Thursday, February 20, 2014

Weird Street

"Is Craven Road the weirdest street in Toronto?" asks a new post on blogTO.

Why, thanks for asking. Yes. Yes it is.

And the weirdest thing of all is the cloud of urban legends that shrouds its origins. Chris Bateman (who wrote a wonderful article three weeks ago about the history of his own street, Highfield Road) repeats the theory first shared by Amber Daugherty in Spacing that
before Craven Road, the Ashdale homes had huge backyards that were more than 42 metres long, prompting owners to subdivide their lots. After a dispute over who owned the property surrounding the homes, the city bought the land in question, put up the fence, and laid down the road.
It's a nifty folktale.

But it's not true.

Neither Craven Road (formerly Erie Terrace) nor Ashdale Avenue appear on a map of the area from 1892. Then they both make their debut, side by side, in the 1910 Goad's Atlas of Toronto, the year after the City of Toronto annexed their neighbourhood (formerly called Midway). See this post for both maps.

In Pigs, Flowers and Bricks: A History of Leslieville to 1920, Joanne Doucette gives a different account of Craven's origins:
This street was developed as a 'shacktown', outside of Toronto, in the 1890s... Ashdale Avenue was not subdivided until later. No houses were built until later when its large lots were sold to more affluent buyers. This is why Craven Road only has houses on the east side. Ashdale Avenue's bigger homes were built with their backs turned on disreputable Erie Terrace. The rowdy poor of Erie Terrace were often accused of trespassing. 
When the City of Toronto widened Erie Terrace, Ashdale's home owners had nothing to gain. They lost some of their property and taxes went up to pay for the wider street. A deal was made. The City of Toronto put up a tall wooden fence to keep the poor out of Ashdale yards.
Better, but still not quite the full story.

The truth is that in 1916, after much political wrangling with the residents of both streets, the City of Toronto did indeed widen Erie Terrace, from as little as 18 feet in places, to the city's legal minimum of 33 feet. Far from being out of pocket, Ashdale's homeowners did not pay for the widening of a street they did not front on, and they received fair market value for the sale of between nine and fourteen lot-depth feet of their (to this day, quite considerably deep) backyards.

The city paid less than half of the $44,500 to buy the backyard land and grade the street. The lion's share, $25,000, was charged to the owners of property on Erie Terrace, at a rate of $4.85 per foot of frontage. As the Toronto Star remarked at the time, this was "a heavy tax on land worth only $20 per foot."

And the fence?

The idea of a mini, wooden Berlin Wall to keep the "rowdy poor" of Erie Terrace out of the backyards of their more affluent Ashdale neighbours is a colourful story. I happily told it for years.

But as it turns out, it was actually the other way around. A 1913 Toronto Star article reports:
Residents on Ashdale avenue are asking for a right-of-way on to Erie terrace, but the residents of Erie terrace have strong objections to their neighbors deriving benefit from the widening of their street, an improvement they have to pay for. In the widening of Erie terrace there was a foot reserved strip left between the rear of the Ashdale avenue lots and the new roadway on Erie terrace. This strip was reserved to prevent the property owners on Ashdale avenue building on the street line on Erie terrace.
Sure enough, in 1916 the Star immortalizes the construction of the street's iconic fence while reporting on a lawsuit brought against the city by one Ashdale owner who had painted himself into a corner:
Mr. H.M. East owned a lot fronting on Ashdale avenue about 134 feet deep. The city expropriated the rear 14 feet or thereabouts. Subsequently Mr. East sold the front 90 feet, leaving himself with some inaccessible rear land, because in widening Erie terrace the city is erecting a high fence to prevent the residents of Ashdale avenue obtaining access thereto. Consequently Mr. East can only obtain access to his property from Ashdale avenue over the land sold by him.
For all the gory details on the origins of Craven Road see last year's posts Origin Stories and On the Fence, as well as the Toronto Archives' 1916 documentation in Craven Road in Archive Photos.

The blogTO post also highlights a brilliant new documentary short about Craven Road from director Kire Paputts:

Craven Rd (Director's Cut) from Made By Other People.

There are five more finished episodes in this series serving up piquant slices of life on Gerrard Street East, produced by Paputts and veteran producer Colin Brunton, who mentions in the comments that
We're currently shooting a few more episodes of this little series: its all about the Coxwell/Gerrard area. We're looking for old photos and Super-8 footage; stories, gossip, rumours and tall tales about the stretch of Gerrard Street that goes from Coxwell to Pape in Toronto, from Little India to Gerrard Square and the Maple Leaf Tavern. We want to get it down before it turns into condos and coffee shops. There's a Facebook page people can join if they want:

D'License To Grill and the evolution of the Gerrard India Bazaar.

Lazy Daisy's Cafe, empty storefronts and coffee gentrification.

Ulster Arms Hotel and the bare-knuckle side of bar ownership.

Care Bear and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Jimmy's Place and creeping condominiumization.

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