How two Ontario cities are re-imagining abandoned railway relics

Brockville and St. Thomas are two small Ontario industrial cities that wouldn’t normally attract much attention. But both communities are working on remarkable projects that re-purpose former railway infrastructure to create interesting public spaces that don’t just lure out-of-town visitors, but add a significant asset to be enjoyed by the entire community. The St. Thomas Elevated Park and the Brockville Railway Tunnel are the type of local, community-driven projects that I can get excited about.

St. Thomas likes to call itself the Railway Capital of Canada. One hundred years ago, five separate railway companies served the city. The Canada Southern (CASO) Railway, later purchased by the Michigan Central Railroad (which became part of the New York Central empire), built its headquarters and shops here; its double-tracked corridor was the fastest route between Buffalo and Detroit. St. Thomas was a stop on the London and Port Stanley Railway, a busy electric railway that ran regular passenger services until 1957. On the edge of town is the Jumbo monument, near the site where the famous Barnum and Bailey circus elephant was killed during a train stop.

IMG_1330-001Jumbo Monument, at the westerly entrance to Downtown St. Thomas

IMG_1310-001The 1873 Canada Southern Station. The tracks it once served have disappeared.

Today, most lines into St. Thomas are abandoned, including the once-mighty Canada Southern; major rail customers such as Ford Motor Company closed local factories. The last passenger train, Amtrak’s Niagara Rainbow, departed from St. Thomas in 1979. The Port Stanley Terminal Railway runs tour trains along part of the old L&PS route, but its trains — for now — only board in Port Stanley.

Despite the loss of the railways, St. Thomas has retained much of its railway heritage. The Elgin County Railway Museum has made its home in the old Michigan Central shops. The station building still stands too — built in 1873, it is one of the longest stations in Canada, extending 108 metres. It was recently renovated and houses offices and retail businesses. A replica of the LP&S station was built downtown, with the hopes of accommodating Port Stanley-bound tour trains. Just west of Downtown St. Thomas is the Kettle Creek Viaduct, which is slated to become a new signature park.

IMG_1326-001Kettle Creek Viaduct, the future St. Thomas Elevated Park, in August 2017

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The ravine run around

IMG_2475-001Wilket Creek trail closure, September 2017

Last week,  my wife and I went for a walk through the Toronto Botanical Gardens, Edwards Gardens, and Wilket Creek Park, all part of Toronto’s wonderful and extensive ravine system. The ravines are one of Toronto’s greatest assets, and many are connected by multi-use trails, allowing pedestrians and cyclists to experience nature, close to home. Some trails, like the Lower Don, are also important commuter routes for those who walk or cycle to school or work.

Unfortunately, several of these trails are closed for long periods for construction, and they do not get the same attention that roads and highways get.

The Wilket Creek Trail, between Edwards Gardens and Sunnybrook Park, has been closed since Spring 2017, and will remain closed until Spring 2018. The Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) is repairing damage caused by erosion, and restoring the local ecosystem. The same trail was closed two years ago for similar construction work.

The pedestrian detour on Leslie Street is straightforward, and does not deviate too far from the route. However, Leslie Street is busy and motorists drive at high speeds, so it is not a good safe route for cyclists. To the City of Toronto and TRCA’s credit, at least, the detours are well mapped and construction notices are signed well in advance. (I’ve experienced trail closures without any warnings or suitable marked detour routes.)

IMG_2476-001Advance warnings and a detailed detour map on the Wilket Creek Trail

Further south, the Lower Don Trail between Pottery Road and the footbridge at Riverdale Park will re-open on September 23, 2017, fourteen months late. That work was done to replace an underpass at a disused rail corridor owned by Metrolinx.

As Metro reporter David Hains points out, that re-opening was re-scheduled several times between July 2016 and August 2017 — unexpected soil conditions and wet weather were blamed for the delays.  Pedestrians and cyclists were directed to use either Broadview Avenue or Bayview Avenue to get around the closure; both are busy roads, and Broadview Avenue is at the top of a steep grade from the Don Valley.

Other major closures included the Humber River Trail under Highway 401 near Weston Road, which was closed for several months in 2016 so that trail users would not be in the way of construction vehicles. The suggested detour, a 3 kilometre long circuitous route, followed Wilson Avenue, a busy suburban road.

