From Crusader to Mayor

A city hall veteran recalls a pivotal time in Toronto’s municipal history.

Twenty-five years ago, Toronto writer Cary Fagan observed that people fleeing Toronto because of costly housing did so without regret because the city “has created no myth of itself to hold them.”

Myths can be good or bad for many reasons. One very bad Toronto myth is that the city has no myths. John Sewell’s new political autobiography—as generous, smart and awkward as the man himself—will put paid to that particular myth. For those who were there at the time, and who were for that reason young at the time, it recalls mythic stories both numerous and potent: the death in 1972 of the Spadina Expressway, the salvation of crumbling neighbourhoods where students clustered, the fruitless schemes of preening developers in pinstriped suits.

Some of these stories may shock the young of today. How many know, for example, that Toronto police publicly called Sewell a “fag” for defending gay rights—shortly after his election as mayor? They also broke in to the magazine The Body Politic, stealing mailing lists to prevent its distribution. Then the force published this in its magazine News and Views: “Just listen to them talk … talk is a penchant of homosexuality especially in the physically deprived and cowardly male … prancing and wiggling, and … smelling like polecats … many … are psychopaths.”

It is hard to believe that such a Toronto—pre-officially multicultural—existed a mere 40 years ago. Sewell, with a surprising assist from Cardinal Emmett Carter, led the charge to establish that gay rights must be protected in law. Later he made great strides in better housing downtown and a dignified hassle-free life for immigrants.

He is, however, best appreciated for his decades-long fight to protect the housing rights of the poor. This dovetailed with his passion for protecting the city’s architectural heritage, from the much-menaced Old City Hall to the slumping Victorian houses of Cabbagetown. He saw beauty in all, including many that to the average eye were not beautiful at all. In his view all they needed was a community group, typically organized by a salty-tongued academic or young lawyer who was leading the middle class charge back into downtown. These were liberals who did not object to a rooming house down the street, and they soon helped Sewell to build the neighbourhoods of his dreams.

Sewell had not always been so focused. His parents were churchgoing east-enders, and his lawyer father did a good deal of pro bono work. So Sewell diffidently went off to law school, where he “did not understand what was expected of me.” When he endorsed the Vietnam war as a crusade against communism, his girlfriend told him to change his mind or get another girlfriend; he changed his mind.

In this youthful fog he accompanied an activist friend to a meeting where he learned that the city was forcing the Trefann Court community to sell its homes for peanuts to a property developer. Previously unable to focus, Sewell experienced a bout of moral outrage that night that seemingly turned him into a human laser. He breezed through law exams while working as a full-time organizer, quickly understanding that the working class residents had no chance against the divide-and-conquer tactics of well-paid bureaucrats. Over the next several years he honed his organizing skills, eventually deciding that he needed to become an alderman to better confront the bureaucracy.

His victory in the 1969 election was followed, two years later, by the Spadina Expressway struggle. As a University of Toronto student, I volunteered to canvas the Chinese community west of Spadina Avenue (which would have been razed to build the expressway) on behalf of Sewell and his allies. I learned to say what I hoped was “good day” in Chinese and attended anti-car rallies with the righteousness of every student who could not afford one.

Even then I was struck by Sewell’s unselfconscious earnestness. No mockery seemed to trouble him (perhaps because his geekish side protected him from noticing it), and nothing could divert him from his goals.

Around this time he focused on housing—his true passion. The most striking photo in the book shows a series of rowhouses on Bleecker Street. One had been bulldozed, leaving the shattered lathe and plaster of the adjacent homes exposed to the weather. The people living there could neither repair the walls nor accept the pittance the Meridian development corporation offered to break their leases.

As always when evil is apparent even to the unobservant, the plight of these families attracted public sympathy. Meridian CEO Phil Roth made it worse by refusing to rent empty houses to a tenants’ group; instead he mischievously rented them to John Sewell personally, so that Sewell would be obliged to evict the tenants when the inevitable notice to vacate arrived. Eleven months later Sewell and his allies were dragged out of the houses by police, and Sewell was slapped with a lawsuit.

