When Mel Freezes Over

As I no longer have a copy of this story as it originally appeared on The Grid’s website in early February 2013, this post is based on the draft I submitted for publication.

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Toronto Sun, January 15, 1999.

“It might have people across this country shaking their heads, even rolling their eyes,” Peter Mansbridge observed while introducing the January 13, 1999 edition of The National. To some Canadians, Mel Lastman’s plea for military assistance to help Toronto cope with a record-breaking month of snowfall confirmed their view of the country’s largest city as a magnet for spoiled, whiny wimps.

By the time Lastman requested help, Toronto had endured 84 cm of snowfall over the first two weeks of 1999, with 21 cm alone coming down on January 13. The deepening accumulation, combined with gusty winds and cold temperatures led to chaos. Clogged switches delayed GO service, drifting snow covered the third rail of exposed subway lines, and the Scarborough RT proved its uselessness in inclement weather. TTC chief general manager David Gunn recommended people stay home, as chances were “poor to nil” that closed subway sections would operate for several days. Snowplows barely made a dent on roads as the white stuff continued to fall.

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Toronto Star, January 14, 1999.

“I’m petrified of what could happen,” Lastman told the press. “You come to a point where you can’t push it back any more. Then no cars move. I want to have (the army) ready in case there’s 25 cm of snow.” Lastman had recent precedents: troops were called in for assistance during the Red River flood in Manitoba in 1997 and the ice storm that paralyzed eastern Ontario and Quebec in 1998.

The next morning, four Bison armoured personnel carriers arrived at the former Downsview military base from CFB Petawawa to await use as emergency ambulances. While reservists shoveled out bus shelters and fire hydrants, 420 regular troops were placed on standby. They spent most of their time relaxing around the old base by rehabbing an old gym basement bowling alley, playing cards, and practising snowmobile manoeuvres for a future Arctic posting. One officer who had assisted with the ice storm cleanup told the Star that “it’s kind of hard just sitting here when you want to help.” Lastman told the troops that “it’s better to be safe than sorry…I don’t believe you want to wait until people are possibly gonna die.”

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Cartoon by Patrick Corrigan, Toronto Star, January 15, 1999.

Torontonians coped with the situation in varying ways. Commuters stuck downtown booked hotel rooms and made Eaton Centre merchants smile. Cotton Ginny reported a run on nightgowns, while Shoppers Drug Mart was packed with people stocking up on bathroom essentials. Rentals at the Yonge-Wellesley Rogers Video more than doubled. Meals on Wheels provided extra food to clients in case they were forced to close. Municipal and transit employees racked up overtime, with some snow removal employees sleeping in temporary trailer camps. There were the expected idiots: one man was charged after being caught drunk snowmobiling along the Don Valley Parkway.

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Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

As the city dug itself out, several city councillors questioned Lastman’s actions and lamented that he didn’t consult them. Lastman didn’t call an emergency council meeting out of fear of the speeches his colleagues might make. “The press would have been there, and what they would have been saying I don’t know. Some of them would have been absolutely out of it.” The mayor believed he was the only person who cared about the welfare of the entire city instead of specific wards, He never regretted his actions. “We arranged it so that senior citizens could go around the corner to get milk,” he boasted to the Star a decade later.

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Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

By the time the month was over, Toronto endured a record-breaking 118 cm of snowfall. Councillor Jack Layton found the storm “a teaching lesson in municipal arrogance” due to the city’s complacency. Eye Weekly noted that the previous fall, council’s urban environment committee voted against budgeting an extra $28 million to clear windrows. Up to $70 million was spent on clean-up, more than double the annual $32 million snow clearing budget.

Eye columnist Donna Lypchuk had fun with the charges that Torontonians were wusses when it came to snow. “Torontonians get a little touchy the minute they see a snowflake,” she observed. “Like little robots, they go outside, see their cars covered with snow, make a phone call and then drop back into bed with complete resignation.” She felt the exhaustion of those battling the storm could have been avoided by just letting the snow melt on its own.

Lypchuk’s conclusion? “I think it’s time Torontonians familiarized themselves with important Canadian concepts, such as snow. During the winter, snow is going to fall from the sky. This is not a scary, unusual thing. It is normal. Respect the snow and be prepared.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, January 14, 1999.

Confession time: I’m drawing a blank as to what I did during the Snowmageddon of January 1999.

I definitely experienced it. I was living in Guelph, working at the campus paper. Given the regular dumpings Guelph received, the storm likely didn’t seem unusual. It was probably just another snowy day, albeit one with greater accumulation. My guess is that either I curled up with a pile of library books or headed over to the Ontarion office to work, surf the net, or play endless games of Civilization II. It was around this time that staff relations within the office settled into a permanent deep-freeze, sparked by deep disagreements about the cover of that week’s issue. The only story about the storm in the following week’s edition noted there were no plans to shut down the U of G campus, and that students were encouraged to take advantage of increased Guelph Transit service as parking lots turned into mountains of cleared snow.

As for Lastman’s call for the army—it was Mel. Given his bombastic style, it would have been hard not to expect anything else.

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Toronto Sun, January 16, 1999.

After hearing all the jokes made about the situation over the years, reading about the circumstances at the time makes it clear action was needed. The factor that seems to be forgotten is that Toronto was already buried under an unusually large amount of snow. The forecasts for the storm that prompted Lastman to call in the troops didn’t look promising, and city services were already strained. And he did have the examples of military involvement in other natural disaster over the previous two years. The laughs at Toronto’s expense seem partly a natural reaction against the centre of the universe, and partly out of little comprehension of how badly the city’s infrastructure, especially for commuters, was affected. I was really struck by CBC archival clip’s depiction of a Meals on Wheels run, where deliverers provided extra food to clients in case the service had to be suspended.

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Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

I also checked out the Sun’s coverage. The front page on January 14, 1999 bluntly echoed TTC chief general manager David Gunn’s advice: “STAY HOME.” It also introduced the paper’s method of measuring the snowfall: the “Mel freezes over” infographic, which used Lastman’s height as a yardstick for how much snow fell that month.

On the editorial page, a list of snow-related mottos was devised to replace the new official motto the paper loathed, “Diversity our strength.”

Toronto—The city under North York
Toronto—Home of the squeegee kid, until you need one.
Toronto—Our mayor shovels it better than your mayor.
Toronto—Beware of drive-by plowings.
Toronto—Don’t even think about parking here.
Toronto—Where snow melters go to die.
Toronto—Where snowballs have a chance.
Toronto—Apocalypse Snow.
Toronto—Home of the two-hour cab wait.
Toronto—It’s not as bad as Buffalo, but we’re working on it.
Toronto—Where “The Better Way” is walking.
Toronto—We’d rather be in Florida.
Toronto—The flake by the lake.
Toronto—As pure as the driven slush.
Toronto—Home of Pearson Airport—you can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave.
Toronto—Plow me.

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Cartoon by Dusan Petricic, Toronto Star, January 17, 1999.

Meanwhile, back over in the Star, it was interesting to read how angry councillors were over the lack of consultation from Lastman. Among the miffed was Frances Nunziata. “I sent a letter to the Mayor January 6 with a number of recommendations,” she told the paper. “I didn’t get any response, or even an acknowledgement.” According to Michael Prue, who represented East York, councillors were “taking all the crap because Mel Lastman tells (the public) that everything’s wonderful and everything’s being fixed and I get phone call after phone call that it’s not that way.”

Sources: the January 21, 1999 edition of Eye Weekly, January 19, 1999 edition of the Ontarion, the January 14, 1999, January 15, 1999, January 16, 1999, January 17, 1999, and January 11, 2009 editions of the Toronto Star, and the January 14, 1999, January 15, 1999, and January 16, 1999 editions of the Toronto Sun.

