Historicist: The Provocative Street Players Crash the Levee
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Historicist: The Provocative Street Players Crash the Levee

That time Jane Jacobs' son got thrown out of the mayor's New Year's levee.

Article from the Toronto Star (January 2, 1970)

The band had only played a few bars of “The Bad Trip,” a folk number protesting the construction of the Spadina Expressway, when two security guards grabbed the lead singer and chief songwriter—a long-haired hippie in paisley-patterned shirt and pants and chelsea boots. Ned Jacobs, 19-year-old son of the famed urban activist and author Jane Jacobs, kept strumming his guitar—as best he could—and singing as the uniformed men guided him out of the building by his elbows. The rest of the band followed peacefully, their impromptu guerrilla gig—an attempt to be the first performers to play at the brand-new St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts—over as soon as it had begun, trailing past dumbfounded onlookers there to meet glad-handing municipal politicians at the mayor’s annual New Year’s levee on January 1, 1970.

At the peak of the protests against the construction of the Spadina Expressway in the 1960s—which would have razed numerous neighbourhoods in the name of stretching a freeway from the 401 to Bloor—a new breed of activist organization emerged. Previously, ratepayers’ associations and business groups might submit briefs or attend council meetings to pressure City Hall on ad hoc, highly localized issues directly impacting their membership’s property.

Advertisement from the Toronto Star (December 30, 1969).

Galvanized by growing opposition to the Spadina plan, the Stop Spadina Save Our City Coordinating Committee (SSSOCCC) formed in 1969 as an alliance of dozens of smaller organizations, young idealists, academics, professionals, university students, and housewives. The SSSOCCC took a broader view, seeking not just to solve neighbourhood-level issues but also to achieve city-wide social change through civic activism. The SSSOCCC’s immediate intention, Amiram Gonem writes in an academic report entitled The Spadina Expressway in Toronto: Decision and Opposition (University of Pennsylvania, 1970), “was to ‘stop’ Spadina, their long range concern was to ‘save’ the city” from noise, congestion, pollution, and neighbourhood destruction.

Because construction on the expressway had already begun, starting at the north end near the new Yorkdale Mall, the group’s efforts focused on keeping opposition to the expressway in the public eye. The SSSOCCC canvassed for signatures on petitions, distributed newsletters, and—with a strong degree of media savvy—ensured their activism caught the attention of the news media. High profile members lent their fame to the cause, as when Marshall McLuhan and Jane Jacobs were enlisted to produce a film on the Spadina issue. Ensuring a critical mass of rambunctious SSSOCCC supporters at any city and Metro council and committee meetings at which any expressway-related agenda items were to be discussed provided reporters with easy copy as housewives and senior citizens confronted elected officials. SSSOCCC-initiated protests could be theatrical, as when its membership staged a mock-funeral in period costume—playing on the idea that urban expressways were an outdated idea.

When the expenditures on the partially constructed freeway neared the authorized limit in the fall of 1969, due to pressure from the SSSOCCC, the Metro Transportation Committee agreed to a public review. These hearings were to occur in the early winter of 1970, giving the SSSOCCC a window during which to bolster broader support for their opposition to the freeway. The mayor’s annual levee, a tradition initiated in Toronto in 1968 by Mayor William Dennison that gave average citizens an opportunity to shake hands with the mayor and other municipal politicians on New Year’s Day, provided the SSSOCCC with the perfect opportunity for a high-profile public demonstration.

Article from the Globe and Mail (January 2, 1970)

The event to ring in 1970 was to be particularly high profile because it was being held at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. First proposed in 1962 to be a cultural hub with theatres, rehearsal space, schools, and galleries spread across several city blocks—and intended for completion in 1967 as the city’s centennial project—the St. Lawrence Centre had encountered problems with funding and delays. Scaled back and redesigned, eventually combining a performing arts venue and a Town Hall theatre into a single building, the arts centre was finally completed in late 1969. After a ribbon cutting ceremony with elected officials from all levels of government and board members of the Toronto Arts Foundation on December 31, 1969, the mayor’s levee was the public’s first opportunity to explore the venue.

The meet-and-greet event began sedately enough, with the usual receiving line of citizens and families waiting their turn to shake hands with the mayor—wearing his metal and chain regalia over his business suit—and a half-dozen councillors. Attendance was around 1,500.

Then, the Provocative Street Players troupe—an offshoot of the SSSOCCC comprised of musicians, mimes, actors, dancers—arrived uninvited, carrying musical instruments and a 20-foot-long banner denouncing the expressway. They politely asked Dennison permission to take the stage in one of the theatres—seeking to become the centre’s premiere performers—but were denied because the mayor thought it’d be inappropriate for the St. Lawrence Centre’s stages be given over to “a group pushing a particular project” since the crowd was there for the levee, not a concert. Alderman Jon Sewell disagreed with Dennison’s decision. “I can’t see where it would have done any harm,” he told a Globe and Mail (January 2, 1970) journalist. “It would have been nice to have some light entertainment.”

