Sunday, March 7, 2010

Phototour: Climbing Mount Pleasant

Spring began to make its presence known in Toronto yesterday, step by tentative step. It was the first time in months I've been able to go outside wearing a light jacket and be comfortable, and the cloudless sky made conditions ideal for photography and wandering. Days like that, when everything seems clear and free, are ideal for exploration.

Depending on where you live, Toronto's Mount Pleasant Road is one of those streets that can easily fall off your mental map if you're not careful. For much of its length it's the first major road east of Yonge Street, and between Bloor Street in the south and its northern extent in Hoggs Hollow it runs through some of the most established and affluent neighborhoods in the city. It runs through places that are calm, quiet, and comforting. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, it is subtly out of the way. While it's not far removed from Toronto's rapid transit network, there are no stations in the system that serve Mount Pleasant Road directly. In my estimation it is, like downtown's Esplanade, easy to forget about. That's one of the reasons why I went there.

The other reason is that I wanted to retrace the route of the Mount Pleasant streetcar, which stopped running in 1976 after a brief sixteen months of service and was the last actual streetcar line to be removed from the system - while the 507 Long Branch route was removed in 1995, the local tracks still exist and 501 Queen cars still provide service there. From St. Clair station on the Yonge subway, it ran east along St. Clair Avenue East and north along Mount Pleasant Road to Eglinton, and that's the route I followed for this phototour. You can thank the Metro Roads Department for the line no longer existing; it overruled the Toronto Transit Commission's desire to continue running the route, according to Transit Toronto, "in response to complaints from car drivers about streetcars 'obstructing' their progress." I could make a comment here that similar complaints from drivers played a significant role in the abandonment of streetcar systems in other North American cities, as a 1952 TTC report made available by Steve Munro lucidly argues - that such actions mean that "[transit agencies] have tailored their service in accordance with the demands of their bitter competitors rather than in accordance with the needs of their patrons."

Still - it was a good journey regardless. If you're interested, follow along!

At Ferndale Avenue, where the streetcar tracks loop back out of St. Clair station for the journey west to Keele, you're not far from a shift in the cityscape. A 1920s bridge, its guardrails low and made of stone, carries St. Clair East over David A. Balfour Park, filling one of the city's many ravines. As I crossed the bridge, I felt almost as if I was walking back in time - while office towers, apartment building, and modern-looking condo complexes rise on the west side, the east is mostly hidden beneath tree cover.

Like I've said before, it's quiet and residential, comprised substantially of what seems to be late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century housing stock. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, at the corner of St. Clair and Clifton, is the most architecturally imposing part of the neighborhood that I saw, and likely the only part that would be visible above the trees in summer. It's a brief walk from St. Clair station, only nine hundred meters, but by the time you arrive the city's been left behind. There's not much evidence suggesting that streetcars ever ran here, but for a slight seam between the inner and outer lanes of the roadway that implies the two inner lanes, where the streetcar tracks were, had been resurfaced more recently.

Forty years ago you would have found Moore Park Loop at the northeast corner of St. Clair East and Mount Pleasant, which was the sole short-turn loop on the entire route. Today it's Loring-Wyle Parkette - commemorating Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, American-born sculptors who have left their artistic heritage throughout Toronto and Ontario - the Queen Elizabeth Way Monument, which I wrote about last year, may be one of their most outstanding works. Exhibited in the parkette are busts Loring and Wyle sculpted of each other in 1914, Loring by Wyle and Wyle by Loring, as well as Wyle's 1938 Young Girl sculpture - Wikipedia refers to a fourth, Harvester, which I was apparently too oblivious to notice. With only four pieces I wouldn't exactly call it an outdoor art museum, but the parkette is obviously well cared for - aside, that is, from the old-style payphone with its handset and keys slathered in red and an anarchy symbol slapdashed on the glass - and I think it's one of the better uses an abandoned streetcar loop could be put to.