The Dying Days of the Eaton Centre Sears

When The Grid’s website entered its terminal phase following the publication’s shutdown, there were several stories I was unable to capture screen grabs of because they had already vanished. This was one of them. I suspect it went MIA first because it was a photo essay.

Lesson: always take screen captures of your online work as soon as it is published!

Based on my social media feeds, this story was originally published online on February 4, 2014, and was referenced in the February 13, 2014 print edition. This version is based on the draft I submitted, with additional thoughts and photos.

All of the photos used in this post were taken on January 25 and January 31, 2014.

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With less than a week to go before Sears closes its doors for good at the Eaton Centre, the final days of the department store’s blowout sale have offered shoppers more than hunting for deals amongst the dwindling merchandise. Walking through the store provides an education in how department store design has evolved since the space opened as Eaton’s in 1977, including elements that were around when the ribbon was the cut.

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The final days have contrasted Sears’s higher-end pretensions for the store and the flea market atmosphere of a closing sale, reflecting the widening divide in the department store sector between luxury retailers and discounters.

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While upper levels are filled with abandoned aspirational signage for kitchenwares and phantom cosmetics counters, the bottom floor lures shoppers to demonstrations of a Shamwow-esque cloth via a P.A. announcement promising a free gift.

After Sears closes its doors for good on February 9, the remaining armies of mannequins will march off as the site undergoes two years of renovations before Nordstrom opens in fall 2016.

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The store witnessed its first closing sale when Eaton’s declared bankruptcy in 1999. Sears Canada briefly kept the old brand alive as “eatons” but switched the nameplate to the Sears in 2002. The retail space has shrunk from 10 floors in 1977 to the current four-and-a-half—Sears Canada’s head office occupies the top three-and-a-half floors, while the bottom two were turned over to the Eaton Centre.

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The brown-hued escalators are the most prominent remnants of the store’s Eaton’s era. The 1970s diamond logo lingers next to the escalators on the second floor.

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The lower-case “e” logo used during the eatons phase marks each floor in the elevator bank.

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On the fourth floor, I discovered a box of tiles marked “T. Eatons (sic) Company,” which hasn’t existed since 1999.

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The women’s fashion area on the second floor was divided into fixture sale space and a cordoned-off wasteland of walls bearing the brand names which held court here. The backdrop of columns set against emptiness appealed to some visitors—one evening I observed a romantic photo shoot taking place.

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Rows of well-worn office fixtures made parts of the second floor resemble IKEA’s “As Is” section. Among the heavily used items was a lonesome $50 microwave. Inside were remnants of past meals baked onto the rotating centrepiece. Discoloured grains of rice threatened to spill onto the floor. As I closed the door, an associate informed me that it had already sold. It served as a sad reminder of all the jobs lost with the store’s closure.

Note from 2019: It’s too bad I didn’t photograph the microwave, which was possibly the best representation of the depressing atmosphere. For a fixture in such poor shape, couldn’t management have raffled it off to employees or allowed them to express their frustrations by whacking it with baseball bats rather than hand it over to the liquidator?

On second thought, it’s the sort of the strip mining and ultra-capitalism Eddie Lampert, the Ayn Rand-obsessed hedge fund operator who oversaw the terminal decline of Sears across North America, might approve of.

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Plenty of marketing materials were up for grabs. For $75, you could take home this promotional image for Eva Mendes’s home décor line. Never mind that someone went wild with a black magic marker in a vain attempt to cover up the branding details.

Would a proud new owner have painted over the marker-covered areas? Sliced the panel neatly to remove the left side? Left it as an artistic/political statement?

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Apart from the Tim Horton’s tucked into the cafeteria, the fourth floor was a ghost town of appliance and kitchenware displays.

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Colorful signs for Keurig, Hamilton Beach, and other kitchen brands hung above empty displays.

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There were vacancies galore in the refrigerator section.

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An electronic display which was still functioning last week offered an energy-savings calculator based on products no longer nearby.

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The “NOTHING HELD BACK” signs weren’t kidding. Apart from some fixtures destined for other stores, everything else was available for a price, including these faux fragrance holders filled with mysterious liquid.

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Nearby were a homemade-looking Halloween mix CD ($1) and a box of coffee stir sticks. I didn’t check if they had been used.

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On the main floor, mini Christmas trees could be yours for 43 cents!

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Apart from security passes needed to board at 3 Below (now the Urban Eatery food court) and the removal of the 2 Below stop, you can ride the elevators to all of the former Eaton’s floors.

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Checking out the seventh floor, which once served as Eaton’s bargain annex, I found this friendly piece of advice to Sears Canada head office employees. A cynic might wonder if this was an effort to boost floor traffic.

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Armies of mannequins were among the fixtures for sale.

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Prices varied depending on much body you wanted—a painted head/torso combination would set you back $100.

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Standing alone next to large faceless collections of mannequins made me fear when they would awaken and launch their invasion of downtown Toronto.

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Sometimes all you need is a mannequin arm. These dismembered limbs are ideal for fixing old mannequins, as a canvas for horrific props, as a joke item, or as a back scratcher.

The original article draft ended here.

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There were so many mannequin parts laying around. How many of these pieces wound up in stores, studios, or homes around the GTA?

The leather “Judys” on the right may have dated from the eatons relaunch in 2000. “Mannequins, like runway models, should bear no resemblance to most mortals,” Phillip Preville observed in Saturday Night magazine. “Eatons will have some of retail’s funkiest dummies, including leather-upholstered headless torsos, and, in the junior women’s section, urban punk girlie-quins.”

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Some mannequins still found time to strike a pose in front of displays, even if those displays were cluttered with shopping bags.

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NOT FOR SALE.

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The kitchen demonstration area, dubbed the “Great Kitchen” during the eatons era.

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1970s phone casings with later payphones. Never mind the retro stylings, by 2014 an attached phone book was a rare citing (I didn’t check how outdated it was). Did the light above the phone signal that it was available for use?

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Salon equipment was mixed in with leftover furnishings.

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$389 for a ripped couch. $389…

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Artwork from the optical department?

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The other three store closings listed on this sign were leases Sears sold back to the individual malls in 2013. As of December 2019, these are the primary replacements for those stores:

Eaton Centre: Nordstrom, Samsung, Uniqlo, and a corridor on the mall’s second floor

Sherway Gardens: Saks Fifth Avenue, SportChek

Square One: Simons, SportChek

Yorkdale: Restoration Hardware, Sporting Life

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By my second photoshoot, access to upper floors was more difficult.

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A sampling of the fixtures available on the second floor.

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Were any of these people asked if they wanted the remains of this cupboard bearing their names? Or was this a relic from the Eaton’s era?

Otherwise, it could have been yours for $30.

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Matthew McConaughey and his clothing line were exiled to Barrie, a location closed when the remaining Sears Canada stores shuttered in January 2018.

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Nothing to watch here.

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These display cases, placed in the corridor leading out to the passageway between Trinity Square and Dundas Street, were reserved for Sears Canada’s archives. They definitely appeared to be from at least the 1970s, but I wondered if they were first used at an earlier point in Eaton’s history.

Does anyone know the current location of items like this or the rest of the Sears Canada archives?

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A final exit into the alleyway.

From a Facebook post I wrote on February 13, 2014:

Wandering through Eaton Centre before heading home to find store still open, when several sources had indicated its end was going to be last weekend. Appears management is trying to milk as much out of the place as possible – the well-worn fixtures on the second floor were going for 50% off today, while the flea market/trade show styled demonstrations of products continue on the lower floor. PA announcement reminded shoppers they have less that two weeks to walk home with whatever remains.

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Reader reaction to the original “rather depressing” story.

Reconstruction soon began, as the bottom floor (the old Eaton’s 1 Below) became mall space, while the remaining three retail floors reopened as Nordstrom in September 2016. The upper floors remained Sears Canada’s head office until the chain wound down in early 2018.

