Mister Company Man on the Company land
Stands every street and building in the town
Every park, every green, every home and dream
The Company owns every piece of ground
And everybody in the Company Town
Company Town by The Men They Couldn’t Hang, 1989
If it had been named Wireville or Cableton, perhaps Toronto residents would understand how important these “company town” homes in Leaside – incorporated in 1913, Leaside would become part of the borough of East York in 1967 – really are and how they jump-started development.
But, alas, when Canada Wire and Cable Co. (CWCC) purchased 6.5 hectares on the eastern edge of the development, another company had beaten them to the punch: the Canadian Northern Railway. It was the railway that had assembled 415 hectares of farmland and hired New Hampshire-born, Montreal-based Frederick Gage Todd to plan the unique, curving streets of Leaside.
Named for farmer John Lea, who settled here in 1819, and for his son, William, who had an octagonal home named “Leaside” built in the 1850s, Todd sharpened his draughting pencil, thought of his mentor Frederick Law Olmsted and employed new “garden city” principles to his design, just as he’d done for Mont Royal in Montreal and Port Mann in British Columbia.
However, during the 15-year development stall, this was Canada Wire’s town. As early as 1914, the president, Emil A. Wallberg, was securing permits to build homes for his employees on 40-foot lots. While the plan was to build 100 fairly close to the factory, underground water issues meant they were pushed across Laird Drive onto Rumsey Road, Airdrie Road and Sutherland Drive. In all, approximately 68 were built.
“The railroad thought they were going to do a Rosedale thing,” says transplanted American and architectural historian Connor Turnbull, who co-chairs the advocacy group Leaside Matters. “But Canada Wire said, ‘No, we’re going to build worker’s homes, and they’re going to be semi-detached, and they’re going to be utilitarian.’
“From our perspective,” she continues, “that’s sort of the DNA of Leaside, it’s the ‘Big Bang’ of this place.”
With the increasing development pressure in Toronto over all and leafy Leaside in particular, Ms. Turnbull thought that these homes and the factory that made them possible deserve a second look: “A lot of Leasiders tend to turn their back on the industrial and they don’t think about the fact that it had a place … and because of this new densification to the north, it’s going to really matter what Laird [becomes], and if Leasiders, at a minimum, can understand that this is part of the origin, then there’s a way that evolution of place can thread back together again.
“This is going to be downtown pretty soon, so what does that mean? It’s not Liberty Village, it’s a huge area.”
To that end, Leaside Matters has just wrapped on a photography exhibit in one of those old factory buildings at 28 Industrial St. While funds only allowed for a three-day showing at ArteMbassy, Hidden Amongst Us: Architectural Portraits of Leaside’s Canada Wire and Cable Company Homes was a much-needed, gentle prod and artistic reminder of the importance of Canada Wire (the complex was demolished in the late-1990s and replaced with a faux-Spanish big box mall) and the tidy homes it left behind.
Before moving along to photographer Vik Pahwa’s stately work, gallery-goers are treated to a 1928 aerial shot that shows the massive Canada Wire complex in mid-ground (so huge it tapers off into the top right-hand corner), and, in the foreground across Laird Drive., a smattering of CWCC homes surrounded by an expanse of empty, snow-covered land. That same spring, construction would begin on the rest of the town, which would take 25 years to complete.
Mr. Pahwa’s photos have an odd, bittersweet quality. With no inhabitants in sight, icicles clinging to eavestroughs, and pale sunlight casting dull shadows on brickwork and snow-covered yards, one can almost sense the century of gravity that has weighed upon these homes; the battered porch columns, stained mortar, and small windows visually outweigh the baby strollers, bicycles and recycling bins that serve to remind us that these shots were taken in the 21st century.
On a recent walkabout with Ms. Turnbull to see these homes in the flesh, things are less bitter and more sweet, as mothers push those strollers and tulips push their colourful heads through topsoil. Stopping in front of a foursome of CWCC homes, she explains her rationale for the exhibit.
“The reason I wanted portraits of these buildings rather than documentation is that Diane Arbus thing of giving them their place, and showing how they’ve evolved; this is not about being pretty,” she explains. “Why would this one have a filigreed, farmhouse-y thing, while the other one has a British red door? They all have their own variations but they all start off with this really utilitarian beginning.”
As we walk, it becomes easy to spot them. There’s the squat, sturdy semi with the hip roof and verandah; the variation with the dual porticos; the bare bones, detached Victorian with the tall gable; and the tiny cottage. Yes, they’re humble, but they’re important to the story, which Leaside Matters promises they’ll tell again when more funding comes through.
After all, a rapidly expanding city needs reminders of why its neighbourhoods were attractive in the first place.
“Leaside, in particular, takes itself for granted, there’s this assumption that it will always be [the same],” finishes Ms. Turnbull, a Leaside resident since 2011. “It’s a really great place to have kids.”
A companion booklet to the gallery show is available from leasidematters.ca.