Once and for all, is it Beach or Beaches?

beaches

A slightly abbreviated version of this story ran on Feb. 4, 2006, in The Globe and Mail. Singularists prevailed in the online poll weeks later, the new street signs were installed without protest and the Beaches BIA changed its name to The Beach BIA. Sandra Bussin was defeated as city councillor in 2010 and Glenn Cochrane died in June 2012. I was raised in the area but won’t have a firm opinion until I see better evidence.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Toronto’s budgetary shortfall looks impossible, there’s no end in sight for gun violence or poverty, and no imminent start dates for long-discussed waterfront and transit proposals.

So maybe we should have known it was too good to be true when word leaked out of old Toronto’s east end last month that the seemingly interminable and sometimes nasty Beach vs. Beaches fight was finally over.NEVILLE.sign

“It’s going to be ‘the Beach’ — not ‘the Beaches,'” Neil Macdonald said with conviction on Monday about the wording of new street signs planned for the lampposts of Queen Street East between Lockwood Road and Neville Park Boulevard this summer.

“Personally, historically, I think it’s more accurate to call this ‘the Beaches,’ but this time we’re taking the path of least resistance,” said Mr. Macdonald, chairman of the Beaches Business Improvement Area. “The [Beach] singular crowd are the most militant, while the ones who call it ‘the Beaches’ don’t seem to care too much.”

Maybe Mr. Macdonald underestimated the passion of the pluralists — by Thursday, the BIA’s landmark decision was rescinded and the odds of peace in our time appeared as slim as ever. If anything, the war is in danger of serious escalation in the coming weeks as the BIA prepares its website for a little community consultation.

“Well, here we go again,” former CFTO-TV reporter and long-time Beacher Glenn Cochrane said with a loud laugh when told that Mr. Macdonald believes that the impending cyber-battle will provide “a definitive one or the other, a final choice” — maybe within a month.

As far as anyone can tell, Beach/Beaches hostilities go back at least 50 years, and in that time neither side has produced the arsenal of evidence needed to settle matters once and for all. Hard-line Beach types have long tolerated names such as the Beaches Lions and the Beaches Library (where it’s Beaches in stone on the 1916 branch building). They have also embraced the Beaches International Jazz Festival, and haven’t been overly vocal about the relatively recent naming of the political riding, Beaches-East York.

Street signs are something else.

Locals on both sides of the issue haven’t forgotten August 1985, when blue and white signs proclaiming “The Beaches” appeared between Hammersmith and Bellefair Avenues. Anger erupted within hours, but it took until October for the Beach faction to get the city to remove them.

“It was ugly,” said Gene Domagala, who was on the city’s historical board at the time. “I was called in by the mayor [Art Eggleton] along with both city councillors [the late-Dorothy Thomas and Tom Jakobek].

“The media got involved. There were hundreds of letters. A lot of people turned nasty,” Mr. Domagala remembered. “The old-timers said only outsiders and newcomers would ever say ‘the Beaches.’ They were livid that the Queen Street businessmen [who were behind the initiative] hadn’t consulted residents.”

Mr. Domagala, a fount of local historical knowledge, tends to say “the Beach” in casual conversation, but he doesn’t try to tell others what to say. He liked the decision that the BIA has now rescinded, but said, “We’ll never placate everyone.”

At the height of the battle in 1985, long-time resident Mary Campbell told a Toronto newspaper that even though many people say the Beaches, “It’s always been the Beach . . . This [the Beaches signs] only feeds the error.”

Ms. Campbell, whose views haven’t changed, is president of the local historical society. She says her parents, who came to the area before the 1920s, always said “the Beach.” Early in the week she was pleased upon learning the BIA plan: “The Beach” at the top of the new signs with a designation on the bottom of each for one of the area’s four beaches — Balmy, Scarboro, Kew and Woodbine.

But she’s upset with the new BIA plan not because she’s against choice or consultation, but because she thinks a Web poll will be unfair.

animal“I don’t have Internet, and that’s probably true for other older people who know the truth,” Ms. Campbell said. “Maybe it’s time to organize and find out who else won’t take this lying down,” she said, adding that a possibly acceptable compromise would be Queen Street signs for the Balmy, Scarboro, Kew and Woodbine beaches that drop “the Beach” and “the Beaches” altogether.

Of course, the fact the area once had four distinct beaches is used by pluralists to argue that “the Beach” is an illogical term. They also say that “the Beaches” has a long history of common usage. Singularists counter that “the Beach” is just as logical because it has been one community since the four neighbourhoods merged.

And round it goes.

Mr. Cochrane doesn’t take sides, but he correctly predicted early in the week that the BIA would find it had foolishly jumped the gun by not consulting residents first.

