Historicist: Marshall McLuhan, Urban Activist
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Historicist: Marshall McLuhan, Urban Activist

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Marshall McLuhan, December 1972. Library and Archives Canada (PA-172802).

Marshall McLuhan arrived in Toronto in 1946. A devout convert to Catholicism, McLuhan taught at St. Michael’s College, the University of Toronto’s Catholic institution. Although he never moved away from the city, McLuhan was ambivalent towards Canada and Toronto, believing them to be smugly provincial and culturally conformist. But it was this setting, Douglas Coupland writes in Marshall McLuhan (Penguin Canada, 2009), that afforded him “a unique position to be objective about what was happening across both Lake Ontario and the Atlantic. It was a large modern city in a country unencumbered by overpowering political and religious orthodoxies….It offered a near-laboratory situation in which the effects of media could be empirically studied.”
With his reputation as a media thinker growing, the University of Toronto created the interdisciplinary Centre for Culture and Technology for McLuhan in 1963. And the following year, he published Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (McGraw-Hill, 1964), his early major work on modern media. Espousing his ideas on television and in mainstream magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Look rather than academic journals, McLuhan was—as Playboy dubbed him—”the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media.”
In his work, McLuhan showed no partisan political affiliation. He addressed the Progressive Conservative Party and advised Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Liberals. “[A]llergic to Marxism,” Philip Marchand writes in Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger (Random House, 1989), the thinker “at the same time [retained] a general antipathy toward mega-corporations.” Despite being admired by the 1960s counter-culture for his innovative ideas and fresh observations, the staid professor—who usually dressed in decidedly unfashionable brown tweeds and a clip-on necktie—was anything but radical. Reflecting on the 1960s, Bryan D. Palmer writes in Canada’s 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2009), “McLuhan cavalierly reduced the rebelliousness of the era to the mindlessness of youth acting out ‘its identity quest in the theatre of the streets, searching not for goals but for roles, striving for an identity that eludes them.'”
So when McLuhan was prompted to political action, it was not the Vietnam War or apartheid in South Africa or other social issues of the day that were the target of his indignation. Rather, he dedicated himself primarily to environmental issues and urban affairs—especially of a highly local or personal nature.

Marshall McLuhan, ca.1936. Library and Archives Canada (PA-172791).

McLuhan was particularly alarmed by environmental degradation. At one point, Marchand notes, he petitioned Prime Minister Diefenbaker “to commit Canada to a scientific quest for ways to remove radioactive particles from the atmosphere.” But most of his environmental advocacy was localized to the campus and the Toronto community he occupied. As one who frequently picked up any litter he spotted on campus, McLuhan tried to rally support for the creation of volunteer civic clean-up committees. He initiated a single-handed but determined letter-writing campaign in protest after discovering that a dirt walking path on campus had been paved over by the university administration.
He sat on numerous boards and committees during his career, including Planetary Citizens as well as a three-person commission formed in 1969 to investigate the death of 10 ducks and ducklings on Ward’s Island. Holding hearings at City Hall before an audience of student groups, island residents, professors, and journalists, the commission heard testimony from a variety of experts before eventually determining that the ducks had perished as a result of exposure to pesticides used on the island. Marchand described the scene: “Some of this testimony verged on the ridiculous. The chairman of the University of Toronto zoology department, for instance, revealed that there was enough DDT in human beings to render them inedible. McLuhan enjoyed himself thoroughly.”
McLuhan’s most active period of urban activism came after his 1968 return to Toronto from a one-year stint at Fordham University in New York City. Upon his return, the McLuhan family—with most of their six children grown and moved out—relocated from their quiet Tudor-style house at 29 Wells Hill Avenue, near Casa Loma, to 3 Wychwood Park.

Typical house in Wychwood Park, 1922. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 7368.

