Gus Sinclair lived in the area during the 1960s and then bought and renovated a house here in 1990—first as a student of political science, then an active participant in local politics. He has been chair of HVRA several times over. Here is his account of the changes he has seen in neighbourhood representation, and their significance for Toronto as a city. (This essay originally appeared on the HVRA website in 2009, and some references have been updated. Don’t miss its link to a 1966 City document hinting broadly to residents north of Harbord that their houses should be knocked down if they were built before 1900.)
by Rory ‘Gus’ Sinclair, HVRA Chair, 2000-2009
Beginning in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Toronto experienced a political sea change and has never been the same since. Those were the days of John Sewell’s work in Trefann Court, of our ‘tiny perfect Mayor,’ David Crombie, of the stopping of the Spadina Expressway, of Jane Jacobs’ amazing insights into how a North American city can work, and much more.
This was the time when the notion of Toronto as a collection of neighbourhoods took root and has never really left us. Neighbourhoods came to be considered the lifeblood of a liveable city. Here was stability, a place where families felt safe and interacted with their neighbours, brought up children who went to local schools, and supported local businesses. Without stable neighbourhoods, cities faced the spectre of the ‘doughnut’ — the flight of families to the suburbs, a business core that was occupied from 9 to 5 and then abandoned to the poor and homeless at night, leading to the empty core or the hole of the doughnut.
It was in this atmosphere that Toronto’s first residents’ associations were born. Note the term “resident” — no longer were these organizations to be called ratepayers’ associations, for the organizations were open to all who were resident, including renters as well as owners. Coupled with this was the support by those at City Hall who had become believers in the stable neighbourhood concept. This support was broad-based, encompassing both the political and bureaucratic sides.
One of the earliest of these new associations was the Sussex Ulster Residents’ Association [SURA], the forerunner of HVRA. Still resident in Harbord Village are several of those founding members.
I moved into Harbord Village in 1990, although I had lived on both Brunswick and Major when I was a student at the U of T in the mid ’60s. I became a member of the SURA board in 1991 and remained on the board until SURA folded itself officially into HVRA in 2000. In 1991, Bob Barnett was chair, succeeded in 1993 by Catherine Cragg, who was chair until 1999, when Curt Oliver assumed the position.
At this time SURA was pretty thin on the ground — there were too few people trying to do too many things. In addition, there had been some divisive issues that SURA, and perhaps no one else, could have resolved: the ongoing dispute with Doctors Hospital regarding its construction plans, the introduction of the traffic maze south of Harbord, and the use of the former Doctors Hospital as a temporary shelter for the homeless. There were deep divisions in the neighbourhood on these and other matters. Membership in SURA declined as a result.
In 1999, at SURA’s AGM, George Stephenson moved that a committee be struck to write a new constitution for a rejuvenated residents’ association and to report back in six months’ time to SURA. The committee, comprising David Wurfel, Sue Dexter, Gordon Brown, Celia Denov, Cyril Greenland and George Stephenson as convener, set to work. The committee did an excellent job and wrote the blueprint for what would become HVRA.
In the Spring of 2000, copies of the new constitution were delivered to every residence in SURA, indicating a date for the meeting where this would be presented for adoption.
This general meeting was held in May 2000 at the JCC at Spadina and Bloor. It was well attended — just short of 80 people — and the constitution was vigorously and robustly debated. In the end, it was adopted by a large majority of attendees.
A second motion, that SURA fold itself and its assets into the new Harbord Village Residents’ Association, was also passed by a large majority.
A slate of officers was presented and elected, with Curt Oliver as president, David Wurfel as secretary and Margaret Smith as treasurer. Finally, the first area reps were elected and the new board officially constituted. The first meeting was set for September 2000 — HVRA was on its way!
Birth of HVRA
We began with 30 paid members from the former SURA and about $800 in the bank. Now, in January 2007, HVRA has just short of 400 paid members and about $16,000 in the bank. In the intervening fifteen years, we have always had a full and active board, and our bank account has always been in the black. The list of our initiatives and achievements is ambitious, but more important, HVRA has a culture not just of enthusiasm but also of getting things done.
What are the ingredients of this success?
A neighbourhood whose members are full of energy and enthusiasm
A fresh start with a new mandate and blueprint for how a residents’ association can interact successfully with its members.
Good leadership from the board that allowed for full participation of its members — and made sure each member was recognized for his/her contributions and respected as a valuable part of the neighbourhood.
Finally, the very fine work of the constitution committee, which struggled with the issues around democratizing inputs versus having a Board take charge, and thus designing an ideal structure.
How we work
The most salient and innovative points of the new constitution are the following:
1: The Area Reps
Harbord Village is bordered on the north and south by Bloor and College Streets, and east and west by Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street. (This map shows the 2014 redrawing of the SC area boundaries.) The neighbourhood was divided into five geographic areas, which would become the backbone of how HVRA would organize itself. Each area sends two representatives to the board, and those area reps plus the executive ARE the board.
This geographic arrangement has made running the organization much easier — for each part of the catchment area is represented on the board — and we have eyes and ears throughout the Village. This is useful for practically anything we do, from zoning issues to delivering flyers about upcoming meetings.
Out of this organization grew the concept of neighbourhood caucuses, now an important part of every HVRA general meeting. Members from each area meet and discuss their local issues with the area reps chairing the caucus. All concerns are compiled in a list, used to guide the board in setting its various initiatives in the coming months.
2: The Constitutional and Nominations Committee
The CNC comprises four members of the community at large who are generally recognized as having been involved in our community over the years. No two members can be from the same geographic area. The CNC is responsible for two very important things:
It presents a slate of nominees to the AGM for officers of the organization. The CNC also runs the nomination and election process at the AGM. The main purpose here is to have the nomination/election business done at arm’s length from the board itself, but it also provides a kind of vetting oversight for elections.