“There could be a severe chastising this time too,” said Mr. Cochrane, who moved to the area 40 years ago and writes a column called Beach(es) Beat for a local weekly. He doesn’t think a similarly diplomatic use of parentheses would work on street signs.

He also sees danger in consultation because Beachers can’t agree on neighbourhood boundaries. “Will someone’s opinion count if they live north of Kingston Road? Real estate agents have long had a very flexible view of what they can sell as the Beach.”

There are two things that nearly everybody in the area can agree on: The older the Beacher the more likely he is to be a singularist, and that the views tend to be passed down through families. And an informal poll taken this week outside two neighbourhood institutions — the Garden Gate restaurant and the Beaches Library — showed both sides fairly evenly split. When asked which name they prefer, 24 residents said “the Beaches,” 19 said “the Beach,” while four were undecided and two abstained.

One of the abstainers noted that he has lived in the area since the 1930s and hates the Beach/Beaches debate because it always turns to pejorative talk about outsiders and newcomers. He said that in his youth, it was Catholic-hating Orange Lodge members who insisted on Beach rather than Beaches.

So perhaps a compromise is in order: Might alternating Beach and Beaches on every other post work?

beachNot in the opinion of the local city councillor, Sandra Bussin, who also refuses to state her preference. Ms. Bussin, who says she doesn’t believe a Beach/Beaches battle will become an election issue, said the citywide replacement program in the area is on hold until matters are settled.

Mr. Macdonald says it will now be fall at the earliest before new signs — however they are labelled — are up.

Meanwhile, some Beachers, like Hugh Cooper, just can’t take the debate seriously.

“The Beach? Wasn’t that Kramer’s cologne on Seinfeld?” he asks with a laugh. “It would be just like this neighbourhood to have it out again. It’s a great place to live, but it would be better if people took stuff like litter more seriously, or if they put their energy into helping seniors or Cubs and Brownies.”

Could Toronto go it alone?

Some of Canada’s smartest urbanists figure Toronto’s financial problems would be over if it became the country’s 11th province, but voters don’t seem to care

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on March 5, 2005 and despite the amalgamated city’s continued slide into dysfunction and left-right whipsaw politics, nobody appears to have seriously discussed 416 secession since. Among the bits trimmed to fit the print section was a comment from Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), that Toronto did indeed have a wasteful and extraneous level of government before amalgamation was imposed, but it was Queen’s Park, not the lower-tier municipalities that made up Metropolitan Toronto. 

By STEPHEN WICKENS

David Vallance wishes Mayor David Miller all the best in his battles to wrest more funding and power from Queen’s Park and Ottawa. But now more than ever he thinks anything less than making Toronto Canada’s 11th province is a waste of time.

The idea isn’t new, nor was it when former mayor Mel Lastman threatened to pull the city out of Ontario during a spat with Queen’s Park in late 1999. The difference now — in the wake of a new budget that will see the city sell off land and lampposts to cover a shortfall in its operating costs — is that well-respected opinion-makers such as Jane Jacobs and Alan Broadbent feel Torontonians may be ready for a serious discussion of secession.

That encourages Mr. Vallance, 67, “a retired insurance salesman and a flea on the dog’s back” of municipal politics who has toiled for 10 years in obscurity for an idea most still consider loopy.

“Many people will take separation seriously when you present the truth about the fiscal flows,” says Mr. Broadbent, former head of the Canadian Urban Institute.

Mr. Broadbent, who’s now CEO of Avana Capital Corp., figures if the city could keep just 5 per cent of the estimated $11-billion that Queen’s Park and Ottawa siphon out of Toronto each year, it could balance the budget and invest seriously in crumbling infrastructure.

Ms. Jacobs, who has been convinced Toronto needs provincial status since Mike Harris and Ernie Eves ran Ontario, thinks we’re facing “a financial and power [governance] crisis” that is being played out in cities across North America.

“If Toronto were a province, the municipalities within it could be quite separate and autonomous, as they were before amalgamation,” the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities said in an interview last week.

Separation might solve it, she says, adding that transit, taxation and planning decisions suffer when provinces and states impose “a one-size-fits-all” approach to cities, suburbs and rural communities.

Eighty per cent of Canadians live in urban areas (including suburban sprawl zones), but cities have no constitutional standing in Canada. City officials can’t even adjust a speed limit without the province’s okay. But any serious talk of separation is more likely to be triggered by the fact cities must rely on property taxes, user fees and senior governments’ largesse to help cover costs.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, acknowledging the city lives in “a fiscal and legislative straitjacket that would baffle Houdini,” agreed in September to talks on a new City of Toronto Act, and Phillip Abrahams, the city’s intergovernmental-affairs manager says they’re going well.

