Cities

The fire’s out, but the memories glow

Graham Fraser,Thomas Hopkins November 6 1978
Cities

The fire’s out, but the memories glow

Graham Fraser,Thomas Hopkins November 6 1978

The fire’s out, but the memories glow

Cities

Graham Fraser

Thomas Hopkins

It was Oct. 16. Voters were streaming to the polls to elect David Crombie to Parliament, from the leaf-strewn streets of wealthy Rosedale and from Regent Park, the first public housing project in Canada. The man they called the tiny perfect mayor had moved on to federal politics, closing a chapter of Canadian urban history. That morning at city hall John Sewell, the lanky aiderman who had consistently fought the spirit of warm self-congratulation in which Toronto bathed during the Crombie years, was talking about the mayor he hopes to succeed. “David Crombie staked out a relatively new role for the mayor’s office—to help resolve disputes between members of council,” he said. “I think that’s a useful role for a mayor to play.” Sewell, who had almost singlehandedly politicized city hall, who created the disputes that Crombie so skilfully settled, was putting himself forward as a mediator in the Crombie style.

Yet the metamorphosis of the 37year-old alderman reflects the late ’70s

sea change in urban politics. Canada’s three largest cities, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, are on the eve of municipal elections slated for the second week of November. In all three cities, the reform fervor so evident four and six years ago has faded, the reform groups split, the urban landscape changed. The great surge of interest in city politics that was known as “The Reform Movement” was a wave that elected Crombie in Toronto and Art Phillips in Vancouver in 1972, that produced the first real elected opposition to Jean Drapeau in 1974. Though receding, it has left a new standard of urban architecture, a concern about the preservation of historic buildings, and dozens of small triumphs in neighborhoods rescued from obliteration for high-rise towers or inner-city expressways.

The reform movement was born in response to the massive building boom of the late ’60s and early ’70s. As the Canadian economy flexed its muscles, banks built their 60-storey cathedrals to wealth and city governments obediently set about planning for high-rise apartments and expressways to service the boom. Crumbling neighborhoods in

the city centres had attracted a yeasty element of middle-class professionals and activists, who brought different standards with them to the chic Victorian rowhouses, the clapboard cottages and greystones they were renovating. But the idealism that nurtured the belief that middle-class professionals and welfare tenants could join together to “save neighborhoods” withered when inner-city houses began to sell for $80,000 and up. Reformism faded as the economy tightened. Restraint killed expressways as effectively as protest groups.

Toronto was the most visible battleground—the ripples of its development fights could be felt across the country. But now, as Sewell moderates his tone and talks about “the new John Sewell,” the change becomes clear. “The old reform movement is now a spent force,” says alderman Dan Heap, a workerpriest who campaigned for the NDP for years before getting elected to city council in 1972. “The reform movement was limited to municipal issues and it now seems impossible to organize for municipal politics only. When 85 per cent of people in an area are tenants, it is not easy to interest them in a zoning bylaw.” The reformers of 1972 were united under the ambiguous theme that won Crombie his mayoralty: Preserve the Neighborhoods. “Few people asked for whom and against whom must we protect the neighborhoods,” Heap points out. “It seemed obvious that high-rise builders were the enemy.”

But the simplicity of labelling the developer as the enemy soon wore away to cliché. Says Heap, running again in the November election: “We began to learn that while some of us ‘reformers’ wished to protect neighborhoods for the working class against the big investors, others were more interested in protecting neighborhoods for middle-income

people, the professional and managerial classes, against both big investor and the low-income working class. Neighborhood protection turned out only to benefit a minority.” Downtown neighborhoods were “saved” for middle-class buyers as city plans were changed to protect them.

The Crombie years did transform planning in Toronto; a two-year 45-foot height freeze gave planners a chance to redesign the standards for downtown. While Sewell fought Crombie’s central area plan (which severely limited office towers, introduced rigorous architectural standards and gave incentives to builders to mix office space and housing) arguing that it should be tougher, he says simply that the fight is now over: “We haven’t always done as well as we should have, but the direction we’ve been going in the last six years is the right one.”

On the surface, Sewell’s rage is obviously softened. His former allies are squabbling, some having dropped out of municipal politics, some working with the NDP municipally, some running for a group called Reform Metro, some running as independents. And yet, despite their differences, virtually all are supporting Sewell’s candidacy. With two candidates with similar conservative constituencies to split the vote, David Smith and Tony O’Donohue, Sewell has a chance. While the spotlight has shifted away from city issues, it is possible that Torontonians may still elect a strongly reformist council to implement the compromises Crombie hammered out.

If David Crombie presided over a quiet revolution in urban politics in Toronto, Montreal is still locked in the ancien régime. As powerful, dictatorial and successful as Duplessis ever was provincially, in Montreal Jean Drapeau is still firmly in control, while the 18 reform members of council who caught the city by surprise in 1974 are splintered and divided.

As in Toronto and Vancouver, the outrageous excesses of the boom years of the early 1970s brought together an uneasy coalition of left wingers, lib-

erals, environmentalists and community leaders in the Montreal Citizen’s Movement (MCM). But by 1976, the MCM was torn with ideological differences, and this year a group of disenchanted moderates formed the Municipal Action Group (MAG). As a result, Drapeau and his Civic Party are being challenged by two groups urging reform—the leftwing MCM, with planner Guy Duquette running for mayor, and the middle-ofthe-road MAG, with Liberal MP Serge Joyal as mayoralty candidate.

