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Spadina streetcar back on track

New LRT begins Sunday, 50 years after last one rolled down avenue

By Maureen Murray
Toronto Star Staff Reporter

As a young teenager in the late 1930s, Ed Clarke relied on the Spadina streetcar for his budding social life.

Whether it was catching a movie at the Strand theatre at Spadina Ave. and Dundas St. or grabbing a pastrami sandwich at the Shopsowitz delicatessen, Clarke would hop on a streetcar to get there.

“It was quite a street back then and for 10 cents, the colorful old wooden double-enders were the best way to see it,” Clarke said.

At 72, now living in North York, Clarke is decades and miles away from the Principality of Kensington where he grew up. The theatre where he once caught flicks has undergone several incarnations - as a post-war burlesque house and, most recently, as the Golden Harvest Theatre in the heart of Chinatown.

Shopsy’s deli shortened its name, packed up house and long ago moved east to the corner of Yonge and Front Sts.

But the streetcars, which were present continuously on Spadina Ave. for 56 years before they ground to a halt in October,1948, are about to reappear.

And what a comeback.

At 5 a.m. next Sunday, the 510 Spadina streetcar will begin its regular run on the new $105 million Spadina streetcar line, stretching south 3.7 kilometres from an underground loop inside Spadina subway to the existing tracks on Queen’s Quay, then east and north along those tracks to Union Station.

The trip from Spadina to Union Station will take about 25 minutes on the streetcar, which is to operate from 5 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. daily. About 32,000 commuters daily ride the diesel-fume-belching Spadina bus the streetcar will replace.

It will be the first major streetcar line to start up in Toronto since December, 1928, when what was called the Lakeshore line (now Long Branch) began running from Sunnyside station to Brown’s Line.

The Harbourfront line that opened in 1990 was, in essence, just the first phase of the Spadina line. As of next Sunday, the Harbourfront name will be dropped.

The opening of the Spadina streetcar line - Light Rapid Transit or LRT to those who prefer the ’90s moniker for what is just a streetcar - is part of a major overhaul to a street that has not had any major work done to it since the 1930s.

The project’s cost included $2 million for streetscaping, including the planting of 400 sycamore and honey locust trees along the sidewalks and at either ends of the streetcar platforms between College and Front Sts.

“The street looks quite beautiful. It has restored some of the flavor of the old Spadina, when the streetcar passed by a boulevard lined with mature trees,” said Metro Councillor Olivia Chow (Downtown), who banded with local residents to push for the esthetic improvements.

Allen Maitland, 77, who the Toronto Transit Commission reckons was the last passenger to ride the old Spadina streetcar in the wee hours of the morning on Oct. 10, 1948, said nothing can keep him away once they again take their rightful place on the avenue.

“I’ve been on many last runs of streetcars in Toronto, too many as a matter of fact. It will be great to be on a first run,” said Maitland, a chartered member of the Upper Canada Railway Society.

Maitland will be joined by a crowd of politicians and dignitaries who will be on hand to officially inaugurate the new line at 1 p.m. next Sunday on Spadina at Sussex Ave. The TTC will bring an old Peter Witt car - the wooden-slatted-seat streetcar was in its prime in the 1920s - out of mothballs for a short ceremonial ride. On opening day, rides on the Spadina streetcar line will be free from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. as long as passengers board it on the surface.

A street festival in Kensington, a dragon dance in Chinatown and a show and sale in the fashion district will be part of the festivities, as each area of Spadina marks the return of the streetcar.

But not everyone is in the mood to celebrate.

The saga of Spadina’s facelift has been as tortuous and colorful as the history of the street, which has been the lifeblood of the rag trade, the cradle of unionism in the 1930s, a magnet for beatniks and poets in the 1960s and the foothold for just about every major wave of immigrants who have come to Toronto in search of a new life.

For some, the cost of getting the streetcar back on Spadina has been far too great.

“The construction on Spadina knocked us for a loop. It was the final straw for four or five major fruit and vegetables stores, which just went out of business or moved away,” said Sal Borg, whose grandfather opened the family store in Kensington Market in 1929.

Borg, who runs Sanci Tropical Foods, said there have been many times during the past few years - construction officially began in December, 1992 - that he has felt like calling it quits.

“I think I only stayed because this place is so much a part of me.”

To survive, he had to switch about 90 per cent of his business to the wholesale market, Borg said. “With all the construction, congestion and parking problems, my retail customers just stopped coming.”

And Larry Isaacs, manager of the pub The Ferret and Firken, laments loudly that the construction of the underground loop, literally on his doorstep, has crippled business.

“It’s been disastrous. We’ve been up to our eyeballs in cranes and workmen and we’ve lost untold customers,” said Issacs, who took over the location about two years ago.

Even some who are strong streetcar advocates argue the new Spadina line was much too long in coming and carries too high a price tag.