This year, the Etobicoke Creek Trail under Highway 401 in Mississauga is also closed for two years for bridge work. There are no safe alternatives for crossing Highway 401 in that area.

Humber.jpgThe circuitous and dangerous 2016 Humber River Trail detour at Highway 401. Source: MTO.

The long and dangerous closures of major pedestrian and cycling routes can be compared to the way road repairs are prioritized. Mayor John Tory announced $3.4 million to speed up construction on the Gardiner Expressway in 2015, when the elevated highway was reduced to two lanes in each direction from three. In August, Tory announced additional funds to speed up watermain and streetcar track construction on Dundas Street between Yonge and Church Streets, perhaps not coincidentally a route many city councillors drive to get to City Hall.

If only there were some additional money and attention given to projects affecting pedestrians and cyclists in Toronto. It would also be nice to ensure any detours were well signed, and made as safe and comfortable as possible.

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The streetcar returns to Detroit – but who benefits?

IMG_1489-001Woodward Avenue at Mack Avenue, August 2017

I grew up in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto. Our family could not justify long, expensive vacations, but we did make several trips to Detroit and the region, usually to visit the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. We’d stay at a hotel outside Detroit, usually one with a swimming pool. Besides the museum visit and the pool, my parents would usually include a stop at an outlet mall. We’d also drive through Detroit itself, sparking my enduring fascination with the city.

Since my first visit in the mid-1980s, the Hudson’s Department Store has been demolished, the Michigan Central Station has been permanently closed and allowed to deteriorate, and several downtown skyscrapers have closed and been abandoned. The city itself continued to lose population as more auto plants closed in the city and surrounding suburbs, and city services declined.

But on recent trips, on my own or with friends, we started to see the beginnings of what looked like a comeback. New downtown baseball and football stadiums, followed by new office buildings, the re-opening of the long-abandoned Book-Cadillac and Fort Shelby Hotels, the opening of the Detroit Riverwalk and Dequindre Cut multi-use paths, and new residential development Downtown and Midtown.

On the last trip to Detroit, my wife and I stayed downtown, at a hotel in the David Whitney Building, a formerly-abandoned office tower. We walked around Downtown Detroit and Eastern Market, visited the famous Art Deco Fisher Building, and went to several museums, including the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, and the Detroit Historical Museum, both of which had special exhibitions marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion (also known as the 12th Street Riot). We ate at great local restaurants as well.

And I went back to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, both of which were as fun and as interesting as I remember.

We also took the new QLine Streetcar. It was a fun ride, and I’m happy to report that the service was well used by both residents and tourists alike. But I have some serious concerns as well.

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We came for the cow, but we had no reason to linger in Cathedraltown

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Last weekend, a few of us visited Cathedraltown, a newer subdivision near Highway 404 and Elgin Mills Road in northern Markham. We came to see ‘Brookview Tony Charity,’ a new chrome sculpture of a prize-winning dairy cow that was once the pride of a hobby farm that was on the site before it was developed. The metallic bovine made the news as local residents opposed the sculpture, located in an otherwise empty and unremarkable Cathedraltown parkette.

One homeowner objected as the cow, raised on stilts and wearing a prize garland, faced the nearby cathedral, likening it to the golden calf from The Ten Commandments: “I come from a Christian background and this is actually one of the worst things you can do, is to raise a calf; it’s facing the cathedral.”

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Ironically, the NIMBY rage only drew attention to the statue; later that week, it became a local tourist attraction. On Saturday, my wife, a good friend, and I went up to Markham to have a look at it ourselves.


Cathedraltown

Markham, on Toronto’s northern boundary, isn’t simply a cookie-cutter 905 suburb. The city of over 325,000 people is known for its high-technology sector, Pacific Mall and many other Chinese-Canadian shopping districts, and several heritage districts. The historic settlements of Unionville and Markham are well-preserved and vital, with interesting shops and restaurants. North of the old village of Markham, Markham Heritage Estates is a surreal subdivision dedicated to preserving old houses that would otherwise be demolished; it looks a little bit like a Tim Burton movie set.

