COLUMN

Protecting a city from its lake

Allan Fotheringham May 22 1989
COLUMN

Protecting a city from its lake

Allan Fotheringham May 22 1989

Protecting a city from its lake

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

Toronto, in its own way, is a very strange place. It is the only place in Christendom where the town’s chief eccentric, every time he goes into hospital threatening to die, causes the price of the shares in the national sports shrine he owns to leap in glee on the stock market. It is about the only place left in North America that has three lively and competitive and profitable newspapers. It is also undoubtedly the only city in the world that lives on the water where you can’t see the water.

It is one of the great secrets of our time that Toronto is situated on Lake Ontario. It can be detected if you look at a map or an atlas, but you can’t detect it if you live in Toronto. You might as well be residing in Yorkton. There are people who are born, live and die in Toronto, envying Vancouver’s Pacific and Halifax’s Atlantic and never once seeing the open water that washes on the city’s shore.

To achieve the impossible—having a huge lake that no one can see—took some ingenuity, but Toronto has managed it. For starters, it built one of the esthetic disasters of the century as a sort of Berlin Wall to barricade the city from the water. It is called the Gardiner Expressway, named after the bulldozer of a civic leader who masterminded it. It is a concrete conduit of commuters high in the sky with enough pillars, on-ramps, off-ramps, barriers and broken truck tires to sufficiently obscure any possible view of the lake to anyone but a helicopter pilot.

In case there is any chance that a human being, as opposed to a car, might see over, under or through this monster, the city is cleverly allowing to be erected along the waterline a picket fence of massive condominiums for the 3,000 millionaires who wish to purchase a view of the lake. The old warehouses and docks on the waterfront have been deemed outmoded. Instead, a mini-Manhattan to shield from forbidden eyes the evil sight of water. Towering, inhuman caves of glass and steel that house tax shelters rise to fill in the few precious glimpses of distant lake water. It has been a difficult task to block

almost every view, but by diligence they have achieved it.

Toronto once had its chance. The SkyDome, to open on June 3, in fact sits on the land that was supposed to be Toronto’s first public park—killed by political graft and railway greed. In the 1830s, there was a dream of a green park for the citizens on the lakefront. Watercolor renderings by Toronto’s surveyor of the time show walking paths and trees and laughing children on slides. According to official city council minutes, aldermen talked about putting a park south of Front Street as early as 1836. This was two years after the city was incorporated. Population: 9,252.

Lt.-Gov. Sir Francis Bond Head commissioned a study for the park plan but by 1850 (the true Toronto appears!), John G. Bowes was elected alderman on a platform of railway development. The population of the new centre of Upper Canada had zoomed to 30,000. Bowes

also happened to be an owner of the Toronto and Guelph Railway, which obviously eyed the harbor for shipping and wanted its trains allowed into the centre of the city. By 1851, he was mayor and rich, selling his railway to the Grand Trunk Railway, and rail lines on the supposed park land easily got council approval.

Toronto seems to have learned nothing from Vancouver or San Francisco, where public outrage over loss of ocean views has killed off development. In San Francisco, there is the magnificent sight of one elevated freeway that ends in the sky—construction halted in midconcrete. In Vancouver, a brilliant plan by Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotels chain to erect an expensive eyesore across the entrance to Stanley Park was blocked after a long fight by some of us who cared.

Toronto, in its worship of bigness, is about to unveil the world’s largest gridlock. On these onceparklands, it has packed right at the foot of the CN Tower a convention centre, the Roy Thomson Hall (funded by the family of that connoisseur of the arts) and now the SkyDome. (In a delicious example of retroactive guilt, Canadian National Railways, which took over the Grand Trunk Railway after the First World War, “donated” $25 million worth of land and services so SkyDome would be built where laughing children on slides were meant to be.) And they’ve broken ground on the same site for the new CBC headquarters. When everybody shows up at once, the traffic jam is going to start in Hamilton and end in Oshawa.

No one in the Toronto planning department obviously has ever been to a sporting event or a symphony concert. I await with amusement the reaction of the esthetes at Thomson Hall in the middle of Beethoven’s Fifth when they hear the drowning roar, right next door, of 57,000 nuts in the open-roofed SkyDome greeting a George Bell home run or an Argo touchdown. I can’t understand why these people don’t check with me first.

Everyone in the world outside Toronto knows that, essential for the sanity of the populace, is the daily, calming view of water. You can’t move in Vancouver or San Francisco without the Valium-like effect on the eyes. You can’t go anywhere in London or Paris without crossing a bridge over the Thames or the Seine. All the great cities are built on water— which was the original reason, transport, for their existence.

Some day, somehow, Toronto is going to realize that it is built on a lake. Only it can’t see it.