With the store’s closure, part of my childhood passed on. Up until the end there were still plenty of reminders of the Eaton’s store I loved roaming through as a kid, from forgotten vintage signage to old logos to the escalators that retained their 1970s shades of brown. Windsor didn’t have department stores as large as downtown Toronto’s, and I never experienced Hudson’s Detroit flagship during its dying days, so visiting Eaton’s (and Simpsons) felt special to a kid overwhelmed by so much space. Eating in the marine-themed cafeteria. My dad indulging my need to ride every escalator as high or low as we could go. Wondering what mysteries lay in the closed off 3 Below floor.

Not that I’ll complain about what has happened to the site. Nordstrom performed a much-needed overhaul of the remaining space. Most of the merchandise is beyond my budget, but I like the modern-yet-traditional department store feel while walking through.

The End of Eaton’s (The First Time Around)

Originally published as a “Retro T.O.” column for the online version of The Grid on August 28, 2012. This was the final installment of the column, though I continued writing for the paper under the “Ghost City” banner.

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Toronto Star, August 21, 1999.

“The notice posted on the doors of the flagship Eaton’s store in the Toronto Eaton Centre on the morning of August 23, 1999 is not the usual professional presentation,” observed Eaton-family biographer Rod McQueen. “The 8-1/2 by 11″ document has been photocopied and hung in place with Scotch tape. The typescript statement, evocative of the words carved on a tombstone, reads: ‘The T. Eaton Company Limited, an insolvent person, pursuant to subsection 50.4(1) of the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, intends to make a proposal to its creditors.’”

Shoppers lined up outside the store that morning, expecting bargains galore as Eaton’s began to liquidate its stock. They were disappointed; the details were still being worked out, and the great sell-off wouldn’t begin for two more days. While some customers bought items before they vanished forever, others browsed quickly before wandering off empty-handed. Nostalgia for a faltering Canadian icon was one thing; benefitting from its misery was another.

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Rally for Eaton’s staff, 1997. Photo by Richard Lautens. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0109977f.

The store’s second dalliance with bankruptcy in two years ended a dramatic week that opened with a very unlucky Friday the 13th. That day, executives were informed that a potential deal with Federated Department Stores was dead. Had the deal gone through, the American retailer would have purchased around 16 of the chain’s remaining 64 stores and rebranded them as Macy’s. Concerns about how much budget-conscious Canadians would spend and Eaton’s management playing hardball soured Federated’s enthusiasm.

On August 16, 1999, Eaton’s closed its main distribution centre on Sheppard Avenue West, throwing 300 people out of work. Advertising was suspended indefinitely. Within days, the four Eaton brothers who owned most of the company cleaned out their offices. This appeared to be a sure sign the end was coming, despite corporate statements that bankruptcy was a last resort and a libel suit filed against the National Post weeks earlier for suggesting Eaton’s would seek protection.

Frustrated suppliers who were owed millions decided they’d had enough. Armed with a court order, Tommy Hilfiger seized their merchandise from Eaton’s Montreal stores. Fearing other suppliers would take the same action, all Quebec locations were closed on August 20. The next day, the bankruptcy filing was announced. When the Toronto Stock Exchange closed on August 23, Eaton’s stock sat at 40 cents a share, down from 15 dollars during its IPO a year before.

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Globe and Mail, August 23, 1999.

The Eaton family, which had eased itself away from operations following the chain’s first bout with bankruptcy protection in February 1997, gave little public indication of their feelings. While many people publicly endorsed the fourth generation of the Eaton family to run the company, others saw their seeming detachment from the business and failure to adapt to the changing retail environment as the heart of the chain’s woes. The goodwill established with Canadians over a century had eroded through moves like killing the catalogue in 1976 and ending its operation of the Santa Claus Parade in 1982.

The 1990s saw boneheaded moves like CEO George Eaton’s implementation, despite internal criticism, of an “everyday value pricing” policy that eliminated promotional sales. Until sinking profits ended the policy in 1994, George defended it as “sensible,” and reacted to criticism of his management by declaring, “Don’t tell me how to run my store. I’ll run it any way I want.” As the decade progressed, cutbacks lowered staff morale, while creditors worried about the balance sheet. Restructuring undertaken in 1997 brought in new management who dropped traditional product lines like appliances, brought in expensive merchandise that alienated long-time customers, and tried to attract younger shoppers through its “Diversity” advertising campaign and clothing department. Trying to recast the retailer as a higher-end destination didn’t work.

As the liquidation sales proceeded in 1999, one source suggested to the Star that Toronto Eaton Centre owner Cadillac Fairview had a list of potential retailers to woo, among them Crate and Barrel and IKEA. That October, Sears Canada announced its intention to buy half-a-dozen stores and the Eaton’s name. The apostrophe and capital E were removed, and the rest of the name disappeared in 2002.

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Toronto Star, August 25, 1999.

Among the assets that were disposed of during the liquidation period was the statue of Timothy Eaton that had graced the flagship stores that bore his name for 80 years. After many rubs of his foot by consumers hoping for good luck, Timothy was donated to the Royal Ontario Museum. Family regarded Timothy as the only Eaton who was a genius, while succeeding generations grew more arrogant and made poor management decisions. The end of the chain didn’t seem to bother Fredrik Eaton, CEO during the 1980s, who told the Star in June 1999 that he had no regrets about decisions the company had made—“I mean, the world goes on.”

“The root problem,” Rod McQueen concluded, “was achingly simple. Canadians cared more about Eaton’s than the aristocratic family itself. They didn’t mind the store.”

Sources: The Eatons: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Royal Family (revised edition) by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), and the June 16, 1999, August 17, 1999, and August 25, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star.

The Saga of the Gardiner Expressway

This post merges several pieces I’ve written about the Gardiner Expressway over the years, along with additional material. 

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Gardiner Expressway, 1962. The caption was “Ready for ’67 Centenary if weather co-operates.” Photo by Dick Darrell. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115131f.

Frederick G. Gardiner was proud of the expressway named in his honour. “You know,” he noted in a 1964 interview, “I used to lie in bed dreaming in Technicolor, thinking it was too big. Now I know it isn’t. Maybe in 20 years time, they’ll be cursing me for making it too small. But I won’t be around to worry then. Right now, I’ve come up smelling of Chanel No. 5.”

When Gardiner died in 1983, few liked the scent of his expressway. They cursed him for pushing a crumbling roadway increasingly seen as a barrier between downtown and the waterfront. Decades of city reports have suggested demolishing some or all of the expressway, triggering debates that will turn anyone’s face blue. While its fate eternally hangs in the balance, millions are spent every year to keep it in service. Every time a major reconstruction project occurs that slows down traffic, you’d swear by the tone of the media that Armageddon is descending upon the city.

But there was a time when regional officials believed the Gardiner Expressway would solve bottlenecks plaguing a growing city in the early 1950s. Had it been built to its full extent via the Scarborough Expressway, drivers might have enjoyed views of Humber Bay, the downtown skyline, and the Scarborough Bluffs.

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Sketch based on suggestions by Etobicoke Reeve Clive Sinclair on bringing the Queen Elizabeth Way into Toronto. Toronto Star, September 14, 1949.

The combination of the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Way in 1939 and suburban growth had led to frequent traffic jams caused by commuters entering the city along the old Humber Bridge. Visions of a waterfront expressway were included in the city’s 1943 master plan, but it took time for plans to firm up. In 1949, Etobicoke Reeve Clive Sinclair suggested the plan shown here, which he felt would reduce congestion he feared would emerge when the Ontario Food Terminal opened on The Queensway. The key to Sinclair’s plan was cutting the link between The Queensway and the approach to the QEW. “We’ve already had too many pedestrians killed or injured trying to dodge express traffic at this corner,” he told the Star.

