Friday, October 23, 2009


When I was a kid, partway through high school, there was a song on the radio that has always, for me, summed up the whole us-and-them thing of the Cold War. It was a song written by British songwriter Tom Robinson, but made famous where I live by a Toronto band called Pukka Orchestra. The song was called Listen to the Radio (Atmospherics).

I must be getting old now because I've reached a point in my life where it's possible for me to say, I guess there people now who don't remember what that was like. Countries I grew up thinking of as, essentially, enemies (or at least, potential enemies) of mine are now in the European Union and, more incredible, NATO. But when I listen to Listen to the Radio, I'm right back there in my mid-teens, with the Iron Curtain and the ever-present threat of World War III.

I realize now that most of the references are to West German culture (remember when there were still two Germanys, kids?), but in my mind, the song was always about the stale struggle to get by behind the Iron Curtain; the little joys you held onto in getting through life. For me, the meat of the song comes towards the end, with the music growing heavy and oppressive, and the singer intoning...

Atmospherics after dark
Noise and voices from the past
Across the dial from Moscow to Cologne:
Interference in the night
Thousand miles on either side
Stations fading into the unknown

...That part still gives me goosebumps. I would picture someone like me, just a few years older, huddled in his dimly-lit kitchen somewhere beyond the Elbe, winter just outside his window, trying to tune into the West to rekindle his hope for a better future. It was a romantic notion. Given that my political bent is mostly leftist, there was also a certain envy... I admit it; one of the things I always found warming about the East bloc – and never once forgetting the limits on personal liberty or the tribulations of the thousands who managed (or didn't) to escape westward over the decades – was the idea that the state existed to serve the people, belonged to the people, was the people. I know we have words like that here but it never seemed as real to me as the unrealized ideal of communism on the other side. I always wanted some sort of synthesis of the two... our freedoms, their securities. Some countries in Europe come close.

Whenever I listen to the song now, it brings back so many things... my youth, idealism; that lost world of commies and "good" guys; that sense that the world was on the brink, today, now, always... And that small, homey, struggling-but-it'll-be-alright feeling the lyrics and the tune embodied for me.

Things could have been worse. We never blew the world up (though, of course, it's still possible). But I have this sense it could have been better, too. The West seems to have grown more callous and uncaring since then; it's almost like, as little as we wanted to live like them, the communists set some kind of standard for us, at least in principle, that we had to live up to too... and now that they're gone, we can just let ourselves go and be swept away by the corporations and the ever-increasing excesses of plutocracy. I can't help feeling we lost something vital in "winning" the Cold War.

P.S. Pukka Orchestra's video of the song, which I feel treats the theme far, far too lightly. Close your eyes, please, when you listen...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

En rouge enfin! :)

Finally, finally, I'm seeing some red worthy of the name in the autumn leaves. Just yesterday I saw some pleasing red on the trees. It's also happening just as the leaves are really starting to hit the ground. Sad that the brilliant red didn't arrive while the trees were still in full. But anyway, here's how it's looking right now...


Monday, October 19, 2009

Retrospectives: Sheppard, Leslie, and the Don

One of the most tortured intersections I’m aware of in the city is that of Sheppard Avenue and Leslie Street. Leslie is, to this day, a slew of discontinuous streets they never really took the trouble to unite; there are at least four sections of it that I know of. But since the 1950s, the intersection of Sheppard and Leslie has been torn up, rerouted, connected and disconnected in myriad ways for more reasons than you can shake a stick at. The 401’s been built through, two level crossings have been underpassed, the 401’s been widened, both streets have been widened, the dogleg caused by Don River’s been corrected by means of a much larger bridge they now share, a subway line’s been channeled under Sheppard Avenue... all this in just 50 years.

One day, I mean to seriously blog about just what’s happened to these two streets in the vicinity of their intersection (or, till about 1968, intersections-plural). Just for now, though, I’d like to share a delightful discovery from the City Archives: a shot of the Sheppard Avenue East bridge over the East Don River from 1964. (The shot faces east, as do the others.)

This photo was taken right on the verge of suburbia overwriting the hills and dales of the area. Just for the moment, it was a pleasant country road. See the bridge there, just a simple two lane affair carrying Sheppard alone over the Don. Beyond it, you can see Leslie Street heading away to the north. Back then, there was no Leslie Street on the south side at this point: it would have had to cross the Don. The southern part of Leslie was way up the hill behind the photographer. Anyone traveling along Leslie and wishing to continue along it had to use this stretch of Sheppard for many, many years to do so.

