The mandate of this blog is to create an online archive of information about Roland Caldwell Harris, the City of Toronto works commissioner between 1912 and 1945. He held that position longer than any other individual, before or since. But Harris was much more than a long-serving bureaucrat. His legacy is apparent throughout the old City of Toronto.

Friday, June 4, 2010

R.C. Harris and the Urban Sensibility

The "Ideal Scrapbook," which appears to have been maintained by R.C. Harris or his wife, contains a remarkable assortment of newspaper clippings about his life and career. A number of themes emerge from this collection:

First, he appeared frequently in editorial cartoons, typically depicted as rotund, bespectacled, and bemused by the antics of local politicians and other bureaucrats. The mere fact that he had that kind of a exposure suggests how popular he was. In our age, I'd guess that very few Torontonians could pick a senior bureaucrat out of a police line-up. In the 1920s, however, these senior civil servants had well developed media profiles.

Second, Harris was the subject of a remarkable outpouring of media adulation. While the newspapers of the day eagerly reported on the shortcomings of local politicians and the spendthrift ways of council, Harris is generally spared criticism. Quite the opposite, in fact. Several articles openly gush about his skill and resolve, while a few are positively lyrical in their depiction of what we'd now describe as Harris' urban sensibility.

Here's an example -- this is an extended excerpt from an undated 1922 news report about a speech he delivered to a gathering of the Women's Liberal Association:

“His subject was know your city and it soon became apparent that the one thing worth knowing in Toronto is the works department. The thought of the destruction of cities made Mr. Harris realize to the full just what goes into the making of a city, the exact number of barrels of tar and asphalt for the streets, the miles of pipes for the sewers, the millions of laths and nails and bricks. Mr. Harris so loves Toronto that if he had time he would gladly count every brick in Toronto, and not only count them but kiss them.

"He said that a city is something into which men put their souls. Paving blocks and hydrants are ectoplasm. A drain well dug is as glorious as an opera or a picture. He was particularly conscious of the loving kindness that has gone into every foot of Toronto’s 737 miles of sidewalks. [Mr. Harris's] whole soul has gone into those sidewalks. They are Mr. Harris himself and he could feel that he had been walked on by more people than any other civic servant in Toronto.

"Mr. Harris begged the ladies to know the sidewalks and the parks and the back lanes, and he particularly implored them to know the sewers and the water works. He asked them when they saw one of his men idling around a manhole not to think that this man was loafing. He was a sentinel for the man below, a hero who was crawling through an 18 inch pipe for the glory of Toronto. The man on top today, said Mr. Harris, would be tomorrow the man below and a hero in his turn...."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

R.C. Harris and the Langstaff Industrial Farm: Links

This thesis includes a photo of the jail farm buildings being demolish in 1989:

A link to the bibliographic information on the Royal Commission studying the Langstaff and Concord farms, empaneled in 1926:

Excerpt from a local history of Richmond Hill:

Google Books:

"Opportunity Road: Yonge Street 1860-1939" By F. R. Berchem, pg. 143

R.C. Harris and the Langstaff Industrial Farm

On a warm day in June, 1911, a delegation of City of Toronto officials piled into a car and drove 16 kilometres up Yonge Street to a 386-acre farm owned by James and William Russell, members of an old pioneer family. The group -- which included Mayor Horatio Hocken and Alderman Tommy Church, who would succeed him -- strolled across the pastures, pausing to admire a stream running across the land, located near Richmond Hill. A tumble-down colonial farmhouse stood nearby.

Their guide on this day was Toronto’s energetic properties commissioner Roland Caldwell Harris, who had pressured the Russells into granting the city an option to buy the farm for $162 per acre. Harris’ plan was to establish an “industrial farm” where minor criminals could serve short sentences doing agricultural work, instead of rotting in the notoriously over-crowded Don Jail.

As Harris later told The Star, “We don’t want it called the jail farm or to have the name of the jail associated with it. The object of this place is to give the men who have fallen a chance to lift themselves up again – to show them that reclamation lies in their own hands. We seek to help – not to punish.”

A century later, such sentiments sound almost impossibly remote and even naive. With Stephen Harper’s Conservatives bent on imposing a retributive criminal justice agenda featuring longer sentences, larger penitentiaries and fewer pardons, the government has been closing existing prison farms, ostensibly to save money.