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Frederick G. Gardiner, taken during a photoshoot for Time magazine, April 5, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1653, Series 975, File 2262, Item 32745-3.

Enter Frederick Gardiner, chairman of the newly formed regional government of Metropolitan Toronto. As a Toronto Life article noted 40 years later, “Gardiner liked big solutions to big problems, and he brought an entrepreneurial flair to city government. He loved building things, loved to get plans pushed through and get the shovels in the ground.” As Gardiner once observed, “a municipality is no different from an industrial undertaking.” Fixing the bottlenecks at the bottom of the city was right up his alley.

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Toronto Star, July 8, 1953.

One of Metro’s first acts was to announce in July 1953 that its executive committee had unanimously approved a motion by Gardiner to meet with regional planning authorities to discuss what was soon dubbed the Lakeshore Expressway. The highway would run from the Humber Bridge to Woodbine Avenue. Two sections would be elevated (Humber Bridge to Bathurst Street, and Cherry Street to Woodbine), with surface streets handling the traffic flow through downtown. Toronto Mayor Allan Lamport urged caution with construction—“We can’t go too fast on this. It is absolutely essential.” One of the main questions was which side of the CNE grounds should the expressway be built: on the north side, along the rail corridor, or on the south via fill into the lake?

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Toronto Star, January 2, 1954.

As 1954 dawned, Gardiner and Scarborough Reeve Oliver Crockford supported a plan to extend the Lakeshore Expressway east to meet Highway 401 at Highland Creek. The route would have cut through east end neighbourhoods before proceeding along the bottom of the Scarborough Bluffs. Gardiner saw what was later known as the Scarborough Expressway as a solution to potential bottlenecks at Woodbine Avenue and Kingston Road, while Crockford felt it would help halt the erosion of the bluffs. The Scarborough Expressway remained in regional plans for decades before being scrapped.

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Toronto Star, May 3, 1954. Note the proposed interchange with Strachan Avenue in the upper right corner, which was never built, which would have provided “access to the north and to local destinations on Fleet Street” (primarily, I suspect, Exhibition Park and Maple Leaf Stadium).

On May 5, 1954, Metro Council received plans for the Lakeshore Expressway. The $49.8 million project would be elevated above Fleet Street (now Lake Shore Boulevard) from Bathurst Street to Cherry Street. To alleviate congestion in the core, a two-level parking facility with direct ramps would be built under the expressway between Yonge Street and Parliament Street.

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Globe and Mail, May 4, 1954. Click on image for larger version.

The route would run south of the CNE, and it was predicted the fairgrounds would receive 25 additional acres from the fill required for the expressway.

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Globe and Mail, May 4, 1954

A Globe and Mail editorial predicted that the new road “ought to eliminate the worst of the waterfront traffic problems, at least for some years to come.”

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Construction of Queen Street West extension, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 137, Item 13.

Two other road projects were rolled into the Lakeshore Expresseway. In the west end, Queen Street was extended westward to meet up with The Queensway via a new bridge across the Humber.

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Construction of Queen Street West extension, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 137, Item 10.

This stretch, which opened in December 1956, was eventually treated as an eastern extension of The Queensway.

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Construction of Woodbine Avenue extension, circa 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 115, Item 15.

In the east end, Keating Street (now Lake Shore Boulevard) was extended from Leslie Street to Woodbine Avenue to provide an eventual end to the expressway. Opened in December 1955, residents soon dubbed the tight curve leading Keating onto Woodbine a “death trap.” Eastbound drivers going 55 miles an hour often found themselves driving into the southbound lanes of Woodbine or climbing onto the northbound sidewalk. Local councillors received complaints from residents ranging from smashed fire hydrants to a car hitting one home’s veranda. Over 60 years later, this curve remains problematic.

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Globe and Mail, May 19, 1954.

One east-end vision which never materialize was a plan to build a ramp on the west side of Woodbine Racetrack, which would have connected the Lakeshore Expressway to Kingston Road and Dundas Street East (which was still being stitched together from local side streets).

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Empress Crescent, looking east from Dowling Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard West, 1956. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-912.

Construction on the Lakeshore Expressway began on April Fools Day 1955, concentrating on the stretch between the Humber and Jameson Avenue. Around 150 homes were demolished to make way for the expressway and its related projects, mostly in south Parkdale around Dowling Avenue and Jameson Avenue. Streets like Empress Crescent vanished from city maps. When the Globe and Mail printed pictures of the rubble left behind by demolitions in 1957, it described the scene as “ruins reminiscent of a Second World War bombing raid.”

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Gardiner Expressway, looking west from east of the foot of Roncesvalles Avenue, during construction, showing Lakeshore Road bridge over CNR tracks, south of King Street and Sunnyside Railway Station, July 21, 1957. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-934.

Construction also brought an end to Sunnyside Amusement Park, which would be revamped as a city beach. The nearby bridge connecting Lakeshore Road (now Lake Shore Boulevard) with the King/Queen/Roncesvalles intersection also met its demise. The Sunnyside train station survived the building of the expressway, but ceased passenger service in 1967.

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Parkside Drive, looking north from Lakeshore Road, July 21, 1957. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-1714.

A new bridge waiting for the Lakeshore Expressway to cross it.

A December 1956 front page story in the Globe and Mail predicted that by 1980 the city’s expressway system (then projected to include the Crosstown, Don Valley Parkway, Lakeshore, and Spadina) would be dominated by buses, as some Metro officials hoped to ease future congestion by banning parking downtown. The idea was that suburban commuters would leave their cars in giant lots next to the expressways, hopping on buses to finish their journey.

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Toronto Star, July 2, 1957.

As construction proceeded, there were concerns that the expressway might permanently stop at Jameson Avenue. Metro was having problems convincing higher levels of government to help fund the proposed subway line along Bloor Street. Gardiner believed Metro couldn’t raise enough money to fund its expressway and public transit plans. “You simply cannot provide sufficient highways and parking space to accommodate every person who desires to drive his motor vehicle downtown and back each day,” Gardiner noted in January 1956.”Additional rapid transit is the only answer. It is a snare and a delusion to keep on spending millions of dollars on highways because the province will subsidize them 50 per cent. We know that beyond a certain stage $1 spent on more arterial highways and parking facilities.”

Problem was that Metro council preferred spending money on roads than transit. Eventually, outside funding for the subway came through.

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Copy of a cartoon by Bert Grassick published in the Telegram, August 29, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1567. Series 648, File 26, Item 1.

On July 29, 1957, based on a suggestion from Weston Mayor Harry Clark, the Metro roads committee renamed the Lakeshore Expressway the Frederick G, Gardiner Expressway. Clark felt it was a gesture of appreciation for leading Metro through its formative years. The tribute pleased Gardiner.

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Aerial view of the Gardiner Expressway, August 14, 1958. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 37, Item 1.

At 3 p.m. on August 8, 1958, dignitaries including Gardiner, Ontario Premier Leslie Frost, and Toronto Mayor Nathan Phillips officially opened the first section of the expressway, which ran from the Humber to Jameson Avenue. Frost praised Gardiner for his leadership. “Fred, you were the obvious man to do the job.”

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Toronto Star, August 7, 1958. Note optimism about cutting driving time by 10 minutes.

The road experienced its first traffic jam that day, a mile-long backup which would seem mild compared to present-day gridlock. As the Globe and Mail’s Ron Haggart put it, “the traffic jam was the best tribute of the day to the need for the Frederick G, Gardiner Expressway.”

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East end of Gardiner Expressway at Jameson Avenue/Dunn Street, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 58, Item 3.

In an essay in the commemorative book published for Toronto’s 125th anniversary, Toronto ’59, Nathaniel A. Benson placed the Gardiner in the context of the evolution of Toronto’s shoreline.