He got his wish a few minutes later when, after sneaking onto a second-storey foyer, the Provocative Street Players broke into song. Once Ned Jacobs and his compatriots were escorted outside by security, they staged a 20-minute performance on the street, playing some of Jacobs’ own folk compositions like “The Bad Trip,” or “The City is for the People,” as well as performing skits and mime routines.

Bruce Lawson, director of the Toronto Arts Foundation, watched on the sidewalk with reporters. “They are pretty good,” he said, noting that his organization had not yet taken over management of the arts venue. “It’s a pity they could not go on inside. They are doing their thing, which is something the centre is supposed to provide for.”

Article from the Globe and Mail (February 3, 1970)

Born in New York City, throughout his youth Ned Jacobs had seen his mother lead the community in fights against the city’s urban planning guru, Robert Moses, including a proposed freeway through the heart of the Washington Square neighbourhood. When the family moved to Toronto in 1968—in large part because of the Jacobs’ desire to shield their draft-age sons from conscription in Vietnam War–era America—Jane Jacobs was quickly enlisted into the opposition against the Spadina Expressway. Naturally, Ned joined the fight, too.

A month after the levee, on February 2, the arts venue was once again at the centre of the Spadina Expressway controversy when the first public debate hosted in the Town Hall theatre focused on the pros and cons of completing the freeway. Advocates of the expressway included North York controller Irving Paisley, Scarborough controller Karl Mallette, North York alderman Paul Godfrey, urban planner Hans Blumenfeld, and York University economist Konrad Studnicki-Gizbert, among others. Dissenters onstage included architect and executive member of the Confederation of Ratepayers’ and Residents’ Associations, Colin Vaughan; professor of urban studies at York University, Alex Murray; and Toronto alderman David Crombie. The moderator was CHUM Radio’s veteran city hall reporter, Gordon Ritchie.

What was supposed to be a discussion of arguments for and against Spadina quickly devolved into a bitter, noisy fight. The audience, jammed in to fill the 500-seat theatre, heckled and shouted down most of the pro-Spadina speakers. During the audience Q&A that followed the formal debate, audience jeers drowned out Mallette as he screamed into his microphone onstage, trying to be heard above the crowd noise. “I would challenge you to a battle of wits,” SSSOCCC co-chair Paul Levine added insult to injury for Mallette from an audience microphone, “but I never attack an unarmed man.”

Ned Jacobs was among a number of audience members escorted out of the Town Hall debate by police, according to St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts: 40 Years (St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 2010). But newspaper reports of the Spadina Expressway Forum do not mention any altercations with security or police. The debate proved to be such a success, Hollie Shawn wrote in a Canadian Press NewsWire (February 18, 1996) retrospective on St. Lawrence Centre symposia, that some observers credit it as a turning point in the decision to halt construction of the expressway once and for all. In the decades since, the St. Lawrence Centre has hosted countless symposia on important topics of the day, including nuclear disarmament, AIDS, and policies on refugees.

Through 1970, the Provocative Street Players continued to stage impromptu performances, causing disruptions in public spaces like Nathan Phillips Square with mime and dance and music. For his anti-Spadina efforts, Ned Jacobs was among four individuals profiled in a Toronto Star (March 21, 1970) article on activists who were “flexing muscles of people power in this city.” But his mother’s prominence also made him the target of personal attacks. At a heated public meeting of the Metro Transportation Committee in April 1970, Jane Jacobs sparred with Controller Paisley. “You don’t give a damn about anything,” he scolded, adding that neither did her son, even though Ned had played no apparent role in that particular meeting. “Yes I do,” Jacobs responded, “I love this city.”

Article from the Toronto Star (June 4, 1971)

When victory finally arrived for the anti-Spadina crowd, with Premier William Davis announcing its cancellation in early June 1971, celebrations spontaneously erupted on the Yonge Street pedestrian mall. Ned Jacobs was there with his guitar, entertaining the jubilant crowd late into the night.

The Spadina Expressway controversy reflected the high-water mark of urban activism in Toronto’s history, and its legacies are still felt today in how activists tackle urban issues before politicians and the press. And the attention-grabbing, theatrical style of protest of the SSSOCCC—and its offshoot, the Provocative Street Players—is still seen employed, like when Susan Wesson sang about libraries at the 24-hour marathon Executive Council meeting on budget cuts in July 2011.

Other sources consulted: Max Allen, ed., Ideas That Matter: The World of Jane Jacobs (Ginger Press/Island Press, 2011); David and Nadine Nowlan, The Bad Trip: The Untold Story of the Spadina Expressway (new press/House of Anansi Press, 1970); and articles from the Globe and Mail (September 12, 1969; February 3 and April 7, 1970), the National Post (April 26, 2006); and the Toronto Star (January 2 & 17, February 3, 1970; and June 4, 1971).

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