LORINC: What’s in a street name? Dundas and other uncomfortable truths about our city

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.

photo by Ross Strachan (cc)

9 comments

  1. Since we are talking about renaming streets, how about renaming Spadina by its Anishnawbee name: Ishpadinaa

  2. I live on Barker Ave, in East York (the West end of the street runs right into the East York Civic Centre!). There is also a Barker Ave in Etobicoke. At amalgamation, for some reason, neither street had it’s name or type (Ave/Street/Rd/etc.) changed.
    The street numbers are similarly duplicated.
    Care to wonder how often we get mail and packages intended for the Etobicoke residence?
    We also occasionally get notices from the City(!) intended for them. I can imagine they occasionally get our mail, too.
    Early in the lockdown, a grocery delivery company shopped for our groceries at a supermarket near Victoria Park and Danforth, then DELIVERED THEM TO ETOBICOKE! 30 KMs away! (fortunately, they simply re-did the shopping and delivered it correctly the second time, but it cost them over $200. We hope the folks in Etobicoke enjoyed the free groceries.)
    A month ago, a cargo courier delivered our new elliptical trainer to the Etobicoke address. It took numerous calls and email to get them to even acknowledge that there were two of the same street address. The courier company flatly said, “We don’t use Postal Codes.”
    Perhaps they should?
    I wonder what it would cost or take by way of red tape to get that OTHER street re-named…

  3. I can see St. Patrick Avenue (there is a St. Patrick Street) used for renaming Dundas Street. That allows for keeping St. Patrick Station as is.

    Yonge-Dundas Square should be renamed Hubbard Square, for William Peyton Hubbard (a Toronto alderman from 1894 to 1914, he was one of the first politicians of African descent elected to office in Canada) and for his son, Frederick Langdon Hubbard (Chairman of the Toronto Transportation Commission from 1929 to 1930. He was the first African Canadian to serve on the TTC board.) Appropriate to name a subway station after the new name, Hubbard Square, and after a former TTC chair.

    As for Dundas West Station, rename it “Roncesvalles Station”. It is only 350m north of Roncesvalles Avenue, comparable to some existing subway stations in the sticks. (It’s 1 km from Pioneer Village Station to Pioneer Village itself, for example.)

  4. If we start renaming every road and public place to remove the history of colonialism, the entire map will change. First the costs need to be tallied – do we have the financial resources to change every street sign, maps, gps, transit signage, highway signage, business advertising and identities? Would these resources be better used to provide more equitable supports such as youth employment, better housing, access to education and jobs, access to social services, mental health, and basic things like dental work and employment training. And changing systemic racism in our education and workplaces? Second – do we lose our colonial history – including the racism and bigotry (if we do, then we lose the lessons we have learned and both the good and bad sides of our complex histories) And third- how will we deal with orienting ourselves? Unless we are newcomers, the confusion could be disastrous. Just imagine how many lost people we would have to deal with. Better to post historic signs with current context and historical explanations; better to add a new layer of history that draws attention to the fact that we have grown, not only in size, but in our views; better to add the unheard voices from the past with the stories of the struggle for equality – for racialized people, women, disabled people, the socially disadvantaged. When we our lose our history, or, as in the past, history was whitewashed – we will repeat that history. Toronto needs an accurately revised history, with public statues and reminders of our hard times, our riots, our strikes, our bigotry – the colored’s drinking fountain at Union Station, the police station built to control striking workers, the Osgoode Hall “cow gates” and fence built to protect the powerful from the “Fenians”, (starving Irish immigrants who fled the impacts of British colonialism in Ireland, only to find it just as deeply entrenched here) with cattle as an excuse. We definitely need more statues and public art that represent the under-represented. I can think of so many groups, and causes, and people and events including deaths – that have moved us forward into a time when we are safe enough in our society to question the names of roads! Let’s get the change we need right this time and not simply approach the issue with the tokenism of renaming a street.

  5. While the City of Toronto is in the midst of the worst Pandemic since the Spanish Flu and the city is spending so much money to fight Covid, most likely our taxes will be going up as a result, the last thing we need is to spend money on changing the name of Dundas. It goes on for miles and every shopkeeper would be affected and it would cost all of them and the taxpayers a lot of money that could be used for social programs. Until now most people including myself had no idea who this street was named after. Let us move forward, but to change street names at this time is not something I do not wish my taxes to pay for. Hopefully the people who want this are paying taxes to the City of Toronto. If it is FUNDED by the people who want the change OK.

  6. 99.9% of the people who live on Dundas Street don’t know where its name came from. I knew it as a road to/from Dundas, Ontario. I also knew it only ran to Ossington, then south to Queen. Plus, the many short, crookedly aligned streets going farther and farther east. (Glad to read those names again. Saved me looking them all up again!)

    Sometime, I hope someone will add up the immense cost to THOUSANDS of people forced to change their address on anything being mailed to them as well as driver’s license, vehicle license, vehicle insurance, home insurance, OHIP card, bank accounts, utility accounts, automatic deposits of wages, pensions, etc. etc. etc.

  7. Here’s my suggestion – instead of naming it for the west terminus, name it for the east. Call it Ashbridge’s St, for the Ashbridges Estate that used to be the area Between Queen and Danforth & Greenwood and Coxwell. Historical reference and also contemporary with Ashbridge’s Bay, Park, etc in the east end.

    Or as the road to Kingston Road, we could take a cue from Avenue Road and call it Road Road but that’s a bit silly.

  8. I really can’t believe that people don’t have anything more important to worry about in their lives than street names. The people who these streets were named after lived a long long time ago, in a reality that’s nothing like what the one we’re now in. Society has advanced to become very inclusive. I wish we could focus on that, instead of spending so much time agonizing if someone who live a couple of hundred years ago should have had a street named after them. If you change street names, that’s going to lead to dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of missed deliveries or other inconveniences for the people who live on them.

  9. I don’t think we should name any public spaces after people. No human is perfect. We are all products of our family/schools/community influences. Many people change over their lifetime. I would not judge people of history—though I can judge both the good and bad actions of people. In addition, leaders have supporters—who have a part in the leaders decision. So it is not one person who deserves public credit or contempt

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