Being a lawyer, Sewell ignored the frivolous lawsuit and learned the city’s procedural rules “inside out” so as to do better in the next fight. This was with Councillor Ben Grys, whose wife had a financial interest in an apartment development that he had improperly voted for. City Council shamelessly voted to support Grys, and the office and home of two of Sewell’s allies were broken into and their papers rifled through.

None of this discouraged Sewell. His inner geek once again told him what to do, whereupon he and his allies took to studiously playing chess or tossing Monopoly money above their heads during council meetings, signalling the emptiness of the ­proceedings.

Nonetheless, with new skills and confidence, Sewell was ready to hunt bigger game. He had already helped preserve old City Hall and Union Station from developers. After the 1972 election, his progressive caucus was able to bar the old guard from the executive committee and go after the city’s policy on high-rises. These consisted of “hulking towers set in a field of open space, refusing to provide an edge to the street.” He brought in allies such as planner Howard Cohen to argue for crisp modern architecture built right up to the sidewalk. This in turn attracted architects such as Jack Diamond, who proposed keeping downtown houses while also building stylish eight- to twelve-storey towers in the back yards. Sewell worked with the Historical Board to identify buildings needing protection.

A wave of creativity washed over City Hall. Sewell attributes it to an innovative mayor (David Crombie) and to the absence of municipal political parties. But his encounter with the newly arrived American urbanist Jane Jacobs was perhaps his greatest gift from heaven. Their first challenge was to save houses on Sherbourne Street where the wrecking crew was already demolishing the front porches. For once at a loss, Sewell turned to Jacobs. Within moments she recalled that Toronto bylaws allowed demolition only if there was a hoarding on the site. There was one, of course, and Jacobs knew exactly what to do: a photo shows her ripping down the hoarding while energetically sucking on a cigarette. The houses survived, and Sewell learned something about direct action.

He also had limitations, and he is honest enough to include examples. In 1973 Howard Cohen walked him through the railroad lands below Front Street between Parliament and Yonge, an area that struck Sewell as “derelict … auto wrecking yards; open storage of coal and salt … lots filled with weeds.” This was in fact prime housing land. Without a single actual picturesque house, however, Sewell was unable to imagine that anybody would ever call it home.

The city’s Housing Work Group included Michael Dennis, who had two reactions: one as dismayed as Sewell’s, the other a thrilled realization that the land was in “direct proximity to the downtown” and also very large. The area was soon dubbed the St. Lawrence project, after the historic market located within its boundaries.

When Sewell was converted to this vision, as so often was the case, he swung to over-excitement, declaring that everything up to Front Street had to be housing—which meant no land for the newly proposed Young People’s Theatre. No sooner had he climbed down from that position than he was challenged on his customary procedure of creating a working committee of local people to design the project. This project was too big for that, said chief planner Michael Dennis, and Sewell had to settle for a mere portion of what the locals wanted.

Over the next two years, Sewell struggled to be gracious as a series of highly proficient architects and housing experts planned the St. Lawrence community. George Baird, a Toronto-trained architect who also taught at Harvard, worked with émigré British colleague Alan Littlewood on the street plan and even on a uniform colour of bricks.

Baird then wrote a paper called “On Building Downtown,” based on Toronto’s Central Area Plan. It enlarged the vision to the whole downtown, calling for tall buildings to come to the sidewalk, with street-level restaurants everywhere. It became apparent that more than enough office space could be built without 60-storey replicas of Commerce Court.

These principles were made concrete in the city’s 45-Foot Holding Bylaw, which allowed the city to negotiate the height of new downtown buildings. That is when the Ontario Municipal Board quashed the bylaw for presuming to tell any developer how tall a building could be. However, the city retained the authority to refuse development proposals ab initio, and developers soon understood that little would get built until they brought flowers and sang ballads to the precepts of the Holding Bylaw. The OMB backed off.

The struggle with the OMB so depleted Sewell that he devotes a chapter to it. It is perhaps the weakest chapter in the book, and reveals some of Sewell’s shortcomings. In a moment of bad judgement, for example, he wrote a newspaper column musing on how useful it would be if there were still a doctrine of divine right, like kings used to have.

This unfortunately foreshadowed a series of poor decisions. By his own admission almost completely ignorant of the suburbs, and even more of suburban politics, Sewell ran against the powerful and reactionary Paul Godfrey for chair of Metro Council. The result was a grinding defeat.