Here’s how the intersection looks now, seen from nearly exactly the same location in 2009. Leslie now crosses Sheppard here, not just meets it; Leslie no longer bows to Sheppard at a stop sign while Sheppard traffic plows through without a thought. They both cross over a much larger bridge that dwarfs Sheppard’s span in 1964.

Taken earlier this decade, here’s another view of the intersection, looking in the same direction. This shot was taken from the bridge that now overpasses Sheppard at the site where Leslie Street once T-junctioned with it on the west side; this is now called Old Leslie Street, a short stub that serves a few businesses. Oddly, thanks to the bridge, it now crosses Sheppard here, which it did not do when it was a going concern up to the 60s. But you can see the “new” run of Leslie south of Sheppard there on the extreme right. Also visible is Leslie Station, a stop on the Sheppard subway line that opened only four or five years ago. The stretch of Sheppard in the foreground was what once united these two legs of Leslie Street, though you would have seen a slope down from here before 1968 when the bridges were put in. Directly behind me in this shot is another bridge for what was a level crossing (more on this in another post soon).

Just for good measure, a couple of aerial shots to show some of the changes. The first shows the area in 1956. The big mess in the middle is Hwy 401 under construction. Leslie runs up and down in this view (as it runs north-south). Leslie’s course has already changed in this view; it used to go straight north till it reached that line of trees in its course and then shot westerly, the course of which you can still see in this shot. Running across the top is Sheppard Avenue, where you can see the wide spread between the two runs of Leslie Street.

And this is the view from 1967. You can see Sheppard Avenue has been temporarily detoured at the Don so that the new bridge it will share with Leslie can be put in. Most dramatically, you can see the pencil-work of planners emphatically planning Leslie’s newer, truer course north to Sheppard. Near the middle of the shot is North York General Hospital, newly built. Subdivision construction is evident at the bottom right, but not yet at the upper right. It was literally only months away.

It would certainly be illustrative to compare those views with this one.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Sale" on, o ship of state...

I just read in the Business section of The Globe and Mail that, thanks to the bailouts and free money from the US Federal Reserve, the banks down there are making big profits again, but that defaults by homeowners (and unemployment) continue to plague the country. I had this vision of the Titanic suddenly being righted and merrily sailing off to New York while all its passengers flailed about in the freezing waters of its wake. What's wrong with this picture?

Why is this being allowed? I don't understand why the US Congress didn't make the bailout contingent on the banks getting their boots off the necks of homeowners. Why didn't they say something like "here's the money, but those loans now belong to us... go, sinner, and sin no more!"? Let the government deal with people in danger of losing their homes, while those same taxpayers foot the bill for the banks to throw off the crutches and run to bigger and better yachts for everyone?

But they didn't do that. They handed out the money, and the banks kept the loans... and, eventually, the homes.

I'm not saying this is particular to the United States. Capitalistic venality is capitalistic venality no matter where we walk the Earth. But it shouldn't have been done this way. After health, a home is the most fundamental thing. How do you get hired if you don't have an address? How do you register to vote and get action from a representative? I know people will get exorcised about the idea that some people would take advantage... but so what? So someone takes advantage and manages to keep a roof over his head. The banks aren't out anything; they just got paid off! They're happy, and millions of people don't wind up on the street, but have a warm, safe place to wait out the recovery of the economy. Neighbourhoods in Detroit and Cleveland and Los Angeles wouldn't look like war zones. The government would know who owes what; they could find a way to be paid back without disinheriting millions of men, women, and children, surely.

Why wasn't it done that way?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

One more time

Typically around Thanksgiving (October here in Canada) I take the last barefoot hike the weather comfortably permits me. This time it was yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving. Already the ground's pretty cool, but it was still pleasant to feel the fallen leaves underfoot, and the moist soil still soft and pliable. I went to one of the closed, abandoned stretches of 7th Concession West in York Region, a place I've been before.

Lately I've also been rediscovering my Canon Rebel XT, a DSLR camera I've had for over four years now, but haven't made much use of since I got my first S80. But in the past month or so I've had it out doing my weekend hikes, and I've been really pleasantly surprised with my results, especially since I've been shooting RAW and taking my time converting the files to JPGs. Some of the results I got yesterday I find extremely satisfying... I almost think I know how film developers of yesteryear felt, huddling in their dark rooms, teasing results out of the chemicals.

Here's some of what I saw.



On my way back, I drove part of the way south on Weston Road (before heading back down on the 400). On my way up Weston I'd seen this striking tree near a hilltop, and I knew that I had to stop and get some shots of it on my way back.

