Happy 50th Birthday, North York!

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on May 12, 2012.

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Cover of The Mirror Special Jubilee Edition, June 1972. All images in this article are taken from this publication.

The summer of 1972 was a momentous one for the Borough of North York. The growing suburban municipality celebrated its 50th anniversary that year with a series of special events throughout that spring and summer. Among the souvenirs was a special edition of the Mirror newspaper which traced North York’s past, present, and future.

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Photo: Doug Hyatt.

The Borough of North York Council enjoy a ride at Black Creek Pioneer Village after rehearsing a planned re-enactment of the first council meeting in 1922 (the councillor in the white coat and red scarf might be Mel Lastman, while Paul Godfrey may be third from left in the front row). North York was born out of a farmers’ revolt over their lack or representation on York Township council. During the early 20th century councillors were voted on by the entire township, which increasingly meant all of the representatives came from the southern, urban end of York Township. A petition was launched to separate the rural northern area, which was taken door-to-door by Roy Risebrough in his 1917 Model T. The petition succeeded: a bill establishing the Township of North York was passed by the Ontario legislature on June 13, 1922.

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Likely as a reward for his work in establishing the Township of North York, Roy Risebrough was named its first police constable. When he noted that he knew nothing about police enforcement, officials told him “you’ll learn soon.” In his 34 years as North York’s chief constable he never carried a gun and knew most of the township’s early citizens by name. Outside of occasional gas station robberies (which were mostly committed by Torontonians), crimes tended to be minor. “Ninety percent of the cases were settled out of court,” he told the Mirror.” I used to go round to the house and talk to the people. It was different in those days. Instead of taking them to court, you gave them a tongue-lashing. And in a month, they were good friends again.” In many ways, Risebrough was the stereotypical small town law enforcer, to the extent that at least one long-time resident believed he never wore a uniform so that he could slip away for a few hours to fish.

Make that almost never wore a uniform. When George Mitchell campaigned for reeve in 1941, he promised to make Risebrough wear official clothing. After his election, Mitchell took Risebrough to Tip Top Tailors to be measured. When the uniform was ready, Mitchell had Risebrough put it on before both men made an evening drive from Willowdale to Hogg’s Hollow. Mitchell said “Now I’ve fulfilled my campaign promise, Roy. You can do what you damned well like.” Risebrough never wore the full uniform again.

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North York’s planning department prepared a series of maps tracing the municipality’s growth. The following description was provided for the 1922 map (population: 6,000):

North York’s population in 1922 was scattered in small farm-based communities centring along Yonge. It continued the development spine of the city of Toronto. Various villages thrived along the Yonge axis—York Mills, Lansing, Willowdale and Newtonbrook. Many of the borough’s historic sites are located in the bygone villages—Gibson House, C.W. Jeffery’s home, the Jolly Miller Tavern, and the Hogg store, Dempsey Brothers’ store, York Cottage and the Joshua Cummer house. A population nucleus existed in a strip development at Humber Summit on Islington, on the road leading to Woodbridge. A small development existed at North West, at Wilson and Weston Rd.

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By 1945, the population had spread from both sides of Yonge. Most of the growth was in the area south of Wilson, between Yonge and Bathurst. By this time, Lawrence Park, was largely developed to its present extent. Humber Summit expanded more towards the Humber River and became largely a community of summer cottages. These were soon winterized for year-round occupation. North Weston expanded further to merge with the Pelmo Park area to its east.

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This map shows the vast population growth which occurred in the decade. It took place largely in the area west of Bayview. East of Bayview the township remained largely in farm use. With the exception of a few pockets, development took place south of Sheppard and west of Bathurst. It went as far north as Steeles between Bathurst and Bayview. Why the growth? New family formations brought the need for single-family homes. Unified water and sewerage in Metro helped speed development. The growth of car ownership brought people to the suburbs, starting in 1949. North York’s 1948 official plan helped planning and the comprehensive zoning bylaw of 1952 showed permitted land uses. By 1955 the Yonge St. villages had merged into the community today known as Willowdale. But only a small population had moved to Don Mills by 1955.

