Former East York mayor reminisces about ‘Toronto’s Garden of Eden’

Alan Redway has written an extensive history of 'a small town within a big city'

As children at a Saturday matinee in an East York theatre decades ago, the two boys could not have imagined that they would both become mayors.

Between movies at the Bayview theatre, former East York mayor Alan Redway recalled, the venue would try to sell stuff — often a yo-yo — to the kids in attendance. “The young man who got up on the stage and did yo-yo tricks was named Mel Lastman.”

While this anecdote is not included in East York 1924-1997: Toronto’s Garden of Eden, Redway’s new book provides an extensive history of the borough. The work was presented at the East York Historical Society’s 39th annual general meeting, held Nov. 27 at the S. Walter Stewart Library.

The 528-page book chronicles East York from its 1924 incorporation until its dissolution by Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government on the last day of 1997.

Describing East York as “a small town within a big city,” Redway credited the late East York commissioner of Parks and Recreation, Stan Wadlow, with coining the phrase “Toronto’s Garden of Eden” to describe the borough.

Redway talked about East York’s beginnings, from the Township of York, incorporated in 1840, through decades of independent townships and villages dotting present-day metro Toronto, splitting and merging, leading to its  incorporation as an independent municipality, whose borders extended to its neighbours’ perimeters. One odd result of this situation was the Don River, on both sides, going to East York, since the old city of Toronto’s eastern border stopped short of the river.

Schools, legions, labour, and development history are all covered in East York 1924-1997. As we watch General Motors preparing to pull out of Oshawa after a century, Redway reminded the meeting that Ford came (and left) Toronto before GM opened in Oshawa. The Ford assembly plant was on the Danforth, at Victoria Park, where Shoppers World now stands.

The post-war development boom was especially pronounced in East York, where more building permits were issued than anywhere else in Canada. The “apartment wars” had a clear victor, but politically and demographically, East York was changing. After becoming a borough in 1967, its first mayor was the previous Reeve of East York, True Davidson.

Redway became mayor in 1977 and had his own dealings with Davidson. “She saw me as a challenger to her heir apparent, which was Willis Blair,” he told The East York Observer. Blair’s departure from East York for Queen’s Park “left the door open for me to run as mayor. That was a hotly contested campaign.”

With respect to writing about his fellow local politicians in this “small town within a big city,” Redway said he spoke with his political contemporaries while writing the book.

Redway also spoke about the difficulties with publishing in 2018. Such is his determination that East York’s story be told — “If we don’t write down the East York story, it’s going to be lost entirely,” he said — that Redway purchased 200 copies of his own book from his publisher so that he could sell them, at a loss.

The event was well-attended and the book sold out. Redway promised copies would be available at his next appearance at S. Walter Stewart, Dec. 1.

Smiling, selling and more smiling. Alan Redway’s new book, East York 1924-1997, sold out at the East York Historical Society’s A.G.M. on Nov.  27.
Copies of the former mayor’s book sold out at the East York Historical Society’s A.G.M.