...That's all till next spring, I guess. :)

Time for a two-speed Europe...?

I'm increasingly of the opinion that not only is a "two-speed" Europe justified, but it's even desirable.

First of all, let me say that I feel that the expansion of the European Union has been too hasty and too rapid. I'm happy, of course, that Eastern Europe is out from under communism, but having spent two or three generations adapting to it, I think at least a generation of getting used to the democratic process and free market economies was in order before they should have been ushered into a union with Western Europe. I mean, they needed to earn their stripes. That's just how I feel.

But, they're in. Some are adapting better than others. The Czechs seem not particularly happy to be there; their president is holding up the Lisbon Treaty, they've effectively sabotaged their program of getting their house in order to adopt the euro (while, incredibly, the Slovaks, with whom the Czechs once shared a country in which they looked down upon them as the poor cousins, managed it ably).

The British, too, are a problem. I'm particularly disenchanted with them. They want all the benefits of being in the EU, but they want to contribute nothing, or at least as little as they can possibly get away with. They want no onus put on them: no charter of rights, no European court, no shared currency, no common border controls... they're all too happy to eat the corn, but don't ask them to plow the field.

I think the requirement for unanimity in the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty was hopelessly naïve. It was a recipe for failure and I'm completely amazed it's gotten to the point that it has the ratification of 26 of 27 countries. But I don't think it should require even that to get going. There should have been a threshold point where, once reached, the treaty would go fully into effect for those countries acceding to it.

For example... when the United States was reforming, throwing out the creaky Articles of Confederation and replacing them with the Constitution in 1787, the Founding Fathers were not so foolhardy as to require the unanimous consent of all thirteen states before the Constitution would go into effect. They rightly anticipated there would be issues, and that some states might not be ready to sign on to something that new and untested. And so, they decided that as soon as nine of the states had ratified the Constitution, it would go into effect for those states that had done so. The others could join later, or not, as they pleased; but the important point is that the reticence of a few would not prevent the agreement from going into effect for those who had ratified it.

I feel that something like that should have been – should still be – put into effect for the EU. I think that it's long since passed a practical and similar point in it ratification. By the time something like, say, twenty of the member states had passed the Lisbon Treaty, it should have gone into effect for them. The other members under the old rules could hang on, but would have no say in the new institutions until they saw fit to join. Meanwhile, the core of Europe could move forward, and the stragglers could catch up, or eventually fall away, as suited them. And I would put a time limit on it: five years, maybe ten. Join or die, to coin a phrase.

If the Libson Treaty falls on the say-so of one Czech xenophobe, or the selfish, prideful arrogance of the British, then I think next time, the Union must take a page from American history, and institute a two-speed Europe.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Retrospectives: Sheppard Avenue bridge over the West Don

Not too long ago, Sheppard Avenue was a rural sideroad that spanned most of what was first York County and later the countryside fringe of Metropolitan Toronto into which the city would grow, in the form of North York. It crossed the West Don River between Yonge and Bathurst Streets over a small, workable bridge that only just managed to leap the water from one side to the other.

The uppermost image shows the bridge, seen from the south on the east side, about 1920. It was probably fairly new at that point. The next two shots show the bridge in the autumn of 1954, after the bridge had been declared unsafe in the wake of Hurricane Hazel; presumably, it was replaced by the slightly more modern, steel-guard railed bridge in other pictures. The middle shot is also from the south and east side; the bottom of the three from the north and west side, taken in the vicinity of where Don River Boulevard once met Sheppard Avenue at a level intersection.


This newer bridge from the 50s can be seen below in these shots from 1962, on the run-up to this "new" bridge being slated for a much more ambitious replacement, as necessitated by increased and projected traffic as the north end began its inevitable conversation to suburbia.

These two shots show the newer bridge as approached from Yonge Street in the east...


...And these two below show the bridge as approached from Bathurst Street in the west.


In the second of these shots, if you look closely, you can see a truck turning onto a road beside the large building. I have no real idea what that building once was, but the truck is turning off Sheppard and onto Don River Boulevard, which is no longer possible. At least, not that way.

In 1962, Sheppard Avenue over the West Don looked like this. The major north-south street at the middle left is Bathurst Street, which Sheppard met then at a dogleg that was amended in the 60s. You can see that Sheppard had to follow the lay of the land up out of the valley on the west side. This is, of course, typical of rural road prior to urbanization, when they're usually given their chance to damn topography and take on a straight Roman character (as Sheppard does here today).