The lakeshore once was open, save for a staunch little lighthouse and an old-fashioned yacht club. Today there rise the towers of a great Molson brewing plant, the imposing Tip Top Tailors Building, the head offices of Loblaw’s, and the multi-million dollar home of the Toronto Baseball Maple Leafs. The garish lights of the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway cut spectacularly along the railway tracks, with its day-and-night ceaseless whizz of traffic shaking the peace of the ancient graves in the old military cemetery on Strachan Avenue, grazing the heroic battlements of old Fort York.

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Plans considered for Fort York, Toronto Star, October 4, 1958.

After further study, the route of the Gardiner was switched to the north side of the CNE. This placed Fort York in the path of the expressway, which lead to protests throughout 1958 from groups ranging from historical societies the Toronto Women’s Progressive Conservative Association. The tide of voices against proposals to move the fort led to one of Gardiner’s few losses when it came to the expressway.

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Construction of the new Dufferin Gate, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 58, Item 8.

While Fort York was saved, the CNE’s Dufferin Gate wasn’t. Fairgoers passed under the old landmark for the last time in 1957. Two years later, construction was well-underway for its replacement.

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Construction of the elevated section of the Gardiner Expressway, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 37, Item 19.

By the end of the 1950s, some politicians and local media grew impatient with the slow pace of construction, which wasn’t scheduled to end until 1965. “At such a pace,” noted a December 1959 Globe and Mail editorial, “Metro might not bother at all. The growth of traffic will far outstrip the growth of the road, and at the end of 10 years congestion will be worse than when the work was started.” Part of the blame was placed on Frederick Gardiner’s refusal to borrow more than $100 million a year to fund all Metro capital works projects.

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Globe and Mail, November 3, 1960.

By the end of 1960, designs were close to being finalized for the expressway’s connection with the Don Valley Parkway. Hopefully Frederick Gardiner and Nathan Phillips didn’t collide into each other. This cartoon also shows the streets (Fleet and Keating) which soon became Lake Shore Boulevard East.

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Eastbound Spadina Avenue ramp, Globe and Mail, July 31, 1962.

The Jameson-Spadina section opened during morning rush hour on August 1, 1962. Despite the potential bottleneck at the eastbound Spadina ramp, one travelled noted that his evening rush journey on opening day from the Humber to Spadina and Front took 10 minutes.

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Jarvis Street, east side, looking northeast from Lake Shore Boulevard East, showing Gardiner Expressway under construction, 1963. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5603.

Note the billboards in the far background. The distraction provided by advertising was a growing safety concern, which led Metro’s transportation committee to recommend that no ads be placed within 150 feet of the Gardiner or the Don Valley Parkway.

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Lake Shore Boulevard East, looking west from Cherry Street, showing Gardiner Expressway under construction, between 1961 and 1964.  City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5619.

John Bentley Mays writing about the Gardiner (in this case, describing wandering underneath the expressway near Fort York):

Few sites more forsaken lie this close to Toronto’s busy, dense downtown mountain-range of glass. Overhead, the wide steel belly of the Gardiner’s traffic level lies like a flat green snake on a series of tall, water-stained concrete brackets. Underneath spreads the expanse of loose gravel, some of it used as a gathering place for trucks, some of it the dusty yard of a factory in which big cement blocks are fabricated.

One hesitates to use the word beautiful of such a forbidding place, though the word fits the hill. There is a strong visual surge and power here: in the dignified rhythms of the expressway’s tapered reinforced-concrete supports, marching away into the distance like an immense Baroque colonnade, in the tough muscularity, in the ensemble of cement factory and rumbling trucks. There is a gruff beauty here that swank towers nearby can’t touch.

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Constuction of the Gardiner Expressway, 1964. Photo by Frank Grant. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115133f.

The caption for this photo reads “Full speed ahead: Workmen are busy levelling the groun underneath the concrete arches which will carry the expressway in the York-Jarvis area. By 1967 the Gardiner is expected to be extended still further to Leslie St.; and by 1972 will stretch out across Scarboro to link with Highway 401.”

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Globe and Mail, November 6, 1964.

Besides the link between the Gardiner and the Don Valley Parkway, November 6, 1964 also saw the opening of most of the Eastern Avenue flyover.

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Globe and Mail, May 5, 1966.

What proved to be the final stretch of the Gardiner, from the Don Valley Parkway to Leslie Street, was opened on July 15, 1966. Intended to be the first phase of the Scarborough Expressway, it would have intersected with Highway 401 at Highland Creek. Had a request to the Ontario Municipal Board from a citizen group inspired by the fight against the Spadina Expressway not delayed work, the next approved phase of the Scarborough Expressway would have extended it to Birchmount Road and Danforth Road. While Queen’s Park cancelled Spadina in June 1971, provincial officials were willing to fund a short extension of the Scarborough Expressway to Coxwell Avenue if the OMB approved. There was also the matter of purchasing homes (1,000 in the original plan, 500 after a revision) in the path of the projected route.

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Photo by Boris Spremo, originally published in the November 21, 1973 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0011711f.

The original caption for this photo:

Opponents of the proposed Scarborough Expressway arrive at The Star Forum by bus last night, practising what they preach on the desirability of transit over private cars. Members of action groups left their cars at home and chartered a double-decker bus and one from Toronto transit Commission. They brought signs proclaiming their beliefs but a policeman made them leave them outside.

The “Star Forum” was a session held at the St. Lawrence Centre on November 20, 1973 to discuss whether the Scarborough Expressway should be built. Metro chairman Paul Godfrey indicated he’d support the project based on what he knew up to that point, but wouldn’t commit himself to a position until a Metro report was issued in February 1974. TTC chairman Karl Mallette felt further development of public transit in Scarborough would make the expressway obsolete (if only he knew the battles and delays to come on that front…). “The plain fact is that expressways don’t solve urban transportation problems,” Mallette observed, “they create more of them. They’re becoming prohibitively expensive and are an intolerable intrusion in and near residential areas.”

The next year, Metro Council scrapped further construction.

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View of Gardiner Expressway looking west from the CN Tower, between 1976 and 1981. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 13, Item 2.

The first cracks in the Gardiner were observed in 1962. Metro roads commissioner George Grant blamed heavy traffic, while the province claimed a thinner-than-normal coat of asphalt was used while building the expressway’s first section. A year after Frederick Gardiner died in 1983, an ongoing repair program began to attack the effects of expansion and contraction on the concrete.

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View of Gardiner Expressway looking east from the CN Tower, between 1976 and 1981. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 13, Item 13.

Chaired by former mayor David Crombie, The Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront’s 1992 report provided a good summary of the issues many Torontonians have with the Gardiner Expressway: “The combination of the elevated portion of the Gardiner Expressway, Lake Shore Boulevard underneath it, and the rail corridor beside it has created a physical, visual, and psychological barrier to the Central Waterfront. It is a constant source of noise and air pollution, a hostile, dirty environment for thousands of people who walk under it daily, and a barrier to thousands of others who risk life and limb to get across or around it. The Gardiner/Lake Shore is not only a road; it is a structure. As it processes traffic, it stunts land use; meant to move us along, it limits our opportunities.” That commission recommended a mixed approach to the Gardiner, where some elevated sections remained, some were moved, and some were buried.

Speaking of burying the Gardiner…

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Construction on the Gardiner Expressway, 1996. Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115149f.

Like clockwork, every few years a plan to bury or replace the freeway emerges. Each plan is initially greeted with relief that the waterfront will soon be rid of what many people perceive as an eyesore and barrier. Just as predictable is the backlash, which usually involves fears about runaway costs and traffic Armageddon during construction.