“It was outrageously expensive. If we had simply cleaned out the old streetcar tracks, we would have saved about 90 per cent of the money,” said Metro Councillor Howard Moscoe (North York Spadina), who is also a TTC commissioner.

Former Toronto councillor Howard Levine was a founding member of Streetcars for Toronto - a citizen’s group which, in the early ’70s, successfully lobbied the TTC and Metro to reverse a plan to abandon Toronto’s streetcars by the mid-’80s.

But he has harsh words for the architects of the new line.

“They (TTC) could only build a new streetcar line if they could gold-plate it and put bells and whistles on it.”

Levine, whose father was in the garment trade at College St. and Spadina Ave., was particularly critical of the underground tunnel streetcars will enter and leave near Sussex Ave., about one block south of Bloor St.

`It has restored some of the flavor of the old Spadina’

- Olivia Chow, Metro Councillor

The 183-metre, $48 million tunnel into the Spadina subway will allow streetcars to bypass the busy Spadina-Bloor intersection.

“All that money was spent so as not to inconvenience cars at Bloor and Spadina,” Levine said.

But TTC chair Paul Christie defended the cost and design of the new streetcar line.

“Without the tunnel, Bloor and Spadina would have been a traffic nightmare,” Christie said.

The one thing Christie and Levine do agree on is that streetcars or LRTs are undergoing a renaissance in North America and throughout Europe.

If Christie had his wish, the TTC would be aiming to recapture something resembling its streetcar heyday in 1928, when it had more than 300 miles of track with about 1,000 cars crisscrossing the city, as well as several suburban routes running as far as Lake Simcoe to the north, west to Port Credit and east to West Hill.

For now, he’ll settle for a $10 million to $15 million extension that will extend the Spadina line west along Queen’s Quay to connect with the line on Bathurst St., allowing commuters to travel by streetcar to Exhibition Stadium from either the Spadina or Union subway stations.

The project was approved by the TTC commissioners last week and now awaits the stamp of Metro Council.

But streetcars are about more than cost-effectiveness and efficiency. Many Torontonians - even some transplanted ones - are passionate about their streetcars.

TTC chief general manager David Gunn, is a self-described streetcar buff.

“I have a lot of nostalgia about streetcars. I associate them with happy memories riding around Boston as a child,” Gunn said.

“Toronto probably has the most classic streetcar network, harking back to the way it used to be at the turn of the century,” Gunn said.

Prior to World War II, just about any city in Canada with a population over 50,000 had streetcars, said Ted Wickson, retired TTC historian.

Now, streetcars are making a comeback in cities like Denver, Sacramento, Dallas and San Diego, where high-tech and primarily wheel-chair accessible streetcars whiz along dedicated right-of-ways, Wickson said.

Accessible streetcars were proposed to run on the new Spadina line, but at the 11th hour, the TTC and Metro decided the price tag of $5 million per car was too steep.

Long-time Kensington resident Allan Schwam said he thinks it’s ironic the TTC recently threw 13,000 people off Wheel-Trans to save $54 million and opened an inaccessible $100 million line down Spadina.

Schwam, 68, and Clarke - buddies since youth - are nostalgic enough about streetcars, but they are worried the gentrification of Spadina might kill the hurly-burly, raw energy of the street.

Christie said the only thing that disappoints him about the new Spadina line was that the streetcar will not have a dedicated right-of-way.

“Why we continue to allow a single vehicle to hold up a $2 million streetcar with 90 passengers on it is beyond me,” he said.

The original proposal for the Spadina line called for an exclusive right-of-way with curbs 15 centimetres higher than the roadway, which would have prohibited cars making left turns along the length of the track. The idea drove residents and merchants alike to revolt.

After years of public hearings, consultation reports and Metro forming a precedent-setting residents’ committee to provide input, the grade of the tracks were raised only 5 centimetres above the street level.

Streetcars will have exclusive right-of-way only during morning and evening rush hours.

Although some politicians argue it was too excessive, long-time area residents like Lyn Adamson say strong community input resulted in many positive changes to the operation of the streetcar line and the new look of Spadina as a whole, including the placement of original artwork and distinctive community markers in Chinatown, Kensington and the garment district.

“We had to fight for every tree, every inch of sidewalk,” she said.

But other residents like Joan Doiron lament that their efforts didn’t succeed in getting bike lanes on Spadina and that they lost sidewalk in favor of cars retaining six lanes along some sections of the street.

“Too much money was spent to facilitate car traffic in an area that is overwhelming pedestrian,” Doiron said.

Still, many residents and merchants are hoping the new streetcar line and Spadina’s facelift will not only rekindle some of the nostalgia of old, but also bring about a kind of rebirth.

Rosemary Donegan, who in the mid-1980s published a book on the history of Spadina, said she has a lot of faith in the avenue’s future.

“The new LRT is going to bring about shifts. But it’s not going to change it profoundly,” Donegan said.

“Streets are about people and how they use (them). Spadina will continue to evolve and weave a rich mythology.”