Catching Toronto's famed streetcar...before it's gone for good
To these local artists, the streetcar is an icon. On Dec. 29, the old-school vehicles take their last ride
"The whole time I've been doing photography, I'm always aware of how these things are sort of disappearing." And that's one of the beautiful things about being a street photographer, says Adeyemi Adegbesan (a.k.a. Soteeoh), a Toronto artist whose hometown pride is referenced right in his nom de Instagram. Every image "picks up value as time goes on," he says. Pictures become the only connection to a lost time. Landmarks rise and fall; fashions change. And sometimes, icons disappear — like one of Adegbesan's all-time favourite subjects, the city's old-school streetcars.
Their official name's the Canadian Light Rail Vehicle, or CLRV, and like any form of public transit, the things can be slow and over-crowded in action, not to mention a magnet for filth of mysterious origin. But the CLRV is all those things and distinctly Toronto's, which earns it a certain amount of affection despite its occasional flaws. Few places on Earth have ever run a vehicle like it, and while the average commuter might not share Adegbesan's reverence for the CLRVs (or any streetcar), in his photos they seem larger than life: roving guardians in a winter city.
For a good decade, though, the CLRV's been clattering toward oblivion. Earlier this year, another retro model — the double-length Articulated Light Rail Vehicle (ALRV) — was taken out of commission, and on December 29, the last remaining CLRVs will make their farewell journey. That morning, they'll start a final lap of Queen Street, completing 40 years of service. (The seats are already spoken for, assigned through a contest earlier this month.) And once the ride's done, an era will end with it, as the routes are turned over to the new, accessible low-floor streetcars — the same Bombardier numbers that have slowly been joining the fleet since 2014.
"I always knew that they'd get phased out eventually. I just wanted to have something to hold on to," says Adegbesan, talking about all the time he's spent chasing them. Like him, local painter Brandon Steen has been trying to catch the streetcar before it takes off for good. A former commercial illustrator, Steen began painting Toronto street scenes three years ago — landscapes where people are conspicuously absent, but a streetcar is almost a given.
"They truly are characters within our own city," Steen says, and he'd likely say the same of the buildings he paints, humble landmarks like the Patrician Grill on King — which happens to be the focus of his latest work in progress. The other day, he says he was camped in front of the place to take reference photos...waiting for the 504 to cast the perfect reflection in the diner's window. "Everything is getting torn down in this city," says Steen. "My art — it's kind of like documenting the history that's still here."
There's an element of that in Peter D. Harris's urban landscapes, too. "I tend to paint things that exist today, basically. I've always known that once those old streetcars are off the streets, I'll probably never paint them again," he says. But he's been thinking about those old streetcars — and painting those old streetcars — since before he even lived in Toronto.
There's one instance Harris remembers. He was visiting the city from Kitchener, driving around downtown, when he got stuck behind a streetcar. But unlike every other Toronto driver before him, he wasn't angry; he wasn't annoyed. Harris was straight up impressed. "They're taller than the first floor of most businesses on Queen Street," he says. "They're bigger than many condos in Toronto, these streetcars. They're a vehicle, but it's more like mobile architecture."
In a series of paintings from late aughts, Harris centred on the "inner life" that's happening inside these monsters of public transit — a glowing world that glides through the city. As he's pursued urban landscape painting over the years, streetcars occasionally pop up, but with the news of the CLRV's retirement, he decided to focus on them in a different way. In oil paintings like 2019's Streetcar Profile (4078), Harris is doing urban portraits, not landscapes.
"I wanted to document it and really just focus on the actual object itself and the patina they get over time and how they age," he says. "[I wanted] to sort of elevate it, like you do if you do a portrait with a sitter."
"We don't have that many symbols that represent Toronto to the outside world," says Harris, who's lived in the city since 2007. If you see the red, white and black of an old-school streetcar, there's no doubt where you are. It stands for Toronto the same way a yellow cab screams New York.
Toronto simply won't look the same when they're gone, and as Harris points out, that's especially true if you're used to riding them — shuttling above the rest of traffic with a picture-window view the city. "There's something so oddly cinematic about being on a streetcar," he says. "It's like the city is just scrolling by your window."
And in the countdown to retirement, the TTC has launched an art project that highlights the experience. One of the remaining CLRVs, vehicle 4178, has been redubbed A Streetcar Named Toronto. It functions like a regular streetcar, usually sticking to the 506 Carlton and 511 Bathurst routes through the week, but inside and out, it's a moving art gallery. The exterior, a neon explosion by Jacquie Comrie, might help you see it coming from 12 blocks away (in case you're having trouble tracking the thing through the TransitNow app). Inside, there's work by four more local artists: Nicole Beno, Ryan Van Der Hout, Suanne McGregor and Chris Perez.
Mark Fiorillo, the project's organizer, says he came up with the idea in the summer of 2017, and pitched it to the TTC. "It's just a gift to the city," he says. "Here's something for everybody to enjoy."
Fiorillo says it's unclear what will happen to the art car after Dec. 29. The project was designed to be temporary, he says — disappearing with the rest of the CLRVs — but it'll be running right until the end. According to TTC Media Relations, A Streetcar Named Toronto will rocket down Queen Street on December 29 as part of the "last ride."
"Personally, I like things that are here and gone, that just sort of exist as a memory," says Fiorillo, and he's similarly philosophical about the end of the CLRV. There have been streetcars in Toronto since the 1860s. Other models have come and clanked and gone. "If you're from here, [the streetcar] is just Toronto," he says. But it's time for the CLRVs to go.
That won't stop people from missing them, of course. Adegbesan already does, even though he knows it's time for change. "Full disclaimer: the new streetcars are way more accessible, I enjoy being on them more, there's more space — they're pretty much better in every way," he says, laughing. "But I'm still a sentimental person and I'm going to miss the aesthetic of the old streetcars a thousand per cent."
But like a westbound 501, progress stops for no one. At least we'll always have the pictures.