The McLuhans’ home was an Edwardian mansion designed by Eden Smith (who had built his own home on the same street) in a wooded area that had been conceived as an artists’ retreat at the turn of the 20th century by landscape painter Marmaduke Matthews. It was described as “baronial” by one visitor impressed by its oak paneling and high ceilings. As Marchand says, McLuhan loved the house dearly and “enjoyed showing it off to visitors with a simple-hearted pride.” Intellectuals and politicians and others were frequent guests, discussing ideas at the dinner table or outside on the elegant stone terrace. “Anybody who came to visit had a tour of the park,” McLuhan’s daughter Elizabeth told the Globe and Mail in 2008. “Nobody left without a walk around.”
It was McLuhan’s ritual that he and wife Corrine walked around the park daily. McLuhan was particularly fond of the park’s pond—created by Taddle Creek surfacing briefly on its southeasterly course through the city. He described the neighbourhood lovingly in a 1969 letter to a friend: “Our house is No. 3 and is the only house on a lovely pond in the heart of Toronto….The pond ripples outward into a heavily treed neighbourhood of twenty-two acres and fifty-four houses. The Park has no ‘roads’ or sidewalks, but simply these ‘Viconean’ circles of homes and people in a most unusual, dramatic relationship.”

Photo of Wychwood Park by Peter Grevstad from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Wychwood Park deeply affected McLuhan’s view of urban community. In Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding (Stoddart, 1997), W. Terrence Gordon quotes McLuhan as writing:

Previously, I have only lived on streets, which sometimes have the quality of neighbourhood, but lineality is not compatible with community. The community character of Wychwood Park is a direct result of the circular compositioning of the houses, resulting from Wychwood pond. When houses interface by their circular or oval compositioning, a kind of social resonance develops that does not depend upon a high degree of social life or visiting among the occupants. Rather, there occurs a sense of theatre, as if all the occupants were, in varying degrees, on a stage. Something of the sort happens in any small village, and builders and planners could easily achieve rich community effects (even without a pond) simply by locating dwellings in non-lineal patterns.”

So McLuhan and neighbours, like architect Colin Vaughan, reacted strongly when they learned that proposed concrete apartment high-rises to be built on Davenport Road, immediately south of the park, threatened their neighbourhood. After seeking guidance from Jane Jacobs, who lived nearby in the Annex, they took their fight to City Hall. Ultimately, however, McLuhan and company were unsuccessful in convincing city council to halt the plans.

Globe and Mail, October 20, 1970.

In public activism, as in his published works and interviews, McLuhan used dense language that often baffled audiences. As McLuhan’s friend Claude T. Bissell put it in his introduction to George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald’s Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message (Fulcrum, 1989), McLuhan’s statements “were ‘probes,’ designed not to give ultimate answers, but to shed light on dark places.” Expressing ideas in “an aphoristic prose style,” another source notes, “[h]e emphasized the connectedness of things and built what he called ‘mosaic patterns’ of meaning, rather than offering mere argument using one-dimensional specialist logic.”
And unlike other academics, he never hedged his statements but made bold, generalized pronouncements based on often scanty evidence. For example, he wrote an op/ed for the Star on March 9, 1971, in opposition to early proposals for the Eaton Centre that called for razing Trinity Church. In it, he bluntly compared the way real estate developers gained leverage over city council to how terrorists hijack a plane. “The most spectacular and successful, but unseen, hijack has been the takeover of the North American city by the commercial developers,” he wrote. “Like the hijacker in the airplane, the only concern of the developer is a private destination, without any assumption of the responsibility for the flying, or governing, of the airplane or city.”
As a result of McLuhan’s opaque way of communicating ideas in his urban activism, some surreal or absurd debates ensued. An example was when the ever-obtuse McLuhan tangled with Allan Lamport, who was well known for mangling the English language to form his own unique aphorisms, during a debate over a street widening.
McLuhan’s interdisciplinary centre, by the fall of 1968, had been relocated to a 19th-century coach house on a lane adjacent to St. Joseph Street. By the summer of 1970, the municipality wanted to widen St. Joseph Street, where it ran through the middle of St. Michael’s College, from 24 feet to 30 feet. It would necessitate removing trees and parking to allow for increased traffic.
Finding allies in the recently elected Young Turks of city council—John Sewell, William Kilbourn, and Karl Jaffary—McLuhan and Father John Kelly, the president of St. Michael’s College, made a deputation before the Public Works Committee. The details of the absurd debate between McLuhan, Lamport, and other councillors were captured by Kilbourn in Toronto Remembered (Stoddart, 1984) and Inside City Hall: The Year of the Opposition (A.M. Hakkert Ltd., 1971). Among the exchanges Kilbourn recorded:

