On Aug. 25, 1913, a streetcar trolley made its first trip across St. Clair Avenue – there was no public speech and no ribbon-cutting ceremony. But starting Tuesday September 10, St. Clair was to finally get the send-off it never got then: A week-long celebration hosted by the Wychwood Barns Community Association to mark the 100th anniversary of Toronto’s northernmost streetcar line.
“It’s recognizing a really pivotal event – the spark that started the neighbourhood,” says Diane Mohan, chair of the St. Clair Centennial Celebration’s steering committee and a St. Clair-area resident for more than 30 years. The retrospective will feature art exhibits, tours, and launch a historical online archive with an accompanying mobile app that offers an in-depth look at a transit line that marked Toronto’s northward growth.
Building the tracks through the area’s steep hills and over the Nordheimer Ravine at Bathurst Street had proven difficult, the city was well behind schedule, and residents of the St. Clair neighbourhoods newly annexed to the city were anxious to get moving. Up to that point, all they had to rely on were horse buggies on an underdeveloped dirt road. The nearest transit line was a walk to Davenport Road.
The line has seen its share of controversy, much of that during its recent renovation. “The way St. Clair is spoken about by some politicians – it’s usually seized as an ideological point,” says Vid Ingelevics, a professor at Ryerson’s image arts program and WBCA volunteer. What often gets lost, and what this week’s exhibit brings to life, is St. Clair’s history as a litmus test for how a still-new city approaches transit: Toronto’s better moves for construction and reconstruction happened when the city anticipated (and didn’t react to) neighbourhood growth, and weathered change best when it worked and communicated with its citizens.
Even St. Clair’s beginnings were borne out of disagreement. Since 1891, the privately held Toronto Railway Co. had been responsible for operating most of the city’s street railways, but refused to build new lines beyond the boundaries it had agreed upon in 1894. In a move that may seem uncharacteristic to transit watchers today, the City of Toronto formed its own company, the Toronto Civic Railway, to build much-needed rail lines along St. Clair, Danforth, Lansdowne, Gerrard and Bloor. By the time the newly formed Toronto Transportation Commission took over in 1921, St. Clair was a vital crosstown line , running every four-and-a-half minutes on weekdays and every 2 minutes during rush hour. It also ran on its own dedicated boulevard – a feature that was later removed in 1928.
By the 1950s, St. Clair West saw a shift in population, as Italian newcomers moved in, set up shop and opened some of the city’s first sidewalk cafés. Frank Deleo, co-owner of Tre Mari Bakery near St. Clair and Lansdowne avenues, is the second generation of three that have run the Italian bakeshop since 1960. As a teen, Mr. Deleo, now 63, helped out with the family business after school, and delivered birthday cakes to the still largely Italian-populated Jane and Finch area. “I had to pack a lunch, it felt so far away!” he says.
In the early ‘70s and into the ‘80s, Mr. Deleo noticed two things. Families in his neighbourhood started moving out to the suburbs – but still returned to Tre Mari Bakery, and came in their cars. In 1972, the TTC unveiled plans that had been drafted since 1966 to replace the city’s streetcar network with buses. By November that year, a citizen group called the Streetcars for Toronto Committee fought to have those plans reversed, and succeeded. “Part of the reason St. Clair has survived was because the area was thriving economically,” says Steve Munro, a long-time transit activist who served on that streetcar committee, and will be leading tours during the St. Clair Centennial on a vintage PCC streetcar from the 1950s.
Among the proposals to come out of the revised TTC plans was returning St. Clair Avenue to a right-of-way line. It wouldn’t happen for a couple of decades, but when it started in 2005, the process was nearly as arduous as St. Clair’s first years of construction back in 1913. But on-the-fly design changes, poor co-ordination between city departments and local-business push back ran the project well over budget, and well over deadline.
“St. Clair was certainly an example of how not to manage a large-scale urban development project,” says Mr. Munro. He points to the current revitalization of the 509 route along Queen’s Quay as a much-improved process. “To visitors it looks terrible, but the city is doing a better job of co-ordination, and has much better buy-in from residents and businesses.”
For the WBCA, the St. Clair Centennial is a chance to look ahead. The 10-month project was pulled together by the work of more than 60 volunteers, many of them new to the Wychwood Barns Community Association. Their standout project: an augmented-reality mobile app that allows users to browse historical photos, profiles, and the past lives of buildings as they walk down the street. “This event is the first time the three BIAS from Bathurst to Dufferin have sat together to work on a single project,” says Ms. Mohan. “It’s been a catalyst for bringing the neighbourhood together in ways that haven’t happened before,” Ms. Mohan says.