Unbuilt Highways

Toronto: The Spadina Expressway
How we get from here to there.
Dec. 23 2010 2:58 PM

Unbuilt Highways

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As synonymous with New York City as Jane Jacobs is, often underappreciated is the fact that she spent nearly as much of her life in Toronto. And when she moved there in 1968, she must have had a serious case of déjà vu. As Alice Sparberg Alexiou writes in Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, "within a few months of her arrival, she learned that another expressway was in the works. When finished it would have six lanes and connect downtown Toronto with the suburbs. And there was more: the house in which she and her family were renting an apartment sat right in its path."

That expressway was the Spadina, intended to connect downtown Toronto with the rapidly growing suburbs, part of a larger projected network, including the Scarborough and Crosstown. Amidst an already charged political climate, with lines over freeways drawn between suburban and city residents, construction had begun in 1966. As Mark Osbaldeston describes in Unbuilt Toronto, a promise to bury the Spadina as it crossed through Cedarvale Park had "helped mute some opposition," but other neighborhoods, facing "mass expropriation," proved more problematic, and by 1969, full-blown opposition was at hand: There was a vocal and widespread protest movement spearheaded by Jacobs (and sociologist Alan Powell) with the wind of a popular book, The Bad Trip, by David and Nadine Nowland (an economics professor and a future city Council member, respectively) at its back.

Rendering looking north on Spadina Road and Davenport, 1970. Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Series 1143, File 3143, Item M.
Rendering looking north on Spadina Road and Davenport, 1970. Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Series 1143, File 3143, Item M.
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Rendering looking south on Spadina Road at Harbord, 1970. Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Series 1143, File 3143, Item X.

Despite an attempted rebranding (the road was to be named after Metro Chairman William Allen), the Spadina—as it is still known—never recovered momentum. (Today, the area is home to one of the city's most desirable neighborhoods.) It was condemned in 1971, with a famous rebuke by Ontario Premiere Bill Davis: "If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop."

Ghosts of the Spadina still haunt the city today—for example, as Osbaldeston notes, the windowless Spadina facade of the New College of the University of Toronto: "Why look out onto an expressway"?

Rendering looking south on Spadina at Bloor with the University of Toronto in the top left corner, 1970. Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Series 1143, File 3143, Item U.
Rendering looking south on Spadina at Bloor with the University of Toronto in the top left corner, 1970. Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Series 1143, File 3143, Item U.

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Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.