Mr. McLuhan: Moreness is not conducive to sanity or dialogue. The university is a place of dialogue, encounter, awareness. The present program of moreness may make the next dialogue impossible. There is disadvantage in dialogue with a large truck. I cannot converse with a jackhammer. Even economists see that the cult of moreness is finished. The GNP is no longer the test of health. By the time economists can see something, you may be past the point of no return. They are the last to see anything. They are drunk with figures. Moreness is the alcoholic’s dream of a cure. The cure is at the bottom of the next bottle.
Alderman Lamport: Couldn’t we get back to the subject?
Mr. McLuhan: Yes, the subject is the campus and what you are doing to it. The subject is moreness. You want moreness.
Mr. Lamport: The widening will do a lot of good in the area and I’m surprised at the furor. Father Kelly’s been most fair, and we have to rely on the more dignified type in the community like yourself, Father, to be objective. But it would only be something created by pressure if we don’t widen the street.
Alderman William Archer: You got Sunday sports by pressure, Lampy.
Mr. Lamport: That wasn’t done by small minds. The city cannot progress if every little satisfactory improvement is due for a fight by a local group. You can’t stop making automobiles. They create employment. This city’s become great by people who have strong minds. Let’s not talk chicken talk.
Mr. McLuhan: Every bureaucracy in the world is breaking down, including yours and the university’s, through speed-up—the factor for breakdown is the efficiency of speed. Anything that speeds up an environment around another environment destroys the environment it surrounds.

The result of the deputation was a compromise, with St. Joseph Street being widened, but not by as much as anticipated.
Expanding on that last point during the late 1960s debate on the Spadina Expressway, McLuhan found parallels in the urban environment with the way in which television had destroyed movies. In a 1970s interview, he told Take One magazine [PDF]: “You put an outer ring of suburb around an old city and this automatically destroys the inner city, that’s all. And if you put a new medium around an old one it automatically destroys the old one. In the act of using the old one it destroys it. But in destroying it, it turns it into an art form.”

Marshall McLuhan reading a newspaper, December 1972, Library and Archives Canada (PA-172801).

Indeed, McLuhan examined the Spadina Expressway issue through the lens of his media theories. “Toronto will commit suicide if it plunges the Spadina Expressway into its heart,” he was quoted as saying in one publication. “[O]ur planners are 19th century men with a naive faith in an obsolete technology. In an age of software Metro planners treat people like hardware—they haven’t the faintest interest in the values of neighborhoods or community. Their failure to learn from the mistakes of American cities will be ours too.”
McLuhan became actively involved in the campaign against the expressway. Along with Jane Jacobs and other Torontonians of all political stripes including students, business owners, and ratepayer groups, McLuhan was a member of the Stop Spadina, Save Our City Co-ordinating Committee.
McLuhan wrote to Premier Bill Davis about the issue on April 26, 1971. The theorist started by complimenting Davis as a forward-thinking man of the 1970s who recognized that “we live in an information environment” but are under threat by those “still locked into the old hardware environment of the nineteenth century.” Then, the letter continued:

Instead of catching up by matching up with the nineteenth century of American cities, Canada has a unique opportunity to make cities for the seventies. Making, not matching, is an Ontario possibility lost to the U.S.A. by old hardware rivalry.
The Spadina Expressway is an old hardware American dream of now dead cities and blighted communities. As a man of the seventies you know we need not match the American disasters. We can make our own way. Your vision of the seventies cannot survive a cement kimono for Toronto.