He then continued to attend as a Metro Council member, fighting quixotically to persuade suburbanites that a tiny 20 by 100 foot housing lot would get them better transit. In the end he realized that “there was no community to call on” apart from farmers who could not wait to sell their land.

Coming from the Beaches, Sewell is a lifelong downtowner with limited knowledge of the outer suburbs. In many of these suburbs, visible minorities were a major part of the local population. Meanwhile, the population of Sewell’s Cabbagetown was 70 percent Canadian born.

That is why the heroic inner city partisans in How We Changed Toronto are almost all white working class, a fact I am embarrassed to mention I had not noticed until writing this review. As noted by the young urbanist Edward Keenan in Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto, the Spadina Expressway was shut down by Conservative premier Bill Davis because it would have bulldozed shady mansions in Forest Hill and Lawrence Park, not because Davis was afraid of the non-English-speaking Chinese I was canvassing further south.

As in any good melodrama, Sewell had plunged into the depths of the Metro Council debacle only to emerge two years later in 1978 atop the summit, as mayor of Toronto. Winning the election involved giving up his tattered leather jacket and hiring quondam film producer Bill Marshall to write quite effective pamphlets. His leading opponent said that electing Sewell “would be like giving Jack the Ripper an Avon route,” which seemed to help. Sewell won a clear victory.

Maturing as a politician, Sewell now chose his opponent Art Eggleton for his executive committee, over his ally June Rowlands: his reasoning was that he got along better with Eggleton. The true reason was that the election that gave Sewell the mayor’s office also gave Eggleton’s conservative allies a majority on council.

This was when the police took to calling Sewell a fag and continued a practice of obeying the law when it suited them. There was extensive violence against people in custody, and former premier John Robarts was outraged to find commissioners holding closed meetings in contravention of the Police Act. Nor would police allow city council to see their budget. More seriously from the citizen’s point of view, they had shot eight people dead in 13 months. The last of the eight was the killing in August 1979 of a mentally ill black man named Albert Johnson, chased into a rooming house and gunned down.

Cardinal Carter wrote a report saying that “it was even dangerous” for citizens to complain about the police, and he denounced racist articles in the police journal. Paul Godfrey, a pro-cop politician who had asked Carter to write a report (but not that one, evidently) attended a police meeting and coached the officers to formally censure Sewell. About this time, late one night outside my house, I found officers beating a slender boy who looked about 15 in the back seat of a squad car. When I approached the senior officer he told me to “f— off” or they would put me in the back seat next.

So it went in those palmy days. The Conservative provincial government overrode Sewell’s recommendations to improve policing.

Meanwhile, the 1980 mayoral election was approaching. Sewell’s staffers asked him to hire someone to deal with hostile media, and to be nicer in public in order to secure re-election. But he went with his hand-picked advisors, who told him to be himself—a stratagem that no longer worked. So it was almost comically inevitable that, in Amsterdam that summer to officially celebrate the 35th anniversary of the end of World War Two, he took his girlfriend to a sex show. Neither enjoyed it, as he unwisely confided to friends back in Toronto. One of them immediately called the newspapers.

After his defeat, Karl Jaffary did a friend’s difficult duty of telling Sewell that he deserved to lose after antagonizing “every distinctive group.” For Sewell, who sometimes appears to have an ancient curse hanging over him, the low point was his birthday party with friends several weeks later: “the night John Lennon was murdered.”

News and Views ran a cartoon of a police officer dropping him into a garbage can. But at this further remove we can see we live in a city much improved by Sewell’s policies. The progressive planners he brought to City Hall created the wonderful downtown we have today—something that I, living in East York, did not properly notice until I volunteered to hit the streets for a former colleague’s election campaign in Toronto Centre. It seemed strange to me that there were classy little restaurants at the street level of almost every office tower. There was also sunshine on King Street because some of the newer towers were barely tall enough to justify the name. There were apartment buildings where none had been before, so that young women pushed baby carriages along Front Street.

Sewell did not do this by himself. But had he not been there, it is anybody’s guess what modern-day city might have been created instead.