But considering Ms. Jacobs has been described as a muse to the Mayor, Mr. Miller may have interesting views on what to do if the talks bog down.

Is provincial status a fallback position? Have we fully studied the ramifications of secession? What are our legal options?

Repeated requests for a brief interview with Mr. Miller were denied. Spokeswoman Andrea Addario sent a terse e-mail stating only that “his views are that the city should have the powers of a province, not that the city should be a province.”

“I guess it’s a touchy subject right now,” says Mr. Vallance, who expects the City of Toronto talks to stall over money. “We may have to go further into crisis before we get a leader with the guts to take the necessary action.”

Ward 22 city councillor Michael Walker says the crisis is here and that we should put a referendum question on the ballot for next year’s city elections.

“The fact that we’re selling assets to finance operating costs makes it clear we’re headed for total bankruptcy unless we do something drastic,” says Mr. Walker, who also proposed a referendum five years ago, to no avail.

A referendum also appeals to Paul Lewin, a criminal lawyer who for six months in 2003 gave up most of his caseload to run for mayor. (Mr. Vallance organized the campaign, which tied for 37th place in the 44-candidate field.)

Mr. Broadbent, meanwhile, thinks a referendum could do more harm than good if we don’t have that serious public discussion first. “If you rush ahead and get defeated by about 90 per cent to 10, you’ve dismissed the argument for a decade.”

Mr. Broadbent, who isn’t convinced full separation is the only path to study, says talks must include “a strategy to win the day.”

University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman laughed aloud when asked if the day can ever be won, even though he says, “From a technical point of view, Toronto would be better off in almost any respect you can think of if it had the powers of a province.”

Others who have laughed off separation argue that a constitutional amendment is needed, and that would require the unlikely approval of Ottawa and seven of the 10 provinces with at least 50 per cent of the national population.

Mr. Vallance and Mr. Lewin say that’s nonsense, arguing that the Constitution Act of 1871 allows Parliament to “increase, diminish, or otherwise alter the limits of a province with the consent of only that province.” They also say the Clarity Act, based on a 1998 Supreme Court ruling that Ottawa must negotiate with Quebec if a clear majority were to pursue secession, must also apply to Toronto.

“Provinces have been created before and they will be again,” Mr. Vallance says, adding that “the craziest idea” about new provinces came from Prime Minister Paul Martin last year, when he mused on provincial status for Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. “The three combined have barely 100,000 people.”

There are divisions among those giving serious consideration to secession on what a new province’s boundaries should be.

Richard Gilbert, an urban affairs consultant and former city councillor and university professor, thinks some variation on the Greater Toronto Area would be best, pointing out that “more Torontonians now commute to jobs in Mississauga than vice versa.”

Mr. Vallance, who originally preferred the old, pre-amalgamation city of Toronto, thinks any new province should be based on the 416 area code. “If it becomes the GTA, we just continue funding an exodus of jobs,” he says, blaming provincial policies for making business property taxes much higher in Toronto than in 905. “Queen’s Park talks about a greenbelt, but forces us to subsidize sprawl.”

George Teichman, a civil engineer and commercial landlord who was a pioneer supporter of the cause, now has a different idea about where the boundary should be drawn. If any jurisdiction separates, it should be Ontario, he says.

“The problem started with Paul Martin downloading on Queen’s Park, which then downloaded on Toronto,” says Mr. Teichman, a leader in the North York campaign against amalgamation in 1997.

“Senior levels of government make it look as though we’re asking them for money, but it’s a case of them taking too much from us,” he says. “I own property in other cities, so I know it’s bad elsewhere. But Toronto is Canada’s economic engine and it’s getting hammered.

“Then Ontario has a $5-billion deficit and it has to send $23-billion a year to Ottawa to subsidize other provinces. If it loses the city, it’s in real trouble.”

But Mr. Vallance and Mr. Lewin feel Toronto has to be Torontonians’ priority. They expect to meet this month to start work on another mayoral campaign.

“I’d gladly step aside if we can get a big-name candidate,” Mr. Lewin says. “But if nobody comes forward, I will run again to carry the banner.

“I’m never discouraged,” he says. “I might say the song High Hopes is my inspiration.”

POST SCRIPT: David Vallance ran on the Province of Toronto platform in 2006 and got 486 votes, 36th place among 38 candidates. He ran again in 2010 and got 444 votes, 34th best in the 40-candidate race won by Rob Ford. The province passed the City of Toronto Act, allowing for a slightly reformed political structure and more opportunities to raise revenue. In 2010, MPP Bob Murdoch from the Owen Sound area called for Toronto to be hived off as a separate province.