All constitutional amendments are presented to the AGM by the CNC. In fifteen years, there have been several amendments — mostly to do with housekeeping issues, such as changes required when we became incorporated or the creation of a new board position such as the membership secretary. The most recent, and most complicated, updated the idea of conflict of interest to include more than financial issues. Although the impetus for constitutional changes will normally come from the board, and even the legwork and composition of the language as well, it is very important to know that such changes are being vetted by an arm’s-length body separate from the Board. (For the latest revision of the Constitution, see this page.)
3: The Committee Structure and Conveners
A third and last feature is the way the constitution allows for various tasks to be done by committees of the board. There is provision for the board to establish committees for various tasks within the board, i.e., made up of members of the board and reporting to the board. In addition, the board has the power to appoint individual members of HVRA who are not board members to head committees to and report back to the board. Individuals so appointed are called “conveners.” Such extra-board initiatives have included the heritage conservation committees, the Treeing the Village initiative, various submissions to OMB, and more recently the Harbord Village Oral History project.
Speaking of history, here is a historical gem concerning the northern part of Harbord Village, then known as the Sussex Area (bounded by Harbord to the south, Bathurst, Bloor, and Spadina).
In 1966, the City wanted to demolish all the homes in the Sussex Area, replacing them with numerous high-rise apartment buildings and parks.This proposal was linked to the plan to turn Spadina Road and Spadina Avenue into an expressway. A notice sent to local residents (available at the link below) announced a meeting to discuss the City’s proposal for the Sussex Area, held on November 28, 1966. The file includes a map of the area that identifies houses built before 1899 — not for heritage recognition, but as justification for knocking them down. The City’s plan for the Sussex Area appears to have died at the meeting. The plan for the Spadina Expressway did not die until 1971.
Goals and Aspirations of HVRA
Here is what our Constitution has to say about our reasons for existence:
Article 2. Mission Statement and Values
(a) Mission Statement
HVRA is a volunteer organization of residents committed to strengthening and preserving the stability, distinctive character and quality of life of our neighbourhood. We will conduct our mission through leadership, community involvement and enabling residents to exercise their rights.
* We recognize diversity as a key strength of our community, and actively seek to understand different points of view;
* We strive for and actively work to build consensus — while recognizing that the concerns of those most impacted by an issue must be addressed;
* We measure our actions against the standard of a “good neighbour,” valuing cooperation and mutually beneficial solutions;
* We value the stable, residential nature of our neighbourhood and will seek to preserve, protect and strengthen the characteristics which support this.
Gord Brown, our Treasurer for six of our early years, summarized this well in our slogan Good Neighbours Building a Great Neighbourhood. How does HVRA carry out this mission statement? What are the things we do that reflect these goals? Here are a few thoughts:
1: Building Community and Sense of Community:
Every time we put people together, whether it be for the semi-annual general meetings, the committee work for the Fall Fair, local meetings with residents on local development/permit issues, the Heritage Conservation process — and many more… relationships are necessarily forged between and amongst members of our neighbourhood. HVRA instituted the Neighbourhood Builder Awards which have recognized various aspects of working for and with the neighbourhood, such as negotiating difficult development issues, creating the most beautiful gardens, managing the most sensitive renovation.
2: Improving Safety in the Neighbourhood
Such initiatives might include having experts come to our General Meetings to discuss fire safety, policing issues, or insurance coverage. It might be the introduction of pinch points on Robert Street at Russell or Robert Street at Bloor, or efforts to calm traffic on the lower block of Major St. One of our Community Builder Awards went to a local resident who helped a young woman knocking on her door in the middle of the night after she had been assaulted on the street.
3: Considerations for the Stability and Enhancement of the Assets of Our Community
a): HVRA takes the role of advising its members, should we be asked, on issues before the Committee of Adjustment or the OMB, and in special cases writes letters either supporting or objecting to specific applications. In general we oppose applications that might change the dynamic of the community and its stability for the worse — such things as a rooming house adjoined to a single family dwelling, over-development of a property that would significantly impact on neighbouring properties, or illegal building, such as oversize decks or illegal occupancies such as more apartments than zoning allows.
b): On the positive proactive side, HVRA has promoted and continues to promote the concept of the Heritage Conservation District. This stems from our belief that most people in Harbord Village enjoy living in this downtown neighbourhood for a number of reasons — one of the most important being the ‘feel’ of the older homes that form our streetscapes. Without an HCD, a house can be demolished without any recourse on the part of the community or city. Additionally, major changes can be made to the exterior of the house which not in keeping with the streetscape as currently presented. With the HCD, demolition is very difficult and any changes to the front facade of a house must be done in a way that reverts to the original building.
c): The Treeing the Village initiative has enabled us to track and act proactively on one of the most beautiful features of Harbord Village: our wonderful canopy of mature trees. Our success in beating back the threat of the Emerald Ash Borer is another testimony to joint knowledge and action.
d): The Solar Energy Initiative is an example of the slogan: “Think Globally: Act Locally.” If we think one way to address climate change might be to burn less fossil fuel, then HVRA is on the cutting edge of this experiment.
e): The Graffiti Removal Project has had some success against the rising incidence of this minor property crime. It is our wish that our members be able to enjoy a walk through any part of Harbord Village without being visually assaulted by this urban blight.
f): The Conflict Resolution and Patio Protocols are methodologies for resolving potential clashes between residents and business owners. We have them ready, but hope not to need them.
g): The Oral History Project has brought new pride and awareness to the neighbourhood for our presentation of richly diverse stories of family and community life before 1975.