But in the Toronto of the 1910s, the notion of diverting minor offenders from the Don had gained broad popular support. “We have a barbarous system of handling the fellow who gets drunk,” as one controller put it. “He hasn’t done anything or stole anything. He is a victim of his own weakness.”

It took R.C. Harris several more months to close the deal, and the city finally spent $60,000 to acquire the Russell farm and some adjacent land, as well as cows, horses and pigs. The sale closed shortly before council named the 37-year-old Harris as works commissioner, a post he held for 33 years, during which time he oversaw dramatic changes in the way the City of Toronto looks and functions.

Despite the promotion, Harris insisted on keeping a hand in the development of the industrial farm. Aiming to have capacity for 500 inmates, the city planned to erect cottage dormitories, a main building with a kitchen, dining room and common areas, and barns. The property, according to a council report, could someday house facilities for very poor seniors and “the indigent.”

Conspicuously absent from the plans were bars, fences and other symbols of incarceration. The routine revolved a nine-hour shift working in the fields. As Alderman Joseph O’Neill, who chaired the committee overseeing the project, said in late 1912, “We have no locks or keys, cells or guards. We put the men on their honour.” Only a handful ever escaped.

The facility functioned without incident, easing congestion at the Don Jail. Initially taking 65 prisoners, it eventually held several hundred.

It was a time when social reform ideas were in circulation. During an election debate organized by women’s groups in December, 1912, speakers called for improved housing for slum areas, campaigns to treat milk and water, psychiatric hospitals and female police officers. Also on the agenda: the establishment of an industrial farm for teenage girls found guilty of minor offenses. As one participant said, “We ought to send them out into the fresh air to grow vegetables and flowers and raise chickens.” Two years later, the City agreed, acquiring a 200-acre farm, in Concord, to house female inmates.

The City touted its investment to taxpayers. As Hocken said in his 1914 mayoral address, “One has only to visit the institution to ascertain the great difference between the men who are confined at the farm and those incarcerated at the Toronto Jail...I feel satisfied that the reformation of those sentenced to the farm warrants the step taken by the municipality…”

As time passed, Harris moved on to other projects, such as the water filtration plant in the east end. The industrial farms, for their part, began to generate controversy, revolving around chronic infighting between the city and provincial officials who shared administrative responsibility. A 1926 inquiry into the simmering conflicts led to layoffs, but Queen’s Park continued to question the city’s use of the farm as a place to also house infirm and poor seniors. By the early 1930s, the province had taken over the operation of the farms.

The men’s facility was converted for use as a hospital in 1938, but continued to serve inmates after World War Two. Rob Leverty, executive director of the Ontario Historical Society, recalls driving past it on family outings in the late 1950s. “It intrigued me that there was a farm with prisoners,” he says, noting that the conditions seemed humane by contrast to movie depictions of chain gangs.

After province closed the facility in 1958, tenant farmers rented the land, paying as little as $7,800 per year. But in 1982, the Langstaff Jail Farm stormed back into the public consciousness when Toronto council decided to sell the property, which sat in the path of Greater Toronto’s sprawl. It encompassed a desirable chunk of real estate bounded by Yonge, Bayview, Highway 7 and the 16th Sideroad.

For four years, Toronto officials bickered with the Town of Richmond Hill over a fight that involved ambitious development schemes from well-connected builders and auto-parts magnate Frank Stronach. In the end, the winning developer anted up $75 million but soon flipped some of the land for a hefty profit.

There’s a curious coda to this story. Shortly after the sale closed, Toronto council earmarked $23 million of the proceeds to establish the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, an agency mandated to finance energy efficiency retrofits for both public and privately-owned buildings. TAF proved to be one of the first such funds, and the model has been widely emulated elsewhere.

It's fascinating to discover how these two progressive-minded ideas from very different eras turn out to be linked by the long arc of time.