One of the first serious proposals to knock it down was in the fall of 1983, when Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton asked city staff to investigate burying the Gardiner. Eggleton was supported by Godfrey, who saw a golden opportunity for a new route through the not-yet-redeveloped railways lands to the north. Godfrey feared that “with all the bureaucracy and red tape involved in putting a roadway of that magnitude through, I really wonder whether we’ll all be alive to see it, even if all the money is available.”

The opportunity to use the railway lands soon evaporated, but other ideas abounded. City planning commissioner Stephen McLaughlin described to the Star three plans submitted to the city: “modest” ($25 million to demolish the Jarvis and York ramps and build a new exit at an extended Simcoe Street); “grand” (place the Gardiner in a trench or tunnel between Bathurst and Jarvis); and “visionary” (for $1 billion or so, re-route the Gardiner into a tunnel under Lake Ontario).

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Sam Cass standing on the bridge over the Don Valley Parkway by Riverdale Park, 1971. Photo by Reg Innell. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0125807f.

Such plans were hooey to Sam Cass, Metro roads and traffic commissioner, and staunch defender of the Gardiner. Cass, who still promoted the completion of the Spadina Expressway in 1983, called the Gardiner “a beautiful structure that’s still doing what it was designed to do.” His contention that maintaining it wouldn’t cost much proved incorrect. Cass boasted that the Gardiner required no repair during its first decade-and-a-half and figured once a modestly priced five-year program to fix salt damage was completed, the elevated section wouldn’t require further repair for a quarter-century.

As annual repairs became a reality, calls for the Gardiner’s burial increased, especially as other cities contemplated demolishing their elevated highways. In a lengthy 1988 piece on why the Gardiner should come down, the Globe and Mail’s John Barber likened it to a Cadillac in a scrapyard. As chunks of concrete fell and its steel skeleton rusted, Barber declared “the highway that began life as a heroic symbol of the city’s progress is now just an overflowing traffic sewer.”

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Toronto Star, January 20, 1988.

Among those Barber spoke with about alternative options was developer William Teron, whose company was covering over a section of the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris. Bringing his plan to municipal officials in 1990, Teron proposed an eight-lane Gardiner buried along the waterfront and a revamped, landscaped Lake Shore Boulevard. He promised to deliver the highway in less than three years and cover the $1 billion cost in exchange for development rights for housing and offices along the Gardiner’s former route, which Teron figured would recoup his costs. Naysayers included Metro traffic officials, who warned of cost overruns, overstatement of green space, massive traffic tie-ups during construction, and disruptions to TTC service.

Teron’s plan went nowhere, as have numerous other proposals since then (such as this one from 2013).

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“Bumping the Humber Hump. Robert Balen works on 30 tonne steel beams for a new bridge over the Humber River, which will replace the westbound lanes of the notorious hump on the Gardiner Expressway.” Photo by Boris Spremo, 1998. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115144f.

Until 1998, one of the Gardiner’s distinguishing characteristics was the “Humber Hump.” Created by settling bridgework near the Humber River, it was a roller coaster ride that either thrilled or terrified. One of the best ways to experience the hump was riding near the back of a school bus, where the combination of position and speed would send you flying. During my university daze, I took a drama criticism class which included field trips into Toronto, and my classmates eagerly anticipated who’d hit their head on the roof when we rode over the hump.

But it wasn’t always fun. The hump witnessed several fatal accidents over the years, and going too fast could send your entire vehicle flying. After years of failing to remedy the settling, the bridge was replaced in 1998. The remnants were sent off to the Leslie Spit.

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Demolition of Leslie Street ramp viewed from north side of detour, looking south-east. Photo by Peter MacCallum, January 20, 2001, City of Toronto Archives, Series 572, File 77, Item 4.

By the late 1990s, poor maintenance of the section east of the Don Valley Parkway prompted calls for a teardown. Opposition to the demolition came from two groups: film studios concerned about dust and noise that was factored into the final demo process; and local residents who worried about traffic spilling onto side streets and into the Beaches, even though drivers would be able to follow essentially the same route into the lakeside community. City councillor Tom Jakobek resisted demolition, devising several compromise plans that would have preserved part of the stump. “Cars are an important necessity in this society,” Jakobek noted in 1999. “Why would anyone want to eliminate road capacity anywhere, when it’s located in the middle of an industrial area and people use it?”

But Jakobek was in the minority: most attendees at public deputations wanted it to go away. City council approved its demolition in 1999. Only a few pillars remain, while land opened up for a bike path, big box shopping, and the TTC’s Leslie Barns facility.

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Frederick G. Gardiner, 1961. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 175, Item 17.

“I’ve looked at this darn thing from one end to the other,” Frederick Gardiner observed in 1964, “and I can’t think of anything I would like to change.” Many Torontonians have and will continue to disagree. For years, the arguments over the Gardiner Expressway have boiled down to either maintaining it in some form to prevent excessive disruption to motorists, tear it down and redirect the traffic, or find creative uses to rehabilitate the existing structure.

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The Bentway, as used for exhibits during Nuit Blanche, October 2019. 

The latter has found favour in recent years, leading to artistic projects such as The Bentway. Housing and office towers have grown around the expressway in the core (but please, don’t throw your furniture toward the road!).

For as much as the Gardiner is maligned as a waste of money and an obstacle to the waterfront, I’ll admit it’s still thrilling to cruise into downtown at night along the elevated section, radio cranked to 11 to a song like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” and soak in the lights and cityscape unfolding around you.

As Toronto Life concluded in 1993, “No matter what Toronto decides to do, it will be a prodigiously difficult project, politically and financially. It sounds as if it might require the skills of a politician as powerful and shrewd as, say, Fred Gardiner.”

Sources: Regeneration: Toronto’s Waterfront and the Sustainable City (Toronto: Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, 1992); Toronto ’59 (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1959); Emerald City: Toronto Visited by John Bentley Mays (Toronto: Penguin, 1994); Unbuilt Toronto 2 by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011); the May 4, 1954, May 17, 1956, December 8, 1956, March 23, 1957, July 30, 1957, August 8, 1958, August 11, 1958, December 3, 1959, February 6, 1962, October 20, 1988, May 12, 1999, and May 15, 1999 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 14, 1949, July 8, 1953, January 2, 1954, May 3, 1954, July 2, 1957, November 21, 1973, September 30, 1983, September 13, 1989, April 24, 1990, May 18, 1999, April 28, 2000, May 6, 2000 and July 15, 2000 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 1993 edition of Toronto Life.

Articles I’ve written that were incorporated into this post were originally published by The Grid on March 17, 2012 and July 24, 2012 and Torontoist on February 7, 2014.

Dining at the Coxwell Kresge

This installment of my Retro T.O. column for The Grid was originally published on June 26, 2012.

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Toronto Star ad announcing Kresge’s arrival in Toronto, June 12, 1929. The original location on Danforth west of Woodbine is, as of July 2019, occupied by Dollarama. Click on image for larger version.

While modern successors of five-and-dime stores like Dollarama expand across the city, they lack certain attributes their ancestors possessed. You won’t find the mingling of odours from parakeets, popcorn, and rubber boots. You won’t find the latest chart-topping records. And, in the chains at least, you won’t find a classic lunch counter.

While the dining areas in Toronto’s branches of cross-border chains like Kresge and Woolworth didn’t have the society-changing impact like those locations that served as focal points of the American civil-rights movement, they did provide a gathering place for the surrounding community. Sitting on a stool or leather-padded seat along the counter, patrons could catch up with friends or enjoy coffee, a light meal, and a slice of pie on their own. Before fast-food chains took over, the counters were ideal for a fast economical meal or a treat to calm down the kids.

ts 88-10-11 coxwell kresge dinette Toronto Star, October 11, 1988. Click on image for larger version.

