Post-Sept. 11, the difference between the antiterrorist legislation in Canada and the United States is not very much. Talk of forming a monetary union and melting into one North America is popular among those who suggest there is not much difference between them and us. But Fort York, in the heart of downtown Toronto, was once a potent reminder that we were not always kindred spirits of the Americans, that we burned each other's parliament buildings and stuck bayonets in one another. And, unless there is a radical shift in the way we operate in this city, that symbol is destined to disappear forever.
The fort was constructed in 1793 at a time when the United States desired the whole of North America. Britain's Imperial Forces dug in at the garrison and fought against the Yanks in the War of 1812. Canada's history was dramatic and defiant back then. Fort York was pivotal in securing our right to nationhood.
What was once 768 acres of the original garrison reserve has been whittled away by housing, slaughter yards, cement works and beer companies. In the last century, streetcar tracks hacked off the fort's northern defensive wall. In the late 1950s, the Gardiner Expressway was to run directly over the garrison's lands -- the highway's dip to the south is a feckless alternative.
Only 28 acres are what remain of the fort. And still the noose is growing tighter.
Hidden from view and nearly impossible to access, Fort York limps along as a third-rate tourist destination. It attracts about 75,000 visitors per year -- most of them students on school trips. Staff has been slashed by 75 per cent over the last decade so that, today, there are only three full-time staff working at Fort York. The city, the province and the federal government have treated Fort York with abusive neglect. A paltry $6-million has been spent by the city on the fort's archeology and capital works in the last decade. About $60,000 is received annually from the province. The federal government provides a grant of $11,000 to hire summer students.
I am standing on the grass at Fort York. And this is the surreal picture I see: a foreground of grass, followed by a brutal slash of concrete -- the Gardiner -- that looms up in front of me. Compared to the discreet scale of the brick barracks or the stone powder magazine on the site, the Gardiner is monstrous. Two advertising screens send their bright light messages across to the fort. A flock of Canada geese peck at the grass, bathed in the screens' neon light.
Such is the conflated slice of history as seen from the hillocks of Fort York. It's a bizarre sight of things real and unreal -- something that might excite the French urban theorist Jean Baudrillard -- but it's also the product of a private sector gone lawless in Toronto.
Developers have long called the shots in Toronto. They've been making mincemeat out of the suburban bumpkins ruling this town. Their power has conditioned the city's planners to expect little or nothing from them. Big ideas about grand civic gestures or meaningful public space have been deleted from the planner's agenda. A park? Nobody asks for a park any more. Planners are digging for fool's gold: something that has been coined a "view corridor."
The view corridor is about all that Toronto developers H and R could promise the city in their most recent proposal to build ungainly condominiums by Page and Steele Architects as tall as 36 storeys south of the garrison. But watch carefully and reap the rewards of visionary planning in the Toronto's downtown. If you stand at the entrance gates at the western edge of the fort, there is a view corridor of Lake Ontario. Planners will tell you that's an important view corridor. Stand several metres west, and you might be lucky enough to enjoy the view corridor to the Princes' Gates of the Canadian National Exhibition. Squint your eyes and behold a stunning visual experience. The Ontario Municipal Board is currently preparing a decision on whether to green light the development.
The H and R plan has received fierce criticism from the Friends of Fort York, a citizen's group organized back in 1994. They condemn the plan for its tall buildings and the impact on views to the lake from the fort. The Bathurst-Strachan Part II Plan, they contend, is a much friendlier development with condominiums restricted to 12-storeys along the Fort York Boulevard currently being constructed directly south of the fort.
Both plans, however, are reckless invasions of the integrity and significance of Fort York. Both plans present formidable blank walls to visitors at Fort York. Both plans are massively overbuilt at about six times coverage of the industrial template that existed previously in the area. Two reports, one by du Toit Allsopp Hillier architects as well as the "Blue Book" Waterfront Plan, have recommended a circuitous, modestly scaled park running southwest from the fort to the nearby armoury. As well, a linear park to run directly south from Fort York has been recommended, requiring a sliver of land currently occupied by Molson Canada. The linear park is a desperate grab -- it measures only about 30 metres in width -- but there is nothing to suggest that city council is capable of preventing developers from hungrily consuming it.
"It's an absolutely mystical place," says JoAnn Pynn, the museum administrator of Fort York who graduated in architecture from Ottawa's Carleton University. "When it rains or if there's been fog, the Gardiner disappears and you can step back 200 years in time."
But, even on a bright day, without the veil of the weather, Fort York should be defined as a mystical place. Big, bold gestures of urban design are required to make that happen: the Gardiner needs to come down (how many ways can this be restated) and the city needs to purchase St. Mary's Cement and Molson, both of which block direct views and access to Lakeshore Boulevard and Coronation Park. The site of the former Molson brewery has languished for years before being recently renovated by WZMH Architects for Markley Stearns to house an Internet provider.
But, too late. Markley has recently defaulted on its mortgage payments and Molson is, once again, sitting empty. Herein lies an important opportunity. Demolish the brewing factory and connect the fort to the lake with a large, generous park. No tricks. No stingy view corridors, but magnificent views to the lake that the fort once protected.
At the Fortress of Louisbourg, a national historic monument owned and operated by Parks Canada, hundreds of costumed staff animate the massively reconstructed site during the summer in Cape Breton. In Niagara-on-the Lake, Ont., at Fort George, another national historic monument also owned by Parks Canada, dozens of costumed staff tour visitors through their site. The difference is that Fort York is a national historic monument that is not owned by Parks Canada. The City of Toronto owns Fort York, which is one sure way of starving the fort out of operation. Another buyer needs to come forward: Parks Canada is an obvious sugar daddy.
For all those who like to press an image of evolution, not revolution and pacifism, not militarism into the hearts of Canada's youth, remember the words of historian Carl Benn: "The founding of modern urban Toronto was a military event," he writes in Historic Fort York. In the War of 1812, the Americans overwhelmed the garrison and, according to common military practice, torched Upper Canada's parliament buildings at the corner of King and Parliament Streets. Canada returned the favour the following year in Washington. That was the last invasion of Washington prior to Sept. 11, a memory of defiance that should resonate importantly.
Fort York has been left to hang. Late at night, its parking lot is favoured as a wonderful secret. Besides couples in cars, refuse from rooming houses is occasionally dumped along the garrison's edges. The fort is trying to hang on, relying on volunteers to help finance its exhibition displays, its operators thankful for the raucous beer festivals that bring in important operating dollars.
The city needs to put an end to piece-meal grabs for insulting view corridors. Clear the land south of the fort the way the Queen's Rangers once cleared the trees to make way for the fort. Preserve it as an important new park designed for non-military meandering in a bucolic setting. Act swiftly and decisively before more developers come knocking, before the easy seduction of the city councillors begins all over again.