Cutting grass or shoveling snow: What would you prefer?

One of the most frequent comments I received as a councillor was: “I cut my lawn and maintain my property…why should I have to cut the grass on the boulevard in front of my house? It belongs to the city.”
That boulevard is there to make life easier for you. In the early years on North York Council, whenever it snowed heavily I had a strong urge to hide under the bed and not go to work. That’s because I knew I would get at least 30 telephone calls that went something like this:
“I spent two hours shovelling my *@#% driveway yesterday and last night your &%#@+ snow plough came along and filled it up again. It froze and I can’t get to work this morning.”

The pile of snow that obstructs your driveway is known as a “windrow.” Until I was elected to office I didn’t know the meaning of the word “windrow” let alone that I had to find a way to deal with them.

In the 1980s North York invented the “snow rid.” It was a gate at the end of the plough, a sort of a short blade or scoop that the operator lowered when he came to one side of a driveway and raised it after he had pushed the windrow to the other side.

Streets downtown don’t have a grassy boulevard -the sidewalks are built to the curb. The city doesn’t even plough the streets downtown. Suburban areas, on the other hand, have boulevards as a place to store ploughed snow. In North York, not only are the streets ploughed but so are the sidewalks.

For downtown residents, there is a bylaw that requires every homeowner to shovel their sidewalk clear within 12 hours after a snowfall or face a fine of $125. There is no bylaw that requires North York residents to cut the grass on the boulevard. Most people, because they care about the appearance of their neighbourhoods, do it by unwritten convention. More importantly, if we didn’t have the boulevards the City couldn’t provide the great snow clearing services that they do.

When amalgamation arrived in 1998, those of us from North York knew that we would have the fight of our lives to keep both sidewalk ploughing and driveway opening. Downtown councillors were chomping at the bit to save money by cutting these services. Why not? Their residents didn’t get them. Same went for Scarborough and Etobicoke councillors who were only too happy to make the budget cuts. Neither of these municipalities had them. We knew that the only way to keep them was to spread these, what some called “cadillac” services, to Scarborough and Etobicoke. Once established, we knew that their councillors would never vote to take them away.

When my neighbour moved to Downsview from downtown he spent his first winter shovelling the sidewalk in front of his house until he learned that he didn’t have to. So next time, when you are out there cutting the grass on the city boulevard, think about how lucky you are. You could be shovelling snow instead.

Subways and Art in Toronto

Most of the world’s greatest cities have acknowledged the importance of creating beautiful subway stations. These public investments not only attract tourist but they create inviting, attractive public places for everyone to enjoy on their daily commute.

After the Yonge and Bloor subways were constructed the public reacted to the gaunt design and utilitarian nature of the stations.  Now, the engineers that run our transit system are eminently practical.  They are totally focused on making sure the trains run on time.  They don’t want to waste money on “art” when it can be spent on brake shoes and that’s understandable because the transit systems in Toronto is one of the most underfunded in the world.

The TTC grudgingly adopted a public art policy but it was ½% for art and it applied only to the areas of the subway to which the public has access.  The frugal executives at the TTC figured they had to spend about that much on wall tiles anyway so they might as well make them pretty.  That’s why the kind of art done in our subway stations is now almost always tile designs and are sometimes not very inspiring.

One of the most beautiful installations on the Spadina line is the “Arc en Ciel” at the Yorkdale Station.  It was created by Michael Hayden a Canadian Artist who has since achieved worldwide recognition for his light sculptures.  “Arc en Ciel” consisted of 158 multi-coloured neon lamps installed in the arched roof of the station that created a dazzling moving rainbow effect whenever a train entered or left the station.  Over time water leaks damaged the transformers and rather than incurring the expense of replacing them (which Michael said would have been less than $1,000) the TTC pulled everything out. In 1978, after the work was completed Michael moved to California where he lives and works today.  He is best known for his installation at O’Hare airport in Chicago and is now working on a 350 foot pedestrian tunnel in Cleveland.

I am passionate about public art.  In real life, before I was elected, I was a junior high school art teacher.  When I became chair of the TTC I was determined to see the return of the rainbow at Yorkdale station. That opportunity came in 2010 when Yorkdale Shopping Centre approached me as the local councillor for help in securing building permits to expand the mall.   I signed a memorandum of co-operation with them for about $2M in community benefits, $325,000 of which was set aside for the restoration of the “Arc en Ceil”.

The project was approved by the Commission that year and it has taken more than 6 years to work its way through TTC bureaucracy.  Because of delays, and what with the change in the American dollar and rising prices, the cost of the project has ballooned to $800,000.  I once asked a developer what is was like working with the TTC.  His answer: “I’d rather have pins pushed into my eyeballs.”

With help of Josh Colle, the current chair of the TTC we managed to finally raise the funds and the momentum to push forward.  Toronto Council put their final stamp of approval on the project at their July 2016 meeting.

Lighting technology has gone through a revolutionary change since the ‘Arc en Ciel’ was first installed in 1978. Neon has been replaced by LED lights with computer controlled pixels one inch apart.  Michael is furiously working on the computer program that will pilot the new installation at his home in Santa Rosa, California.   The finished work is scheduled to be installed by a Toronto firm called the Brothers Markle Inc. in October 2016.

The goal is to flip the switch that turns the rainbow on in mid-November: watch for it!  In Michael’s words, “It will be magnificent.”

The Bucket List

A bucket list is a list of things that you just have to do before you leave this earth.  I don’t have one but my wife, Gloria, does and she has been checking it off one by one throughout her life.

A few bucket list items, like our trip to Israel, were easy but as you cross off the easy ones, and as you grow older they become progressively harder to do.

I didn’t join her on her helicopter trip.  Why take a risk when you don’t have to?   For her 50th birthday I was able to arrange a birthday surprise through a contact of mine which crossed off hot air balloon ride. I don’t mind admitting I was scared to death and I marvel at the fact that Gloria was as calm as a kitten.  After about an hour and a half ride we landed softly into the middle of a baseball game.

Gloria has romanticised about tossing a message into the ocean ever since she was a little girl.  It was one of the few things left on her bucket list.  Last year we took a cruise around the Caribbean. On our second last night, somewhere between the mouth of the Panama Canal and Florida, she checked it off the list when we tossed a bottle from the stern of the ocean liner Oosterdam into the Atlantic Ocean.

What do you say in a letter to anyone who happens to find it?  I didn’t ask what she wrote but she told me afterwards that she had included the addresses of our children in case someone found it after she had kicked the bucket.

We were stunned when in late May of this year we found a mysterious letter in our mailbox postmarked Itzehoe, Germany.  It was written in German and read:

“Hallo Gloria and Howard,

Mein Name ist Ger Freiwald and ich vohen in Itzehoe bei Hamburg…

[At the beginning of April, 2016 my wife and I enjoyed a week vacation in the vicinity of Lisbon where we took a long walk along the beach       It is absolutely beautiful along the  Portuguese coast.  We were very happy to find a bottle on the beach. It doesn’t happen very often.  We had a lot of difficulty trying to decipher the lettering because it had faded after being in the ocean for so long.  It was even harder because it was hand written rather than printed.  I hope you get this letter………]

Gerd went on to talk about his family and ended with:

We wrote back:

“Hi Gabi and Gerd:

We were thrilled to receive your letter.  We were tempted to respond by e-mail but given the way you found our message we thought the regular mail might be more appropriate…

Thank you for making an effort to decipher it and taking the time to write…”

Beats throwing a bottle into the ocean, Doesn’t it!