In recent years, Markham has tried to urbanize some of its suburban landscape. Highway 7 is lined with midrise condominium towers and office buildings. Cornell, on Markham’s eastern edge, was Canada’s first “new urbanist” subdivision, intended to promote a less car-dependent lifestyle with higher densities, local retail and mixed use development, and street-focused parks. The new Downtown Markham development, a work in progress, is a mix of office, higher-density residential, retail, and institutional development near GO Transit’s Stouffville corridor and a new VIVA bus rapid transit line.

And then there’s Cathedraltown. Like Cornell, it’s a “new urbanist” development; it even has a main street lined with storefront. But it doesn’t quite work, at least not yet.

IMG_1251-001A mostly empty Cathedral High Street

Cathedraltown was the idea of Stephen Roman, who made a fortune in mining and had a a farm on Woodbine Avenue in Markham to build upon. The new community, on a family owned hobby farm, would have a spectacular new Slovak-Catholic cathedral as its centrepiece, with houses, parks, and stores surrounding the landmark. Stephen Roman’s daughter, Helen Roman Barber, took over the development in 1988.  The church — which remains incomplete — was opened for a while, but the building was the subject of a dispute between the development company and religious leadership and was closed from 2006 through 2016.

Meanwhile, the residential community was slowly built around the Cathedral in the last ten years.

 

IMG_1242-001A “no trespassing” sign still stands outside the recently re-opened Cathedral of the Transfiguration

Like other “new urbanist” developments, the garages and service areas are found not on the residential streets themselves, but in back alleys. Parkettes and playgrounds face the street, rather than behind houses. Dwellings are built close together, for higher densities than traditional suburban tract housing. There are townhouses, as well as semi-detached and fully detached homes, as well as some low-rise condominium apartments.

There’s a Main Street, which is called Cathedral High Street. It is lined with storefronts, but many are empty. Those that are occupied host dental offices, real estate agents, an insurance broker, beauty and nail salons, and after-school tutoring companies. Only one store, a nail salon, was visibly open on our visit on a Saturday afternoon.

A few thousand more residents might help. Building the retail along Woodbine Avenue itself, which gets far more traffic, might have also helped support sustainable retail. Nearby, however, is a pedestrian-unfriendly plaza on Major Mackenzie Drive that’s fully leased, anchored by banks, a Canadian Tire, a Shoppers Drug Mart, Starbucks, and Boston Pizza.

IMG_1253-001Storefronts on Cathedral High Street…

IMG_5598.JPGWhile a nearby auto-centric plaza is busy

Despite its new urbanist ideals, Cathedraltown is as auto-dependent as any other suburb. Only two bus routes serve the centre of the development: York Region Transit bus routes 24 and 80. Route 24, which goes to the TTC Don Mills Subway Station, operates every 51 minutes on Saturdays, and only until about 6:30 at night (Sunday service is similar; weekday service is slightly better). Route 80, which goes west to Yonge Street, operates every 45 minutes on weekends, until about 8:00 or 9:00 PM. Getting to GO Transit trains requires a car or a YRT bus ride involving a transfer between two infrequent routes.

IMG_1254-001Empty streetscape on a sunny Saturday afternoon

Without transit, and without places to walk to (apart from a church, a few parks, and an elementary school), the ideals of new urbanism aren’t matched by reality. Unless things change drastically, it will still be a place where residents will get in their cars to go anywhere. Better transit could be a start, but so would adding more people, and jobs.

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Maybe one day, this community will be completed

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The Halifax Department of Silly Walks

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As part of our trip through the Maritime Provinces a few weeks ago, we visited Halifax. Nova Scotia’s capital and largest city is the economic, cultural and transportation hub for Atlantic Canada. In 1996, the City of Halifax was merged with surrounding towns and suburbs, as well as rural Halifax County; the Halifax Regional Municipality is now 5,490 square kilometres, nearly nine times the size of the City of Toronto.

