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New cedar block pavement on Harbord Street to Spadina, November, 1899.City of Toronto Archives

The bricks are the fabric of an older Toronto, occasionally emerging through thinning asphalt or laid bare in the bottom of a pothole, vestigial reminders of early attempts to tame the city’s notoriously muddy roads.

Less than a century ago, Toronto roads were surfaced with a motley array of materials – everything from wood to bricks to leftover ballast stones from ships. The change to asphalt was controversial, a debate that mirrored modern political fights by pitting claims of progress against an unwillingness to spend money. But it was eventually so successful that a key stage of the city’s evolution disappeared.

Cities tend to accrete over centuries, layer by layer, the past becoming foundation for the present. This has been true also of Toronto, where work on Yonge Street turned up old rail tracks and the rebuild of part of St. Lawrence Market unearthed the foundations of three previous structures.

Gendron Lane near Richmond St. East and Sherbourne St.Fred Lum

In a similar fashion, Toronto often simply tarred over its old roads. Buried beneath the modern asphalt, they became the usually hidden remains of a largely forgotten time.

“We don’t give any attention to the history of this city,” argues Corey Keeble, a retired museum curator and lecturer on architectural history. “Toronto is growing so quickly that part of our history slips away.”

Cities were traditionally made of whatever was close at hand. It’s why so much of Paris was built from the limestone quarried beneath that city. It’s why bricks – fired in the millions in the Don Valley – were for decades the dominant building material in Toronto.

And not just for houses. Old maps reveal that many roads were topped with brick well into the early 20th century. Although these were conquered one by one by the asphalt advocates, the bricks live on in the memories of the dwindling number of residents who grew up on these streets.

Americo Cioe, a retired life insurer who has lived almost all of his 94 years a bit north of where Kensington Market is now, recalls a childhood in which his road was topped with large honey-brown stones, later replaced with brick.

Queen Street east of Lee Avenue after 1906.Unknown/City of Toronto Archives

It was a time when fewer people had vehicles, so everything from coal to ice to bread was delivered by horse-drawn wagon. Vegetable vendors made their rounds in season. All this traffic on the rough surface was loud, but as a child Mr. Cioe didn’t mind. And the roadwork provided a form of entertainment.

“I thought it was well done. We used to sit at the side and watch them layer in the brick,” he recalls. “That would have come from the Don Valley for sure. They were a hard type of brick – it wasn’t like something just used for homes.”

Early Toronto was famously mucky. Before assuming its current name, the city was popularly called Muddy York, a place the wife of an early 19th-century colonial official dismissed as “an ill-built town, on low land.”

When it was dry, the roads raised a pall of dust, and when it was wet the mud bogged down wagons and begrimed pedestrians. The state of the roads was a perennial complaint, and over the decades a wide range of materials were deployed against the mud.

While pavement started making inroads late in the 19th century, encouraged by the then-substantial cycling lobby, not everybody was a fan.

St. Patrick St., just north of Queen St.Fred Lum

Phillip Mackintosh, a Brock University associate professor of geography and tourism studies, describes in a 2005 paper how Torontonians were reluctant to grant council permission to levy money for laying pavement. But they were fighting a losing battle against asphalt advocates who framed their dream in sweeping terms.

“Put plainly, asphalt would entice beautiful and moral people into the streets,” Prof. Mackintosh wrote in the journal Material Culture Review. “Asphalt pavement applied art and science to roads. It was indicatively modern.”

The modernizers prevailed, but victory was slow. Barely more kilometres of asphalt than brick were laid from 1890 through 1900. Over that same period, almost as many kilometres were surfaced with wood – which broke down quickly and had the unfortunate habit of soaking up horse urine, becoming notably odorous – as with brick and asphalt put together.

By 1908, a municipal engineer’s map reveals, a number of main roads were paved, particularly on the east side where the city began. But others were topped with brick, gravel or the stone-and-tar mix known as macadam. Many were still surfaced with wooden blocks.

It’s not clear when a critical mass of paved streets was achieved. Some residents with long memories can recall bricks surviving on their local roads until after the Second World War. And an unnamed wood-surfaced alley on the east side of the downtown, north of Dundas Street, wasn’t paved until the 1970s.

Brick to be laid at Sheridan Avenue in Toronto in the 1890s.City of Toronto Archives

While it’s not obvious this process has brought the moral advances promised by its boosters, it does make for a smoother ride for motorists and cyclists. It also makes it easier for children to play street hockey – though 84-year-old Marvin Goldberg, a former Nortel employee who still lives in his childhood home downtown, recalls the unpredictable bounces of playing on brick as just part of the game.

“When you’re a kid, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “You’re just, you know, playing.”

Although a few stretches of brick still exist in Cabbagetown, Midtown and the Beach – classic touches fiercely defended by local residents – almost all of Toronto is now paved. Only once in a while, as the roads wear away, do the old surfaces become visible again.

“That’s a pretty good metaphor for history in Toronto,” says Chris Bateman with Heritage Toronto.

“On the surface it might seem like a very modern city … but if you sort of scratch away and you know where to look, you can really see those historical elements come through.”

But it’s an ephemeral moment. These windows into the past last only until a road crew comes along and the bricks are again entombed in asphalt.