McLuhan also collaborated with Jane Jacobs on a short film, A Burning Would, for the SSSOCCC in 1970. The title derived from a line in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “A burning would has come to dance inane.”

Globe and Mail, October 16, 1970.

The film was McLuhan’s idea, and he intended to be “the final word on the nature of film or stop the Spadina Expressway dead in its tracks.” He enthusiastically approached Jacobs to co-write the script. In his office, they energetically discussed the issues surrounding the Spadina Expressway—flitting from idea to idea, as was McLuhan’s wont—while a secretary took down all they said. At the conversation’s conclusion, McLuhan turned to Jacobs and pronounced the script complete: “Well, that’s it. We’ve got the script.”
When she finally received the secretary’s typescript, Jacobs was aghast. “I started looking through it, and it was even more garbled and unreadable than I expected,” she recalled in an essay she contributed to Sanderson and Macdonald’s anthology. “The thing jumped around, without beginning or end. This did not bother Marshall but it did bother me. I thought we needed a thread.” Nevertheless, they pressed ahead with filming under the guidance of local filmmaker David MacKay (although other sources cite Christopher Chapman as the director). MacKay used the script as the basis for filming questions and answers with McLuhan and Jacobs.
McLuhan told Take One that, after filming, their role was rather limited. He said: “And then we make various suggestions to the makers about footage here and there and E-fects above all—the effects we want. We’ll leave the footage very largely to him once he knows the kind of E-fect we want. He’s got masses of footage, doesn’t have to do much shooting for us.”

Toronto Star, October 14, 1970.

Although she said it “bore no relationship at all to [the] original script,” Jacobs was impressed with the finished product when the 12-and-a-half-minute film premiered before a packed audience at Convocation Hall on October 15, 1970. “There was a shape to it. It had music. It did have a thread and raised a lot of important issues,” Jacobs felt; then she added, “It’s a mystery to me that something tangible, coherent and constructive could come out of that mess.”
In the Globe and Mail the following day, film critic Kaspar Dzeguze called it “a short film meant to be crammed down the maw of Spadina Expressway supporters, the message was a subjunctive—wishful and hopeful, though hardly tense—review of the reasons advanced for abandoning the expensive, self-contradictory project.” In terms of the visual content, Dzeguze reported that it was “a collage of scenes taken in the parks which the road would destroy, intercut with shots of clogged highways, homes being destroyed and the wasteland of auto wreckers’ lots where engines, roofs, tires and doors form piles of automotive offal.” The Star‘s reviewer was decidedly less impressed, calling its theme and presentation obvious.
The film would be shown all across North America, wherever there were contemporary campaigns against expressway construction. Although the film is not available online, copies are available at the York University Archives and in the library at St. Michael’s College.
In Palmer’s estimation, by the beginning of the 1970s, when McLuhan was taking part in these urban interventions, “McLuhan’s celebrity was waning.” His insights were heeded by the powers that be with increasing rarity. “The times were partly to blame,” Marchand asserts. “In the sixties the world changed suddenly and everyone wanted to know why; in the seventies change continued, but in much grimmer and duller fashion, and everyone wanted only to cope.” McLuhan continued to give seminars to dwindling numbers of students and write books that were less well-received than before. He left teaching in the fall of 1979 after suffering a severe stroke, and died the following year.
Other sources consulted: T.W. Cooper, “The Unknown McLuhan,” in Sanderson and Macdonald, eds., Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message (Fulcrum, 1989); Globe and Mail (October 20, 1970); Marie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye, eds., The Letters of Marshall McLuhan (Oxford University Press, 1987); Toronto Star (October 14, 1970); Toronto Star (May 7, 2010).