Like many amalgamated cities in Canada, Halifax has a historic, densely populated inner core, surrounded by urban neighbourhoods. Beyond the old cities of Halifax and Dartmouth is a ring of suburban homes and businesses, such as Bedford, Cole Harbour, and Bayer’s Lake. And like Hamilton and Ottawa, there’s another, even larger ring of rural farms, woodlands, small villages, and exurban estates. Peggy’s Cove, for example, is near Halifax’s eastern boundary. Councils of these amalgamated cities must reconcile the needs and desires of the urban centre with those of suburban and exurban residents. In Toronto, bike lanes are held up, or even removed, for the benefit of motorists living outside the urban core. The debate over Hamilton’s LRT has pitted suburban councillors against those representing the lower city. Halifax is no exception.

Halifax’s urban core is worth exploring, despite construction detours around the new convention centre, the waterfront, and new condominium development. Downtown includes the historic Citadel, Province House, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, among other museums. Halifax Common and the Public Gardens are welcoming public spaces in the classic New England style.

Halifax Transit operates a ferry service to Dartmouth — only $2.50 per person, with the return trip free if taken within 90 minutes — which offers great views of the city and the various commercial and naval ships in the harbour. The ferry is also fully integrated with the local bus system. The new Halifax Central Library is one of Canada’s greatest new public buildings: the five storeys are bright and user-friendly, and there is even a rooftop patio and café to visit.

Downtown is compact and a pleasure to walk abound.

IMG_0903-001.JPGThe spectacular new Halifax Central Library

But once you stroll beyond Halifax’s urban core, the landscape changes. Signed crosswalks are fewer and farther between, even in older residential neighbourhoods.

Maritimers are famously courteous to pedestrians; most motorists will slow or stop if they see a pedestrian about to cross the street, whether or not there’s a marked crosswalk. But that slower pace of life in itself does not prevent collisions. As in any North American city, Halifax’s arterial roads and suburban streets are built to move cars through quickly and efficiently.

That’s where the flags come in. What was intended as a well-meaning, inexpensive measure to promote pedestrians’ safety at crosswalks has become one of the most ridiculous pedestrian initiatives.

Crosswalk flags were the idea of just one man, Norm Collins, a Dartmouth retiree. The flags and buckets only cost $200 per crosswalk, compared to $15,000-25,000 per crosswalk for proper signal lights. In 2015, municipal staff were cool to pedestrian flags, though the idea enjoyed support from HRM councillors, particularly suburban politicians, and the flags were approved by council.

Now, at most crosswalks outside Halifax’s urban core, there are buckets of bright orange flags for pedestrians to take when crossing the street. These buckets and flags can even be found at signalized crossings with flashing amber lights activated by pressing a button. Each bucket has instructions printed on how to “be cautious…be seen…be safe.”

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One of the buckets, with instructions on how to use the flags left inside

Yes, even when there are flashing lights at an intersection, Halifax Regional Council expects pedestrians to use these flags (even if city staff disagree). The instructions above clearly indicate that the onus for safety is entirely on the pedestrian crossing the street, not on motorists taking care by driving safely and attentively.

Vision Zero is the Swedish road safety philosophy that seeks to end traffic fatalities by minimizing the effects of mistakes made my all road users. Lower speed limits, enforced by road re-engineering works (such as bump-outs, speed humps, and tighter corners at intersections) that slow down cars and trucks is one such effective measure. So are complete streets, designed to improve the safety and comfort of pedestrians and cyclists. Cheap pedestrian flags, which do not address the root problem, are not within the spirit of Vision Zero.

If Halifax Council — or any municipal government — was serious about improving pedestrian safety, features that would help include improved lighting, narrowing the roadways at pedestrian crossings, and raising the crosswalks closer to the curb level, forcing motorists to slow down (and also improving drainage. Flags and high-visibility clothing are useful for temporary conditions and for traffic control personnel, but not for everyday conditions and everyday people. The onus should always be first on the licensed motorist to be attentive to the road and drive according to the conditions.

A ridiculous pedestrian safety measure deserves a ridiculous walk, as I demonstrated in Dartmouth.

 

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A visit to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia

IMG_0319-001New Glasgow City Hall

After our wedding, we went away to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. I’ve been to Halifax and the Annapolis Valley once before, in April 2004, but I’ve never been to Cape Breton (which has become one of my favourite places in Canada), or PEI.

It was a wonderful trip. We drove the Cabot Trail, hiked several trails in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, enjoyed great meals featuring local seafood, visited restored historic sites such as the Fortress of Louisbourg, and spent some time wandering around Halifax and Charlottetown. I’ll write more on those adventures later.