The veterans of the euphoric arrival of the MCM at city hall in 1974 are bitter about the split. Says Michael Fainstat, an engineer and key member of MCM, “It was always anticipated there would be an attempt to split and divide the party. And it’s happened. While the MCM remains a district-based democratic organization, MAG has come forward with a razzmatazz, elitist group based on personalities that is supposed to ‘deliver’ reform.” Nick Auf der Maur, who helped found MAG, is equally bitter about what he sees as the doctrinaire ideology of the MCM. “The MCM went wild-eyed and thought they were going to change the world,” he says. “They misunderstood the desire for reform in the electorate. A lot of the reforms people wanted were essentially conservative reforms.

Despite the split, anyone might think that Drapeau is in trouble. He had been vilified by the Parti Québécois when it was in opposition, taxes have skyrocketed, the Malouf Commission inquiry

into the Olympic site is revealing stunning evidence of mismanagement and incompetence, and Gérard Niding, Drapeau’s right-hand man, was forced to resign last month amidst accusations of conflict of interest. Certainly, his opponents are hammering away—Duquette using the TV cameras to spotlight neighborhood issues and Joyal attacking the fiscal mismanagement of the city. But privately activists in the two groups concede that Drapeau’s re-election seems a certainty.

“Drapeau has the lead,” admits one MCM candidate. “There is a percentage of the population that considers him to be a demigod, a superman. Instead of feeling he was wrong in his handling of the Olympics, they sympathize with him. There’s a tradition in Quebec of blindly following a great leader. It certainly applies to Drapeau.” The best that the reformers can hope for is that fighting on a ward-by-ward basis in the new 54-district system the provincial government has introduced, the two reform parties may win a majority of council seats.

In Vancouver, reform politics gravitated to two groups from the outset—a Liberal group of affluent west-side professional people, The Electors Action Movement (TEAM), and the Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE), a leftwing organization that has succeeded in electing small-m Marxist and longtime civic fighter Harry Rankin as alderman.

In the boom years of late ’60s and early ’70s, millionaire mayor Tom Campbell and his senior administrator Gerald Sutton Brown became the symbols of destructive planning, proposing a cat’s cradle of expressways that would have split Vancouver apart, bulldozing sections of the east side (Strathcona) for urban renewal, and other massive development proposals. The uproar against them swept the glamorous Art Phillips into office in 1972 with a TEAMdominated council. TEAM fired Sutton Brown and reshuffled the planning board but, ironically, says TEAM founder and past president Paul Tennant, “The issues that led to the forma-

tion of the party were largely settled before it came to power.” The expressways and the larger projects had been stopped already and the jerry-built coalition began to deteriorate as the bogeymen evaporated. Phillips resigned in 1976, feeling, according to insiders, that the job was done.

Jack Volrich, who succeeded Phillips, was elected to council in 1972 after leading a fight to stop a Marathon Realty shopping centre from being built in Arbutus Ridge, a middle-class neighborhood of west-side Vancouver. But the square-faced, hawk-nosed mayor has consistently sided with the interests that he attacked to get elected. He is being opposed by his former TEAM colleague, May Brown, the chairman of the city’s powerful finance and administration committee. But the reform impulse has died in Vancouver. Even if Brown wins, aided by the support of the media, west-side liberals and academics, she will likely have a seriously depleted party behind her, and the pattern of “sewers and pothole” politics that set in two years ago will continue.

A major handicap for reform is the absence of wards or districts. Vancouver is one of the two cities (the suburb of Burnaby is the other) in Canada with a population over 120,000 that does not elect ward aldermen; aldermen are elected at large. Abolished in 1936, the re-installation of a ward system is on the Nov. 15 ballot, but few expect it will be approved. “The lack of a ward system is a holdover from when Vancouver was still a small city,” says Simon Fraser University political scientist Jacques Benjamin. “But with a city budget of more than $150 million that view is no longer appropriate.”

Benjamin is pessimistic about any resurgence of urban reform in Vancouver:

“There is no reform coalition of any sort in 1978. The issues of 1968 are simply not present now and there is no use in trying to create a movement if there are no issues.” Donald Gutstein, a Vancouver architect and author specializing in urban affairs, points to the economy as a key factor. “Vancouver is currently in a no-growth period,” he says, “All the major developments are in neutral or in the preliminary planning stages, and as a result some downtown business people are getting worried. Most ordinary people, I think, feel an enormous sense of relief that the explosion of growth is over.”

The explosion is over everywhere. But many of the changes reformers made in the way the system functions are now permanent. Toronto and Vancouver Jboth introduced neighborhood planning offices, and while Montreal city hall is as closed and secretive as ever, other levels of government have picked up the signals. The federal government drastically scaled down its proposal for Complexe Guy Favreau and has opened up its planning of the Montreal waterfront, inviting public participation. In Vancouver, the last major project was to have been a huge skyscraper that

then-premier W. A. C. Bennett wanted as the provincial court building. In 1972, the New Democratic government lowered the profile of the project and handed it over to architect Arthur Erickson. Ready early next year, the courthouse is a low-slung, open and airy structure that welcomes the eye.

If economic lessons make a pattern, the next battles of urban reform will be fought in the boomtown cities of Calgary and Edmonton. But there is some indication that the development industry is centralized enough in the big cities to have learned from the reform struggles of the past. Despite loud arguments from big developers that Toronto’s demands for a mix of offices and housing downtown would be impossible and impractical, Kent Gerecke of the University of Manitoba department of city planning, notes wryly that a recent major development proposal for Winnipeg included all the design features developers are saying they can’t cope with in Toronto. While urban reform crusades that are now part of history haven’t changed the world, or “created socialism in one neighborhood,” they have made a lasting impact on the form and function of Canadian cities, v1