The street where I live, near St. Clair West and Christie, was originally called Victoria after it was carved out of a farmer’s field or replaced a cow path in the early 20th century. Victoria is my wife’s name, and I enjoy the coincidence, although my street lost that moniker not long after it was plotted on city maps, likely because someone realized that Toronto already had a street called Victoria.
Even in empire-loving Victorian Toronto, two may have been one more than necessary.
So in the 1910s, some bureaucrat, lost to the mists of time, rechristened it Tyrrel Avenue. Why? I don’t know for sure, but the street could have been (re)named for Joseph Tyrrell, a Canadian geologist of some renown. But the aforementioned official managed to misspell Joseph’s surname, proving, yet again, that fact-checking matters. No one’s ever proposed restoring that wayward ‘l’. The name is what it is.
The point of this minute anecdote is that it’s not so important to become emotionally attached to city street names. They may seem fixed in our urban imaginations, but the reality is actually much more fluid and provisional.
All this will be worth remembering when the city gets down to the business of re-naming Dundas, or indeed other streets, as Mayor John Tory promised earlier this week in response to a fast-moving petition that highlights Henry Dundas’s opposition to abolition in the British House of Commons. As surely as night follows day, an energized and possibly indignant pro-Dundas faction will emerge, kicking up a fuss about preserving history or some-such. But the frequently random nature of the way cities name public streets is a highly relevant detail here, because too often we confuse that which is merely familiar with that which is symbolically or historically relevant.
A few more examples: University Avenue used to be College, back at a time when it was much less than a grand boulevard. Chestnut Street, which few people think about or travel on, was originally called Sayer Street, the maiden name of the original land owner’s wife. Queen Street was Lot Street until the mid-19th century because it marked the edge of the city. Lawrence Avenue is named after a guy named John Lawrence who owned a large farm at Yonge and, well, Lawrence.
In neighbourhoods like Forest Hill and North Toronto, the people who named streets were clearly homesick Scots. In the post-war suburbs, you can find streets named for the developers who alchemized low-value pastureland into high-value industrial land. In more recent subdivisions, the names are culled, it often seems, directly from Hallmark cards. Blooming Ivy Way, etc.
Dundas Street through the core owes its existence to a specific quirk in the modernization efforts of early 20th century City works officials. Like Dupont, Bay and College/Carlton, Dundas was actually made from several somewhat misaligned streets that had to be knit together into a continuous right-of-way to assist with the provision of streetcar service and efficient 20th-century vehicle movement.
In the case of Dundas, it was, in various places, Agnes, Wilton, Anderson, Arthur, Crawford and St. Patrick. According to one city map from 1910, Wilton had been Crookshank once upon a time — who’s Crookshank? — and ended just west of the Don River. Of all these, only St. Patrick would have a genuine historic significance, as it denotes the name of one of Toronto’s original municipal wards.
Dundas itself only starts, for the purposes of city maps going back to the 1880s, at that spot west of Ossington where it begins to veer north-west – a former rural road that led to the Town of Dundas. Vaughan Road and Weston Road would have the same name origins as rural radial highways to surrounding municipalities.
Why did the whole street become Dundas and not, say, Agnes? The answer, in all likelihood, is not freighted with symbolic significance about which anyone needs to hand-wring. Changing it is no more fraught than renaming the Air Canada Centre or the O’Keefe/Hummingbird/Sony/Meridian Centre. Names change.
The more interesting part of this conversation, in fact, is, change to what?
Consider the north end of Spadina, where members of Toronto’s diverse Indigenous community have been working to Indigenize that familiar name and surface its Ojibwe origin, “Isphadinaa,” or “place on a hill.” The de-vowelled Spadina of contemporary (i.e., post-colonial) usage reminds me of the way that Giovanni Caboto, the Italian sailor, was transformed into the less poly-syllabic John Cabot that Canadian children encounter in primary school lessons about “explorers.”
While the civic impulse to rename streets after historically significant events, prominent artists or other heroic figures is well established, what interests me about the Ishpadinaa effort is that it uses street naming as a way of confronting erasure – an instinct that is surely relevant in the discussion we’re having right now about anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.
There are, I’m sure, plenty of streets in this city named for people whose views or actions fall well short of what’s come to be deemed acceptable. Some, like Henry Dundas or Peter Russell, will bob to the surface of this debate, and those places will rightly take on new identities. This process has happened before: the first street running east from Yonge one block north of Bloor was named Bismarck until sometime after the First World War, when it became the distinctly more anglophilic Asquith.
If we use that discussion to reverse the erasure and bulldozing that accompanied urban growth, sometimes with violence, the process itself will not only change our street maps, but also our understanding of what the city is, who has lived in it, and how those communities, long edited out of the civic narrative, mattered in the evolution of the metropolis Toronto has become.