Robert Fulford's column about Toronto's waterfront

(The National Post, September 22, 2001)

In 1950, a Globe and Mail columnist named Frank Tumpane turned his attention to a disquieting situation on the waterfront. For the fourth or fifth time in memory, the city had been forced to close our various beaches because the water was contaminated. Mr. Tumpane rightly considered this an outrage.

"How long," he wrote, "how long, O Lord, will the people put up with it?"

That was more than half a century ago. Whenever the newspapers report once again that Toronto children can't swim in Lake Ontario, I think of Mr. Tumpane's question. We now know the answer: the people will put up with it forever, more or less, and neither the politicians nor the journalists will insist we make a great fuss about it. It is no longer the scandal Mr. Tumpane considered it to be.

Those who can remember when Toronto people routinely swam in their lake are slowly dying off. My generation (I was born in 1932) may have been the last to assume as little children that clean water lapping the beaches was our natural right. Later generations believe the water has always been polluted and perhaps always will be. Water quality has turned into one of those problems that are reported and deplored but not remedied. It never quite rises to the must-be-done list.

In 1992, the report of the Ontario royal commission on the waterfront called for clean water, among many other things, but nothing significant was accomplished. The latest issue of the Waterfront Regeneration Trust Newsletter (headed, with typical boosterism, Toronto's Waterfront -- Let's Go!) has noted, almost in passing, that "Toronto's beaches are frequently unfit for swimming" and "many fish are too contaminated to eat." The newsletter then discusses all the public consultations on the waterfront that are about to take place and the soaringly imaginative projects being considered.

When city council gets back to work in October, those projects, and the role of Robert Fung as chair of the Waterfront Revitalization Corporation, will be on the agenda. As the political drama unfolds, certain guilty questions will form the subtext. Did we really mean it when we said we were going to recreate the waterfront, or was that just rhetoric for the International Olympic Committee? Since the $1.5-billion in shaky pledges from three levels of government will at best pay for only a small part of a reborn waterfront, who will provide the rest of the money? If we spend a lot of money cleaning up our former industrial lands, will that make them so inviting that private developers will rush to produce the high-quality buildings we claim we yearn for on the lake -- or will we have to tolerate more of the standard-issue construction now towering over Harbourfront?

In this dream-ridden atmosphere, my own dream centres on water quality, as a start. Eventually (I dream) we will notice that one characteristic of a good waterfront is good water. When Toronto's representatives went to Moscow to make fools of themselves begging for the 2008 Olympic Games, they said little about pollution. They offered dreams instead, some of them based on tossed-off architectural sketches. They outlined a grand and beautiful lakeside in our future, and at the very last minute made it even grander and more beautiful by raising the stakes. Out of nowhere they came up with the idea of a $240-million World Olympic Youth Centre, designed by Frank Gehry (he designs all of Toronto's imaginary buildings).

It was to be located, of course, on the waterfront. God knows where they thought the money would come from; perhaps they assumed (as many would-be Gehry clients do) the magic of his name would automatically draw many millions of dollars into their treasury. In any case, the people who were passionate in Moscow about the youth centre dropped the idea when they got back to Toronto.

That's the kind of thing we talk about when we talk about the waterfront -- impressive plans. We talk about the Waterfront Promenade, the New Waterfront Boulevard, the West Donlands Park. We think big.

In reality, our waterfront isn't wildly impressive, never has been. But when we speak of the future we settle for nothing but the best. Nowadays we love to talk about tearing down the Gardiner Expressway, burying blocks and blocks of it beneath central Toronto. That will, we argue, eliminate the psychological barrier it creates between city and lake. There are architects and planners who even claim we shouldn't work on any other major projects until we get the Gardiner well and truly buried.

The Gardiner looks terrible, of course, and has a nasty habit of shedding concrete chunks of itself onto the roadway below. It is not cheap to maintain. But the pressure to keep it remains as strong as the pressure to eliminate it, and leaving it alone for another generation will certainly cost less than a tunnel.

My feelings are instinctively anti-Gardiner, and if I were given the right sort of magic wand, I'd make it go away in a twinkling; But getting rid of it in reality may soak up much of the money and energy that could go to something more valuable -- like a long boardwalk stretching west from Harbourfront, ideally something as long as the glorious boardwalk in the Beach district.

After writing and thinking about it for years, I've concluded that the "psychological barrier" argument against the Gardiner is more theoretical than real. I base this on personal experience.

For years I've been going to the waterfront often, and I've noticed that I never pause for a second to think about the Gardiner. If I go by TTC, the streetcar whisks me out of Union Station through an underground tunnel and drops me on Queen's Quay; unless I make a point of it, I don't even see the Gardiner. Going by car, I pass under it in a couple of seconds.

Still, there are people deeply committed to the idea it's a psychological barrier. They must assume many of us want to walk from Front Street to Queen's Quay. That could indeed be pleasant, especially if a buried Gardiner made some handsome development possible; but it's not essential to an enjoyment of what the central-city waterfront now has to offer.

Which is what, exactly? Far more than most of us are willing to acknowledge. Harbourfront (a gift from the federal government in the 1970s, graciously paid for by our taxes) has had more than its share of troubles but has somehow emerged as a kind of ramshackle triumph. It never looks better than messy but it holds two theatres, two art galleries, a world authors' festival, an antique market, an endless variety of ethnic festivals, the South Asian Film Festival, a marina, a few reasonably good restaurants and the best-looking fire station in town.

No one will ever give Harbourfront a prize for planning, but I'd much rather have it in my life than not. When we draw up a list of waterfront achievements, we shouldn't forget that Harbourfront wasn't even there three decades ago. Impossible though this may be to believe, we do make a little progress now and then.

The Leslie Street Spit, that bizarre construction of old concrete chunks that has grown into a magnificent nature park, is another product of the last quarter of the 20th century -- one for which the people of that era will be greatly admired in future. Perhaps Harbourfront and the Leslie Street Spit, both of them invented on the fly, suggest how a more useful waterfront will develop. Maybe a series of improvisations, rather than grand long-term planning, will take us closer to where we want to be.

But certainly an improvement in water quality will involve patience and planning. That's why it has occurred to me several times, during the debates over the waterfront, that I'd gladly trade a dozen of our political schemers and architectural dreamers for a few sanitary engineers with a plan for water purity and the ability to sell it to the people and the governments.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image