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...."

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