When the Star profiled the “venerable east-end oasis” that was the Kresge outpost at 265 Coxwell Ave. in 1988, its counter seemed like a relic from another age. Despite the store’s yellowing shelf stock and creaky wooden floor, the 28-stool counter remained vital for its aging clientele as a place to socialize as their neighbourhood evolved into Little India. According to veteran clerk Vi Podmor, “We have the same old people showing up for coffee at the same time they have for years. I think they need this place to stay in touch.” Regulars like Moe Chandler recalled how busy the counter, which opened in 1942, was in its heyday, when it was patronized by streetcar drivers. “But they go to the doughnut shop on the corner now,” Chandler noted, “and a lot of people who used to shop here are going to Bargain Harold’s across the street.” While many of the other patrons he knew had passed on, Chandler, described as a “spry” 86-year-old, felt the counter was a “not bad” cruising spot.

Adding to the atmosphere was the vintage restaurant and soda-fountain equipment used to prepare the lunch counter’s culinary delights. Top sellers were classic snack bar fare: burgers, hot dogs, toast, and western sandwiches, at prices that only survive at Gale’s Snack Bar; few menu items topped four dollars. The classic milkshake machines likely saw less use than they did during the 1950s and 1960s, when local teens flooded the store every week to pick up the weekly CHUM Chart and enjoyed a drink while scanning the latest chart-toppers.

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Example of a downtown Toronto Kresge storefront, in this case at the southeast corner of Yonge and Carlton circa 1950. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 574, File 21, Item 49409.

The Coxwell lunch counter outlived Kresge, whose last five Toronto stores were closed by Kmart in 1994. The new store owner, Super Dollar, retained the vintage aura of the dining area by retaining the “Dinette” sign, now with “Dollar” in front of it. But the decision to retain low prices proved unprofitable and the counter was closed in April 1996. The community’s ire expressed itself in a petition signed by 425 people. Combined with a substantial sales drop overall following the counter’s closure, store owners reopened it a few months later. The store would change names again, but the counter continued to feed the neighbourhood, under the banner of Liquidation World, until it closed for good in April 2007. Some seats were quickly removed to make space for a rack of dish cloths that once might have cleaned the counter. The store site is currently vacant, despite interest in remaking the space.

Sources: the April 18, 2007 edition of the National Post, and the October 11, 1988, April 26, 1996, and September 11, 1996 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

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As of October 2019, 265 Coxwell Avenue houses Dollar Tree. Head to the back, near the rear entrance, for a sense of where the lunch counter was.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Thanks to the Toronto Star Photo Archive at the Toronto Reference Library, higher-quality versions of Doug Griffin’s photos of the Coxwell Kresge taken in 1988. There’s a glimpse of the No Frills next door which, as of July 2019, is being rebuilt.

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Another ad for one of Kresge’s early Toronto stores, taken from the November 15, 1929 edition of the Star. As of July 2019 this location is a Scotiabank branch.

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Globe and Mail, January 6, 1994

The 13 Canadian locations marked the end of Kmart’s involvement in the five-and-dime trade. The remaining American Kresge stores (along with the Jupiter chain) were sold to McCrory’s in 1987. Growing up across the border from Kmart’s home base of Detroit, I remember shopping at several Kresge’s across the Motor City’s suburbs, mostly to stock up on sports cards. Soon after the sale, the stores were rebranded as McCrory’s, accompanied by a drop in quality during the period where five-and-dimes were on the way out and dollar stores were starting to fill that retail void.

Kmart’s overall woes continued. The Canadian division was sold to Zellers in 1998. Store closings continued in the United States. Falling behind competitors like Target and Walmart in the discount department store it once dominated, Kmart declared bankruptcy in 2002. Then hedge fund operator Edward Lampert gained control, merged the company with Sears, and has demonstrated over the past two decades how (a) to drive two venerable retailers into the ground and (b) how Ayn Rand-inspired methods are no way to run a business. A sign of how far Kmart has fallen: in Metro Detroit, where the company was based until Lampert gained control, only four locations remain as of 2019.

The Wimpy Awards

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on March 27, 2012. The number of burger joints, especially those with gourmet aspirations, continues to grow. There’s even a website (Tasty Burgers) dedicated to review the GTA’s purveyors of ground round, or whatever they’re tossing in the burgers these days. Stick around to the end of this post for some of my (as of 2019) favourite burger spots.

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Illustration by Patrick Corrigan, Toronto Star, March 16, 1983.

It’s safe to say Toronto is currently hamburger crazy. Whether you prefer going to an old-school burger joint that retains its 1960s-era appearance, testing a highbrow patty made with gourmet ingredients, or joining the never-ending lineups at The Burger’s Priest, Toronto has rediscovered its love for a slab of ground meat loaded with every topping imaginable (though you still can’t get lettuce at Johnny’s in Scarborough).

Back in March of 1983, Toronto Star food writer Jim White felt the local burger scene needed recognition. Noting that there were so many awards for the arts, White jokingly told readers that to correct a “cultural imbalance,” the paper was launching a series of articles to hand out Oscar-style statuettes to worthy local eateries. To honour Toronto’s best burgers, White devised the Wimpy Awards, which honoured Popeye’s gluttonous pal.

White’s criteria for the Wimpys ruled out “anything pre-fab, served by clowns or named after someone like Harvey or Wendy.” Though he intended to focus on the burger alone, White discovered that “the décor, background music, and ambience of a burger joint can be just as important as the product.” As a control measure, a basic burger and fries were ordered at each restaurant in the competition, as “the quality of French fries colours one’s impression of the burger.”

Some winners from the Wimpy Awards, presented with little fanfare on March 16, 1983:

Best Burger for the Buck: the original location of Lick’s in the Beaches, then a narrow eatery with long lines, two tables, and six stools. For only $1.95, Lick’s served large burgers that White described as “superb and perfectly charbroiled.” He noted that “the only thing missing in this setting is John Belushi shouting ‘Cheezeburgah…cheezeburgah.’” No mention as to whether the chain’s singing schtick was already in place.

Most Expensive Burger in Toronto: For $10, patrons of the Courtyard Café at the Windsor Arms Hotel received a loosely packed patty served with a truffle-tinged artichoke, purposely-undercooked chips, and a bland tomato tart.

Best Staging for a Burger: At the Bloor Street Diner, diners enjoyed their meal amid a backdrop of “pink neon, high-gloss black lacquered trim and stainless steel table tops.” The burger itself had a quality most people would appreciate—it wasn’t “sinewy.”

Best Patty: The Hayloft at 37 Front St. E. offered a burger that was lean, juicy, flavourful, and extremely fresh. Unfortunately, White felt it was ruined by lousy condiments, mediocre bun, and fries that had been sitting around for a while. The server accidentally brought White a cheeseburger, which was topped with “a tasteless, carrot-coloured film to peel off as one peels dried rubber cement off the back of one’s hand.”

Best Burger in a Supporting Role: Both Mr. Greenjeans (Eaton Centre and 120 Adelaide St. E.) and Partners (836 Danforth Ave. and 765 Mount Pleasant Rd.) served their burgers in large wicker baskets filled with Buffalo chips and on what White considered the city’s best burger bun, a light egg roll prepared by Central Bakery.

Toronto’s Darkest Burger: The experience of eating at Toby’s Good Eats at 91 Bloor St. W. on even a sunny day was “like sitting in a cellar during a hydro black-out.” When the waitress told him to enjoy his lunch, White replied “we would if we could see it.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

star 1977-07-13 best burgersToronto Star, July 13, 1977. Click on image for larger version.

An earlier roundup of the Metro Toronto’s burgers from the Star. Two of the spots mentioned remain: Johnny’s (notice they don’t mention the lack of lettuce as a topping option) and Apache.

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Toronto Star, March 16, 1983.

