Editor’s Letter, September 2011: The Real Spadina Expressway Legacy

Editor’s Letter, September 2011: The Real Spadina Expressway Legacy

Outside the Dupont subway station, at Spadina Road, on the northwest corner, three plaques commemorate the successful battle to stop the Spadina Expressway from being built. Together they recount the drama of that effort in vivid, triumphant detail: how a highway cutting through the centre of the city was planned, how opponents believed it would destroy downtown and how the project was killed in 1971. They’re the only plaques I’ve ever seen that commemorate something that didn’t happen.

To the small group of Torontonians who consider the 1970s our city’s political golden era, the Spadina Expressway moment symbolized the power of civic activism and the victory of people over cars. But to people like me, who were born after the battle and who have come of age in a city crippled by gridlock, the plaques seem absurd.

Not that I’m in favour of bulldozing neighbourhoods to make room for highways. But it would have been nice if at some point in the last 40 years we had implemented a workable transportation plan for southern Ontario. In my view, the legacy of the Stop the Spadina Expressway movement is this: grand municipal plans are not welcome here. The population of the GTA is well over five million; we are way too big to continue congratulating ourselves for squashing big plans.

Sometimes, when I’m standing outside Dupont Station, waiting (endlessly) for the bus, I think of all the other plaques we could erect around the city to mark grand civic projects that never were. We could have a plaque along Queen Street marking a subway line we never built. Or a plaque along the waterfront, commemorating a long pedestrian promenade we didn’t create. Now might be a good time to prepare a plaque for a rapid transit link to Pearson that we might never see.

Then again, no one loves Toronto for its ambition or its grand municipal projects. We love Toronto because it’s a safe, civilized place to live—appreciated perhaps most of all by people who come from places that are less safe and less civilized. We love Toronto because it’s livable. That’s what we tell our friends from more glamorous, charismatic cities. New York has the High Line and Chicago has Millennium Park, but Toronto is livable. Which is why I was so devastated by Philip Preville’s cover story (“The New Suburbanites,” page 34) about families who are leaving Toronto because it’s not livable enough. They think this city is too congested. Houses are too expensive. Wait lists for municipally funded programs are too long.

If Toronto is becoming less livable, what’s our claim to fame? (Certainly no one would accuse us of being New York run by the Swiss anymore.) This question is of no interest to our mayor. At precisely the moment we need to figure out how to make Toronto work better, Rob Ford is hell-bent on diminishing the precious institutions that make the city feel livable. The core services review is agonizing to watch: there is nothing to cut, and yet cuts will be made. Will there soon be a plaque in my neighhourhood commemorating a library that was not built? A community centre that no longer exists? A daycare? A park?

All over the world, young people are inheriting debt accrued by the recklessly wasteful boomers who came before them. In Greece, they protest in the streets. Here in Toronto, we opted to solve our serious money problems by electing Rob Ford, a guy whose only goal is to shrink government and stop building stuff. Now we will have yet another chapter of Toronto history in which we will be defined by not doing anything. Who can blame people for dreaming of Port Hope?

(Photograph by Nigel Dickson)