Construction on the third bridge, the current one, seems to have begun in 1963. The bridge from the 50s, pressed cheek-to-jowl with its successor, seems to have been in service until the new one was opened, after which it vanished, with no trace that I've ever been able to find.

The top view shows the bridge under construction as seen coming from Yonge Street in the east. The bottom two views show it as seen coming from Bathurst in the west. Most remarkable is the view of the little bow arch bridge that carried Don River Boulevard over the West Don just north of Sheppard Avenue. The top two shots also show the 1950s bridge in situ relative to the 1964 bridge, still doing its bit moving traffic... if only, in this case, construction equipment. I suppose Sheppard was closed to regular traffic here for a year or so at the time.


An aerial view of Sheppard over the West Don during construction, 1963.

By 1964, the bridge was completed and ready to be open. My guess is it was completed at some point in the winter of 1963-1964, and opened in the spring. These top two shots show the view of the new bridge, snow-dusted and nearly free of any kind of tracks, seen from the east side, as if coming from Yonge Street. The bottom shot shows the view as if coming from Bathurst Street in the west. If you look closely in the top two shots, you'll see a snaky road on the south side of Sheppard (on the left). That's how one now gets to and from Don River Boulevard. The road slips under the new bridge and heads north to meet the little street that once connected directly to Sheppard, but is now towered over by it as it passes by fifty or sixty feet overhead.


The aerial shot from 1964 looks like this. There's Sheppard, shooting arrow-straight across the valley, all but ignoring its old friend Don River Boulevard, with its serpentine umbilicus to the lip of the valley's west side. I still don't know what that big building squeezed between the river, Sheppard, and Don River Blvd. is, but it's gone now.

Back in the 60s, bridge openings in fringe Metro were a big deal. People got their names on plaques, there were ceremonies, even parades. Here's some of the pomp and circumstance from the opening of the "new" Sheppard Avenue West bridge. The shots that show the bridge span are taken from the east side facing west.


I don't recognize anybody in these shots (above); presumably, they're the mucky-mucks from Metropolitan Toronto in general and the Township of North York in the mid-1960s (which went on to be a borough, then a city, and then ceased to exist altogether when Toronto annexed all of Metro in 1998); no doubt one of them is North York Reeve Norman Goodhead (doesn't that sound like the name of a Bond villain?). I had hoped to spot John Robarts, Ontario's premier at the time, in the crowd, but I don't. Robarts was one of the "Red" (socially progressive) Tories who ran Ontario from 1943-1985, the last being his successor, Bill Davis (two of a mere handful of Tories here in Canada I particularly admire). He was kind of a tragic figure, mingled with greatness: he lost an adopted son to suicide in the 1970s and, after a series of debilitating strokes, committed suicide himself in 1982. As I understand it, he did it in the shower, so as to minimize the inconvenience to those who would have to deal with his body.

I notice an interesting detail on the fourth shot: the flag officiating over the whole thing is the Union Jack. This kind of thing was still very common in Ontario only 45 years ago, though it was rapidly coming to a close. Technically speaking, in 1964, neither Canada nor Ontario actually had an official flag of its own. Canada was using the British Red Ensign defaced with the shield from the federal coat of arms. Ontario was using, well, the Union Jack. Within less than a year after the taking of these shots, the Flag Debate had paralyzed Parliament for months, a design was settled upon, and Canada's maple leaf flag went up the pole officially Feb. 15, 1965. Within months, loyal, blue Ontario seized upon Canada's discarded Red Ensign, stuck the province's arms shield on it in place of Canada's, and voila, created the flag the province still uses today.

Unfortunately, so did Manitoba.

But I digress. And how! Getting back to the bridge... here are some shots of the location today.

First a comparison of the 1962 aerial view, with a 1954 insert and location indicators, with the view from 2009.

And here's the modern bridge today, seen from approximately the same location as the 1920 shot at the top that started it all: south of the bridge, on the east side. The West Don is in the trees on the right, skirting the very edge of the east valley. The big building in the 1960s shots would have been visible through the gap on the left if it still stood.

Here's the bridge from the north side, and the road that comes down from the heights to serve Don River Blvd., with its bridge on the right. Notice that the bow arch bridge has been replaced by something rather more ordinary, sadly. The view looks west towards Bathurst Street.

 And just for good measure, here are a couple of shots of Don River Boulevard's bridge over the concrete-tamed gully of the West Don, as well as its obligatory plaque. Good hunting! :)