Friday, May 7, 2010

R.C. Harris, Photographer

News reports frequently cited Harris's enthusiasm for photography. Some excerpts:

Toronto Weekly Star, June 8, 1912:

- Mr. Harris’ habit of nearly always carrying a camera has been commented on, and, no doubt, many people have guessed that the Commissioner generally wears a tail coat for this very purpose. It might be supposed easy for him to tuck away a pretty big camera in its capacious folds. But the truth is Mr. Harris in his inveterate pursuit of photography has a fondness for a very small camera. For quite a long time, he has carried a tiny English vest pocket instrument, and he recently bought another, smaller if possible. And it is with these – the two smallest cameras manufactured – that he has most of his picture-making fun. They wouldn’t bulge the pocket of the thinnest man at the Hall.

Toronto Star, March 2, 1914:

Works Commissioner Harris, as soon as the hour of the day comes when he is transformed to “Roly,” turns joyfully from boiler plates to photographic plates, from blue prints to gas light prints. He is a camera fiend of much renown among the experts of the art. He can make all kinds of photographs. Some of them are clean and sharp, like his reports, some of them are vaguely beautiful, like his answers to newspaper men when questioned about something he does not wish to reveal. Their quality is almost always fine.

A short profile of Harris (News, July 14, 1914) noted what we would now describe as his urban sensibility:

He sees all the romance in the development of the city. The men who work in perilous places, who plan great bridges, who toil day and night when water famines threaten, when water mains burst, when the unforeseen spells danger and the welfare of the whole or a portion of the community is threatened, all play their part in the story of the city. If he could be forced to write the romance they would not be forgotten.

[Note: the references to water famines and burst mains would have been broadly recognized by the Torontonians of that period, who were dealing with chronic water shortages caused by the deterioration of the city's water system.]

Monday, April 26, 2010

Harris's Ghosts

As the city prepares for another Doors Open festival, it's worth remembering the doors that won't open because they no longer exist. Toronto, like many growth-minded cities, demolished hundreds of heritage buildings before it began to develop a sense of its own past.

But some doors don't open because they front unrealized architectural visions, some of which are memorialized in Mark Osbaldeston's "Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City That Might Have Been" (Dundurn, 2009).

R.C. Harris' proposed water tower for the St. Clair Reservoir is one such project. The only physical evidence of its existence is a concrete ring on the southern flank of the reservoir, near a new dog-walking area. I wrote about that water tower in The Toronto Star, here.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A New Works Commissioner

On May 22, 1912, The Globe reported that Toronto council had appointed Roland Caldwell Harris to be the city's new works commissioner. He had a mandate to re-organize the department, and would be paid $8,000 a year for his effort -- about four times the salary he earned in his previous post, as property commissioner, and slightly more than what the mayor was paid. It had taken council's Board of Control 16 months to fill the job, and Harris came in with high expectations. He'd impressed his superiors at City Hall over the past seven years as a cheerful, efficient, decisive and commanding presence.

Harris would be given, as the newspapers reported, a "free hand" to clean up a weary organization that seemed unable to deal with the city's rapid growth. There were chronic water shortages and infectious disease epidemics in the slums adjacent to City Hall. Torontonians had come to deeply resent the privately-owned streetcar monopoly, the Toronto Railway Company, which refused to meet demand for service as the city pressed north, west and east. Recognizing that he would need to clean house, Harris refused to formally accept the position until council repealed a by-law limiting the ability of its commissioners to fire employees (Weekly Star, June 8, 1912).

Newspaper reports at the time indicated that Harris had become a well-known figure in civic circles. The anonymous humour writers poked fun of his weight, and he appeared regularly in editorial cartoons as a rotund, bespectacled presence invariably battling some political enemy in his mission to modernize the city.

But Harris had a habit that distinguished him from more typical City Hall bureaucrats, one that marked him as a modern man. He was an avid photographer:

As the Star also noted on June 8, 1912, “Mr Harris’ habit of nearly always carrying a camera has been commented on, and, no doubt, many people have guessed that the Commissioner generally wears a tail coat for this very purpose. It might be supposed easy for him to tuck away a pretty big camera in its capacious folds. But the truth is Mr. Harris in his inveterate pursuit of photography has a fondness for a very small camera. For quite a long time, he has carried a tiny English vest pocket instrument, and he recently bought another, smaller if possible. And it is with these – the two smallest cameras manufactured – that he has most of his picture-making fun. They wouldn’t bulge the pocket of the thinnest man at the Hall.”