The North York of today largely is due to Mel Lastman, mayor of North York for a record astounding twenty-five years, 1972-1997. He was in the lead in the transformation from a sleepy Toronto suburb into what he proudly called “downtown uptown.”
Born in 1933 in Toronto’s Kensington Market to poor Jewish immigrants, he developed a cross-country chain, Bad Boy Furniture and Appliances, with the famous slogan – “Who’s better than Bad Boy? Nooobody!”
In 1969, at thirty-six, he stepped away from day-to-day operations to enter politics, running to be a controller in North York where he, his wife Marilyn and their two sons lived. When elected he quipped to the press, “Now all I want to know is what does a controller do?”
Three years later he ran for mayor of North York and won by a landslide. He kept being elected because he was capable and well liked. He was easily accessible to North Yorkers unlike his predecessors. He was reported to have instructed that anyone calling city hall “always be greeted by a real voice in office hours, not voice mail. Voice mail is an evil invention because it encourages employees to pick and choose what calls they return.” He kept his home phone number listed.
Alone among Toronto municipalities North York had twice a week garbage collection. “A clean city learns to take pride in itself,” Lastman pronounced. He ordered North York’s snow removal workers never to pile snow on driveways. “Imagine,” Mel said to reporters, “people in their eighties having to shovel snow the city put there.” He liked to say, “In North York we pick up the snow before it falls.”
Property taxes were kept low.
Lastman is largely responsible for the modernization of North York’s main corridor, north Yonge Street – $4 billion in redevelopment including a $300 million central city hub with municipal offices, a plaza, library, swimming pool, officer tower, and hotel.
In classic Lastman showmanship, the opening of the first phase, the $16 million municipal offices building in 1978, was celebrated with a parade around the building led by four mounted policemen and a Metro Police pipe band followed by Mel and Marilyn in an open horse-drawn carriage, then cars carrying diplomatic representatives from thirty-one countries and members of the North York Council.
There are those who think Yonge Street was overdeveloped during his tenure.
His boosterism of North York was unceasing. Pointing out that with 562,000 residents it was Canada’s fourth largest municipality in population, he got the Ontario government in 1979 to charter it a city, the first suburban Metro municipality to boldly take this step. He labeled North York “The City With Heart” and held a public celebration on Valentine’s Day, including a giant heart-shaped cake, free marriage licenses, and a dance.
He tirelessly advocated for a Sheppard subway line to connect with the Yonge line. Construction started in 1994 and was completed in 2002.
Reporters called North York “Mel Town,” “Mel Land.”
“North York” ceased to exist as an independent city when it, along with five other municipalities, was amalgamated with the city of Toronto, effective January 1, 1998. Thanks to the overwhelming support of North Yorkers he was elected mayor.
Written by Susan Goldenberg.