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It was during the decade 1955 to 1965 that North York changed from being a dormitory community for Toronto’s labour force. It became a more integrated urban community with the introduction of industrial and commercial developments and the jobs these provided. By 1965 Don Mills was developed to its present extent. Yorkdale Shopping Centre had been opened in the western half of the borough. Development had almost reached the northern limits of the municipality at Steeles and left a few remaining pockets of undeveloped land south of Finch, such as Windfields Farm.

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With the notable exception of Windfields Farm, the filling in of large subdivided tracts of land is now almost completed. What remains in the borough? There are vacant single-family and apartment building lots. Also, not all land is at its full potential use as, for example, where single-family homes stand on land planned for apartments. The planned population of the borough, according to the district plan program is 734,000 people. North York is expected to reach this figure sometime after 1990. During the 1966–71 period the major developments in North York include the Ontario Science Centre, Flemingdon Park and Fairview Mall Shopping Centre.

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During the debate over the Spadina Expressway, some North York residents protested in favour of the controversial roadway. Director of traffic operations S.R. Cole professed an open mind toward Spadina in his contribution to the Mirror special. “I simply note that if we had left the Lake Shore Blvd. as it was in 1945 and not built the Gardiner Expressway or the Don Valley Parkway, downtown Metro might be like some downtown areas in other cities—deteriorating, lacking in development. There might be no North York as we know it today. North York needed a downtown core to grow as it has.” Cole also believed that rapid transit on Eglinton Avenue was needed “sooner than the Toronto Transit Commission will likely propose it.”

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Sheppard Avenue, facing east towards Leslie Street. Photo by Doug Hyatt.

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Borough councillors were asked to write about the biggest challenges facing the municipality. Mayor Basil Hall thought traffic problems due to massive construction projects like the Yonge subway extension were the biggest concern in the present, while redevelopment to prevent urban decay would be required in the future. Controller Mel Lastman targeted municipal strikes and inadequate TTC service as his beefs, while fellow controller Paul Godfrey was determined to protect North York’s ecology.

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York University had existed for just over a decade, and operated from its main campus for seven years when North York celebrated its golden jubilee. The school’s first president, Dr. Murray Ross, noted the best course for York’s continued progress:

The only possible problem which could adversely affect York’s development is the kind of confrontation found frequently on other campuses in North America. We have avoided such difficulties at York thus far. It is not conflict of view which is inevitable in all families and organizations, but the manner in which conflict is resolved that is important. We have been able so far to work out our difficulties and differences in discussion and debate. If we are able to continue to do so, York’s future is assured. I predict, and I believe sincerely, that in the future York will enhance its already established reputation.

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When it opened in 1970, Fairview Mall was the first multi-level shopping centre in Metropolitan Toronto. Among its early attractions was the lengthy movator, which was removed during the 1980s.

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One of the many ads found in the Mirror special from North York’s major corporate citizens. The IBM complex at Eglinton Avenue and Don Mills Road is currently home to Celestica.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The municipal ad on the back cover. “The astonishment of North York,” according to writer Robert Moon, “lies not so much in its multi-billion-dollar construction since the Second World War, which is profound in time and space, but in the creation of a quality place to live and work for 520,000 people, which is simple and grand in concept.”

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A collection of North York historical landmarks.

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The accompanying map.

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Some scenes in North York never change, such as the eternal traffic jam on the northbound Don Valley Parkway around Lawrence Avenue.

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While some of the corporate offices and landmarks shown in this ad are still present in Flemingdon Park (Foresters, Ontario Science Centre), others are long gone. As of 2018, Inn on the Park is a car dealership, IBM is Celestica, the Imperial Oil property is Real Canadian Superstore, while the Bata and Shell properties are now the Aga Khan Museum. The spotlighted property, the Ontario Hospital Association and Blue Cross building, is now bannered with ICICI Bank.

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Toronto Star, June 13, 1972.