North of St. Clair, Mount Pleasant resembles an affluent suburb, which I suppose the area was when it first came to prominence. There are a handful of the old metal poles still along it which formerly supported the overhead electrical infrastructure, which are frequently the only remaining indications that streetcars ever ran along a particular street. It doesn't last for long, though - four hundred meters north of Loring-Wyle Parkette and 1.3 kilometers from St. Clair station, the tenor of the community changes again upon entering the grounds of Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery dates back to 1876, opened as a place where the bones of all Torontonians could rest without regard to religious affiliation, and today is one of the more well-known burial grounds in central Toronto. Among the more than 168,000 people buried there are two Victoria Cross recipients, six mayors of Toronto, and William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada's longest-serving Prime Minister and grandson of William Lyon Mackenzie, who was interred in Cabbagetown's Necropolis until he returned to throw his hat into the 2010 Toronto municipal election. Mount Pleasant Road actually cuts the cemetery in half, and is the only option for through traffic in the area between Yonge Street to the west and Bayview Avenue to the east. Things are even more calm and stilled here, except for the ubiquitous traffic. Particularly considering the way the cemetery interrupts the street grid, it's no surprise that so much traffic ends up being funnelled onto Mount Pleasant Road.

North of the cemetery, a second, smaller bridge carries the road over Mud Creek, one of the Don River's many tributaries. At this point, I realized I'd entered familiar ground - this was part of the route my father and I covered by car, from downtown Toronto to Allen Road. What I recall as having been vaguely industrial buildings fifteen years ago are now new and shining retirement residences. The office building at Mount Pleasant and Davisville still exists, but the UNICEF logo is no longer there, and the train hobby shop that used to occupy the first storefront north of June Rowlands Park is now a hair studio.

This is the point where the character of Mount Pleasant changes for a third time. At Millwood Road, a kilometer north of Mount Pleasant Cemetery's southern fringe and 2.2 kilometers out from St. Clair station, the "affluent suburb" vibe disappears and is replaced by one of the "main streets" that are commonplace throughout the city, in places like Queen Street West, Roncesvalles, King Street East, St. Clair West, Harbord Street, and Rogers Road - places that at one time had, or continued to have, streetcar service.

It's places like these, in my opinion, that really make Toronto - that cement the idea that this is "a city of neighbourhoods." Aside from a handful of outliers north of the cemetery, this was the first time I'd encountered commercial properties along the route since before I'd crossed the bridge on St. Clair. I passed two independent bookstores here, two old-style theatres - the Regent and, further north, the Mount Pleasant, the latter retaining a sign that looks as if it's seen many days - and saw the re-emergence of pedestrian culture that didn't seem to exist through the residential section of my route. It was only when I approached Eglinton that the architecture really began to diverge from the early twentieth-century style that predominated further south - the Mount Pleasant branch of the Toronto Public Library, even though built in 1991, is architecturally well-integrated with its surroundings.

This "Main Street Mount Pleasant" lasts for another seven hundred meters until it reaches Eglinton, historically one of the major dividing lines between the city of Toronto and "the suburbs," three kilometers out from St. Clair station.

That green-roofed structure is St. Peter's Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Toronto, and as churches in Toronto go it's got a rather distinct architectural design going for it. It was relevant to me because it marked out the end of the route - I've seen it in photos from the 1970s that depicted the end of the Mount Pleasant line. Here, just north of Eglinton, the streetcars turned around for their southbound runs at Eglinton Loop. It still exists today, though the Moore Place development has risen around and above it, as the northern terminus of the 74 Mt Pleasant bus route. Aside from one minor diversion, this bus route exactly parallels the route of the old streetcar.

I've never been on Mount Pleasant Road north of Eglinton Loop. I'm not sure what sort of neighborhoods may or may not thrive there - whether there's another "Main Street" along its length, or if it returns to the same sort of residential tranquility that predominated in Moore Park.

Still, though, it left me wondering: why's it called Mount Pleasant? Hell if I know. It seemed perfectly level to me.

1 comment:

  1. Just saying hello. This is Browne in LA. I was born in Canada. Windsor, Ontario to be exact but raised in Yellowknife before I came to the states as a nine year old. Thanks for visiting my blog. Thanks for the link. I will reciprocate. Good luck in your race for mayor.