and that a formal committee would give the members an authority
they shouldn’t really have.
It was never formally resolved whether the meetings would be formal or informal; it barely matters, because either way it is the same people who come and will continue to come out to meetings, as they have for nine years now. There was a mood of sardonic realism at the meeting, but somehow, incredibly. there is still a grim determination among that small group of people to see it through: they have fought too long and too hard to give up now They are sadder, but a lot wiser.
For Toronto planners and politicians, the experience was useful. They learned, among other things, how to work with neighborhoods and how little they can trust the federal government or federal programs.
As far as the federal government is concerned, it is difficult to see what anyone has learned. The federal policies that are supposedly designed on the Trefann experience are monuments to red tape. The Neighborhood Improvement Program, which Basford claimed Trefann inspired, requires at least eight approvals at two levels of government before any specific program can proceed.
And for the people living in the area, the people the piocess was supposed to serve? For those who became involved in the fight, one can only say that the battle gave them a free education in public affairs. However, some things have happened. Seventeen houses have been built that fit into the neighborhood. More housing will eventually be built. A neighborhood that was going to be destroyed has not been.
That’s something. But when you look at what might have happened, it’s not much. Certainly not enough to build a dream on. Cf