The city's works committee met yesterday to discuss the naming of streets, a useful exercise since Toronto hasn't distinguished itself in celebrating those citizens who have been historically important to the city.
I phrase the issue in this way because the list of people to celebrate doesn't have to be parochial or limited to folks who lived here.
The music of Giuseppe Verdi means a great deal to many Torontonians, and Einstein's influence affects us all. A judicious blend of streets named after eminent Torontonians and foreigners would show sophistication and demonstrate to the world that, like all internationally significant cities, we're able to pay homage to our own as well as to the best of the rest of the world.
And by best, I do not mean actors who have moved to California and had some ephemeral success in a sitcom. The last time the city showed any savvy was when it named a muddy concession road in Etobicoke after Rudyard Kipling's 1907 visit.
By paying tribute to such people, we break the tired tradition of naming streets after the children of developers, British bluebloods who never set foot here and sylvan groves no longer extant.
Toronto is not made a better place by having yet one more Oakview (or Hazelview, Birchview, Willowview) Crescent. It would be a much more interesting place, though, were it to have roadways such as Albert Einstein Boulevard, Morley Callaghan Avenue or Tom Longboat Crescent.
Some people have told me, "OK, let's name streets after prominent historical figures - but let's just use their last names." To me this is a misguided half-step. Calling a street by the honoured personage's last name ensures that the context- and even the reason - for naming it is quickly forgotten.
In my view, it would be far more educational for people today and in subsequent generations to walk down a Marilyn Bell Avenue rather than a Bell Avenue. The vast majority of people are going to think the street was named not in honour of a famous Torontonian, but, heaven help us, after the phone company.
This is a subject close to my heart, not least because, as the author of the book Toronto: A Literary Guide, I had occasion while doing 20 years of research to examine every street - yes, every street - in what used to be known as Metro.
And I cannot tell you the frustration I felt when confronted with the plethora of thoroughfares named after a limited number of species of trees, and the dearth of streets named after illustrious Torontonians.
The very process by which streets, parks and other public spaces are named is haphazard at best and stupid at worst. After all these years, alas, we still lack a street named fully after our first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie.
In the case of duplicate names, some councillors have suggested that the streets that currently have the most residents should be allowed to keep their names. Such an impulse is playing recklessly with our history.
Take Peter Street, for example. This downtown street was named after the second governor of Upper Canada, Peter Russell, and the name was chosen with great care by the surveyors and politicians of the day because it was the next street in sequence from the three roads named in honour of John Graves Simcoe. In other words, the downtown Peter Street has a 200-year history - by Toronto standards an incredibly long-lived name.
The decision to eliminate a street name with such an honoured designation in favour of a suburban route that may be only a few decades old is to play fast and loose with our history.
The naming of public streets is too important a task to be left to developers, or even to a street's residents. I would like to see council create a street-naming committee composed of interested members of the public, along with one member of council and perhaps a city staff member.
The committee, of course, must entertain the suggestions of those who live or work on the street in question. But the committee must also entertain suggestions from other interested parties, including the historical board.
A committee that has thought long and hard on the issue of street names for Toronto could weigh the various proposals against a set of criteria that the committee itself will have created. One of those guidelines might be that no street in Toronto could be named after a living person. Indeed, it might even ask this committee to oversee suggestions for the naming of parks, squares or other public spaces. How often have you passed a park named after someone you've never heard of?
Just around the corner from where I live, a developer of townhomes has created a small street where none existed before. This new street is just a block or so away from where Emily Murphy lived. Murphy was not only an important Canadian writer, but she also later became a leading judge. Her greatest contribution was her spearheading (along with Nellie McClung) of the famous suit that Murphy took all the way to the Privy Council of Great Britain by which every woman in Canada was finally granted legal, independent standing under the law.
I put it to you that Emily Murphy Lane would be a far more fitting appellation for this new street than the one the developer chose. He named the street after his aunt, who lives in Poland and has never been to Toronto. At the moment, almost all new streets are named by developers, the same people bringing us Malibu Towers, North Beach Apartments, Times Square Condos and other American nomenclature
The current system for naming streets and other public spaces is far too susceptible to lobbying, especially when the lobbyists are politicians. Are we really so short of sporting heroes that we have to name Forest Hill Arena after Larry Grossman, a politician?
It seems to me that much that ails the city stems from a lack of pride among its citizens. While the naming of streets and public spaces won't solve this problem, it will surely do a lot to augment people's knowledge of Toronto's past and pride in our compatriots' accomplishments.
Toronto-born Greg Gatenby has written highly acclaimed books documenting the history of Toronto. Toronto-born Greg Gatenby has written highly acclaimed books documenting the history of Toronto.