One of the articles which accompanied the Wimpy Awards. As of July 2019, none of the winners exist in their 1983 forms. Lick’s expanded into a chain then collapsed in the early 2010s. Only two locations appear to have survived. The Courtyard Cafe at the Windsor Arms has been used as a brunch buffet space in recent years.

That pricey $10 burger? The Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator puts it at $23.76 in 2019 funds, which wouldn’t be out of line at higher-end eateries. Don’t get me started about $100 stunt burgers that periodically provide fuel for clickbait.

Where do I enjoy digging into a burger in Toronto? It depends on my mood. Sometimes you want a high-quality patty with top-notch ingredients. Sometimes you want a char-grilled slab of beef from a place that’s been around forever.

In alphabetical order…

Burger Shack (Eglinton and Oriole Parkway)
Old school homeburgers. Excellent fries. Giant selection of canned sodas. Thick sauteed onions. Swinging seats that remind me of childhood meals at the Woolco cafeteria.

Burger Stomper (Danforth west of Chester)
Fresh-tasting meat, doesn’t go overboard with the portion of fries.

Five Guys (Leaside location, Laird north of Millwood)
Pricey, and a chain, but worth it taste-wise. Beware filling yourself up with free peanuts.

Golden Star (Yonge north of Steeles)
Another old-school homeburger joint, serving condiments out of giant metal bowls just like Harvey’s used to. Decor screams 1970s.

Great Burger Kitchen (Gerrard and Jones)
Only if you’re really, really, really hungry, or plan to share your sides.

Jumbo Burger (Runnymede and Dundas)
Yet another old-school hamburger joint, with delicious thickly-battered onion rings.

No Bull Burgers (Kingston west of Victoria Park)
Recent discovery. Fresh burgers in different sizes, delicious fries and rings, and (for vegetarians) an excellent quinoa-based patty.

Slab Burgers (Charles and Bay)
Handy for a research day at the Toronto Reference Library.

The Choosing of an Interim Toronto Mayor, 1978

This story was originally published by The Grid toward the end of 2012. I don’t have the exact date, as it was one of those pieces which fell off the website before the publication folded for good. I don’t remember what the original title of this article was, though the sub-head probably mentioned Rob Ford during the period it appeared he might be tossed from office.

ts 78-08-27 johnston beavis title fight

Toronto Star, August 27, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

When Toronto city councillors voted for an interim mayor on September 1, 1978, the deadlock the media predicted came to pass. Candidates Fred Beavis and Anne Johnston had 11 votes each. Under the law, there was one solution to determine who would fill the last three months of David Crombie’s term: placing the contenders’ names in a cardboard box.

While it’s unknown if choosing Rob Ford’s successor will require the luck of the draw, the last time council filled a mayor’s term wasn’t due to a politician departing in disgrace. After six years at the helm, Crombie used an upcoming by-election in Rosedale to leap into federal politics. When he announced his bid for the Progressive Conservative nomination in March 1978, Crombie praised the public’s civic engagement during his tenure. “You can fight City Hall in Toronto,” he observed, “and if your point of view is sensible you can usually win.”

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Toronto Sun, September 1, 1978.

When Crombie officially submitted his resignation in August, the list of interim successors narrowed to two councillors. First elected in 1956, Fred Beavis was the longest-serving councilor and had sat on nearly all critical committees. The genial former roofer was backed by the Executive Committee and council’s right wing, and criticized for his support of developers, reviving the Spadina Expressway, and eviction Toronto Island residents. If chosen, he would be the city’s first Roman Catholic mayor. Beavis was favoured over Anne Johnston, who was first elected in 1972, served as the chair of the Board of Health for four years, and claimed to be the same height as Crombie. Her support came from the left and her fellow female aldermen, while criticisms included loose lips, lack of experience with critical issues, and a suspicion she was a puppet for mayoral contender John Sewell. If chosen, she would be Toronto’s first female mayor.

The decision was made during a tense 45-minute meeting. A proposal to adjourn and move into an informal caucus was quickly voted down. Official nominations were made for Beavis and Johnston. George Ben stunned his fellow councillors by declaring the process “asinine and an affront to the dignity of Toronto.” He criticized both candidates, declaring that Beavis was in it for “lousy reasons,” while Johnston was “a joke on the people of Toronto.” Ben nominated deputy mayor David Smith, who declined due to an informal agreement among councillors like himself who were running for mayor in the November municipal election not to seek the temporary position. Ben continued to fume, pointing to 40 civic employees watching the meeting who were indulging in “a rather disgraceful waste of taxpayer’s money.”

ts 78-09-02 beavis becomes mayorToronto Star, September 2, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

When the open vote split evenly, out came the cardboard box. The winner was drawn by Pat Murphy of the Association of Women Electors, who had covered council meetings for two decades. When Beavis’s name was pulled, it continued his recent good luck streak of winning church draws and community raffles. Johnston took her loss gracefully—she successfully motioned council to unanimously approve the result, then draped the chain of office around Beavis’s neck. She later lost to Art Eggleton in a 1985 mayoral run and was defeated as a councillor by newcomer Karen Stintz in 2003.

While other councillors toasted him with champagne, Beavis leaned back in the mayor’s chair and, true to his blue collar image, cracked open a bottle of Labatt’s Blue. “I figured something you always wanted all your life,” he told the Star, “was something you just weren’t going to get.” The only major hiccup during the transfer of power was forgetting to grab a key to his new office before his first full morning on the job. Beavis fulfilled his duties without major incidents, and was re-elected to the council seat he would retain for another decade. Crombie easily won the Rosedale by-election, while Sewell succeeded Beavis in the mayor’s seat.

sun 78-09-05 editorial Toronto Sun, September 5, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

In a municipal election day editorial, the Star reflected there was nothing wrong with Beavis having been the sentimental choice for the job. “In his years on City Council, Beavis always displayed a compassionate consideration for people of all political persuasions and a warm sense of humour. He carried these qualities into the mayor’s office too…We enjoyed having you as mayor.” We shall see if these will be critical qualities for whoever replaces Rob Ford.

Additional material from the September 2, 1978 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 3, 1978, August 27, 1978, September 2, 1978, and November 13, 1978 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

Rob Ford remained mayor until his term ended in 2014. David Crombie served as Rosedale’s MP until 1988, filling several cabinet positions for Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. Fred Beavis died in 1997, Anne Johnston in 2019.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Fred Beavis, 1978. Photo by David Cooper. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Reference Library, tspa_0031446f.

When Crombie first announced his intention to run for Parliament in March 1978, the Star spotlighted three councillors expected to seek the interim mayoralty: Beavis, Johnston, and Tony O’Donohue. “I ran for mayor in 1972 and drew 58,000 votes,” O’Donohue told the Star. “I’m not going to disappoint those people now and turn around and not run for interim mayor.” He also told the Globe and Mail that he was the “logical choice.”

Beavis, who had declared he would only go for the interim position and not run for mayor in that fall’s municipal election, was stunned by O’Donohue’s decision. “Tony once stated he would support me for interim mayor,” Beavis told the Star. “First I’ve heard of him changing his mind and I don’t know if it’s a change of heart or what. We’ve had no falling out and nothing changes my mind.”

Somewhere along the line O’Donohue focused on the municipal election, where he finished second in a three-way race with Sewell and David Smith.

gm 78-09-02 beavis wins 3

Globe and Mail, September 2, 1978.

“Beavis was not sophisticated, but was trustworthy in that he did what he said, and he was genuinely liked by almost everyone on Council.” – John Sewell, on favouring Beavis for his Executive Committee following the 1978 election.

sun 78-09-03 downing

Toronto Sun, September 3, 1978.

Additional material from How We Changed Toronto by John Sewell (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2015), the March 4, 1978 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 4, 1978 edition of the Toronto Star.