Driving through Nova Scotia on the way to Cape Breton, you must pass through Pictou County on Highway 104, part of the Trans-Canada Highway. Most travelers pass through, or stop off the highway for gas or food. But the region has an interesting history, and we visited two historic sites there which are off most tourists’ radar.

Once an industrial powerhouse, settlements such as New Glasgow, Stellarton, and Trenton have been hit by the closures in the steel industry and in coal mining. Trenton had a large steel mill; the TrentonWorks plant produced rail cars until 2007. Coal mining was also important to both northern Nova Scotia and in Cape Breton, but today, only one surface coal mine remains in the province near Stellarton. Today, Stellarton might be most known as the hometown of and headquarters for the Sobeys supermarket chain and its parent company, Empire Corp. The town of Pictou was known for its shipbuilding industry.

New Glasgow, which we visited, is the largest community in Pictou County, and the regional centre for central Nova Scotia. We stayed in New Glasgow overnight, as we were to take the Northumberland Ferry to PEI early the next morning.


In 1947, Viola Desmond, a successful Black entrepreneur, was removed by police from the Roseland Theatre for refusing to sit in the upper segregated seating area, but in the ‘whites only’ section. She was charged and convicted for tax evasion – the one cent difference in the provincial amusement tax between the ticket she was sold and the lower level seating. Despite this injustice, the apology and pardon from the Nova Scotia government didn’t come until 2010. That year, a plaque was unveiled in New Glasgow. Since then, there has been more recognition of this injustice and of Desmond’s importance — a new ferry was named for her in Halifax, and she will appear on the next issue of the $10 bank note.

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Roseland Theatre building, June 30, 2017

Today, the Roseland Theatre is closed (the theatre later became a club). I found the building (which is being renovated, and the marquee removed), but I had trouble finding the plaque. I found out it was located two blocks away from the theatre building, next to the public library.

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The plaque commemorating Viola Desmond is located two blocks away from the Roseland Theatre

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On May 9, 1992, sixteen miners were killed in a methane and coal gas explosion at the nearby Westray Mine. News of the explosion, and coverage of the attempted rescue efforts was one of the first major news stories I clearly remember, and the first I really understood. I was eleven when it happened. (Though I also remember the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, I was eight years old at the time, and I couldn’t understand the significance. Westray was the first news story that I remember and which I could understand clearly.)

Tragically, eleven bodies remain underground. The mining company ignored unsafe working conditions, and the government was complicit in knowing about the problems but not forcing changes — the Westray mine promised jobs, not only in the mine, but in other local industries, such as TrentonWorks, which was contracted to supply rail cars for shipping coal to a nearby power generation station. The mine had lots of support at all three levels of government; this likely contributed to pressure to keep it open despite serious safety concerns. Furthermore, criminal proceedings against the company and its management were botched.

IMG_0316-001Their Light Shall Always Shine Memorial Park, New Glasgow

Though the main Westray Mine site and shaft were located at Plymouth, to the south of New Glasgow, the explosion took place north of Highway 104, within the city limits. Their Light Shall Always Shine Memorial Park is located close to the site. Besides a garden and a monument with all sixteen men’s names, there are several interpretative plaques on the history of the Westray Mine, the explosion, and the aftermath.

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My life, so far

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I’ll be taking a break from writing on this blog and elsewhere for a few weeks. I will be preoccupied, as I’m getting married, then leaving for my honeymoon in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

For many years, I never thought that I would become as happy as I am now. During my three dozen years on this planet, I have struggled through two bouts of life-threatening childhood illness, and their long-term side effects, bullying, depression, low self-confidence, criminal intimidation and civil litigation, and not knowing where I stood in life.

On the positive side, I have always benefited from a loving and supportive family and a small core of wonderful friends. And I have found an amazing life partner.

Growing up, I was a socially awkward child, a true nerd. At the age of three, I was collecting and studying maps. By four, I was drawing maps and creating fantasy cities. I bugged my parents to take me to Toronto to ride streetcars and even the Scarborough RT when it was still new in the 1980s. I was destined to be a geographer or an urban planner.

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I was also clearly destined to go on long bike rides, exploring southern Ontario. 

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