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!

Should the Federal Government be allowed to do whatever it wants?

If you built a deck without a building permit the city inspectors would stomp all over your back with hob nailed boots.  But the Federal government can build anything it wants, however it wants without one.   It’s a legal principle called ‘paramountcy’.  It’s based on the idea that one order of government can’t tell the one above it what to do and it makes some kind of sense.   You wouldn’t want the province of Prince Edward Island declaring war on North Korea, or the city of Vaughan deciding what OHIP should pay a doctor.

You can imagine my surprise then, when I notice a 33,000 sq. ft., $45M building being constructed in my ward and it had no building permit or any city approvals.  In 1996 the Department of National Defence decided to consolidate their ten buildings in Toronto into a single structure which they built on Downsview base land on the north side of Sheppard Ave., just west of the Allen Road.  As far as new buildings were concerned the Federal Government had until now,  always respected the municipal planning and building process and had applied for building permits even though they didn’t have to.   The city was the expert here.  Toronto’s official plan laid out standards that protected public interest.  The re-zoning process allowed for public input and the city design standards were some of the highest in Canada.  This was the first time the military had evoked paramountcy in Toronto.   It resulted in a very ugly building.

Art Eggleton was the minister of defence.  As a former mayor of Toronto he should have known better.  Art and I shared the riding and had always worked co-operatively.  My annoyance prompted me to give the building an award. It was a prize that I invented for the occasion; the “Toronto’s Ugliest New Building Award”.   I invited Art to receive the honour in a ceremony at the County Style Doughnut shop at Wilson Heights and Sheppard.  Alas, Art did not show up so the girl behind the counter accepted it on his behalf as we mugged for the Camera.  Fortunately, I was able to present the award formally the next night at the annual “Toronto’s Best Building Award Gala” at the design exchange on Bay Street.   Art wasn’t there either.

I next took the issue to council and convinced them to establish a committee that would review any matter, no matter how trivial or routine, related to the Downsview Lands. Council appointed me to chair the committee.

A few months later I received a call from someone who identified himself as a Colonel.

“We need to have a municipal address. I thought that this was a routine matter”, he said. “Now I am told that I have to appear before the Downsview Lands Operational Protocol Committee. The delay in receiving a municipal number is causing a major headache for the armed forces.  The building is the centre for all land forces in Ontario and unless we have a municipal address Canada Post will not deliver our mail.”

“We don’t seem to have a record of your building in our files.” I said.

”Can you put us on the agenda?”               

 “I’d be happy to do that,” I replied

“When will the Committee be meeting?”


            “I’m not sure.  It hasn’t had its first meeting yet.  Perhaps it will meet in three or maybe      six months. It would be helpful in the interim if you paid us the half million in building                 permit fees that you owe.”              “As to postal delivery,” I said.  “Tell them to send the mail   to Art Eggleton’s constituency office. His staff will be happy to bring it over.”

It took them a year but they finally solved their problem by having Canada Post give them their own postal code. 

Since that time they have further ‘uglified’ the building.  Instead of flowers they’ve landscaped it with tanks and other military equipment. These, of course, are appropriate decorations for a military structure.   You wouldn’t expect the military to display flowers.  Only peaceniks do that.
The military hardware is adorned by beautiful brass plaques that trumpet their historical significance.  But there is just one problem.   During the 3 day G-20 and G-7summit in Toronto when the Harper government blew $1.1 billion on security somebody threw barbed wire fences around the armories.  This was obviously to protect the military from attacks by the protesters that never came north of Bloor Street.  Now, because of the barbed wire fences, nobody is able to get close enough to read the plaques.  Barbed wire, by the way, is illegal in Toronto but then again the Federal government doesn’t have to abide by our bylaws.  They have paramountcy.