Eli Comay envisioned Toronto as an integrated, affordable centre, but was often thwarted by political realities
by RON CSILLAG
August 17, 2010
Eli Comay was an idealistic, visionary city planner and social housing advocate in Toronto who won some and lost some, and mostly managed to keep his frustrations in check when his ideas collided with political realities, developers and bean counters.
An urban planner in Toronto in the booming fifties and sixties, Comay played a key role in shaping the city – in land use, housing, parklands, and the envisioning of heavier traffic patterns.
After he left the public sector, his championing of social housing led to the creation of Ontario’s housing ministry. But brute economic forces sometimes eclipsed his victories.
Comay, who died in Toronto on Aug. 2 at the age of 90, was a lifelong leftist whose vision of cities some might call quixotic: His urban spaces, which were committed to the idea of equal access to all services, were modern, socially just and fully egalitarian. Mass transit was cheap and mass housing available. Living downtown was not just for the rich.
“And he believed all that was attainable,” said his daughter, Rebecca Comay, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto. “He believed that the key to everything was planning, and if it didn’t work, the fault was poor planning.”
Eli Comay joined the Metro Toronto Planning Board in 1955, and served as planning commissioner from 1962 to 1966. Metro Toronto had been created by the province in 1953 as a senior level of municipal government to deal with unprecedented postwar growth.
It was a time when investment was heavy with numerous infrastructure projects, including the first subway line, as well as water and sewage treatment plants, rental housing for the aged, public transit, and a network of highways and arterial roads.
Working alongside the legendary city planner Hans Blumenfeld, Comay helped craft Metro’s first official plan – a massive undertaking for a territory that encompassed 13 individual municipalities.
“He was heavily involved in creating the Metro plan for 1959 [the year it was submitted to council],” recalled John Sewell, who served as Toronto’s reformist mayor from 1978 to 1980.
Comay envisioned a fully integrated, compact city. “It was just an extraordinary plan – visionary, absolutely brilliant,” Sewell enthused. And it served as the basis for a Toronto blueprint a decade later that prophetically warned of unstructured sprawl.
However, “the great problem with [Comay’s plan] was that it was never really implemented,” Sewell noted dryly, partly because “politicians don’t like to have their decision-making ability fettered by a plan.”
Comay himself cited decisions in the fifties and sixties to develop Toronto as the economic base for Metro. “But the next step,” he rued, uncharacteristically, in 1988, “was never taken – to make Metro the centre of the whole region.” He was too diplomatic to say why.
Though he was not a big fan of cars, Comay had become one of the chief proponents of the $80-million Crosstown Expressway, planned as an east-west thoroughfare through central Toronto in the early 1960s.
It was consistently opposed by the City of Toronto. He publicly rebuked Toronto council for allowing an apartment complex to proceed in the path of a future Crosstown, and was himself rebuked by Toronto controller and future mayor William Dennison for trying to set Metro policy by himself.
The Crosstown was finally killed off in 1971 – the same year the ill-fated Spadina Expressway was cancelled.
But that was well after Comay had left the planning board to become a private consultant and to teach environmental studies from 1969 to 1992 at York University, where he was regarded as a dedicated and caring teacher.
A reserved, intensely private man, he kept his feelings about political forces that quashed or warped his ideas to himself. “Oh, he would come home fuming sometimes,” his daughter recalled, “but he would quickly move on to something else.”
Eli Comay was born Feb. 21, 1920, in Detroit to Nellie Schorr and Joseph Comay, Russian-Jewish immigrants who escaped the pogroms of their homeland. The whole family was ardently communist and secular, and spoke Yiddish at home. Joseph Comay was a Yiddish scholar.
After graduating from Wayne State University in sociology, Eli served as a telegraph operator during the Second World War. He was stationed in England, where he saw the complete devastation of cities, and imagined ways of redesigning them.
After the war, he returned to Britain to study so-called new towns, planned communities where all services were completely integrated.
He became a fan of the architects Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school with whom Comay studied at Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree in city planning in 1949.
Comay worked briefly for the Chicago Land Clearance Commission before his politics caught up with him, despite having quit the Communist Party over Stalin’s excesses.
The McCarthy witch hunt was at its zenith. Midnight knocks at the door and constant harassment drove Comay, his wife and their infant daughter to Montreal, where he worked briefly as a marketing consultant. From there they went to Toronto.
Comay did not receive adequate credit for a far-reaching but abandoned plan for the development of Toronto’s waterfront, recounted John Bousfield, a longtime friend and colleague.
Bousfield recalls the time a group of planners were surveying what in Toronto was regarded as a slum. “[Comay] looked at us and said, ‘Do you guys know what a slum is?’ He came from Detroit!
“But he was also a great believer in popular will,” Bousfield said. “Even when something like the Spadina Expressway was cancelled, he’d say, ‘Well, who’s to say [the cancellation] wasn’t good?'”
Another Comay effort that never came to fruition was a series of four reports recommending the building of a tunnel or bridge to the Toronto Island airport, still a hot-button issue.
“I figure he was 20 years ahead of his time, and that’s why he was so frustrated,” said Robert Lehman, a city planner and former student of Comay’s.
Asked whether Comay ever voiced any frustration, Lehman paused. “It happens to many planners late in their careers that they get a little cynical because of the degree to which their work is either ignored or altered by the political process,” he said.
Lehman recalls a dinner he once had with Comay and some others. “One guest asked Eli something about the planning of the Toronto waterfront. Within minutes, the spoons were aligned to represent the Toronto islands, the knives the railway lines, the forks Yonge Street; the saltcellars were ferry boats and a variety of dishes a variety of land uses. At that moment the waiter arrived with our dinner and looked with utter dismay at the table.”
Free of the public sector’s encumbrances, Comay made lasting marks as a private consultant on planning and social housing in Ontario, and helped with numerous planning studies in Alberta, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
It was the report of the Ontario Advisory Task Force on Housing Policy, which he chaired, that led to the creation of the province’s housing ministry in 1973. He also helped form and was the first director of the Ontario Housing Action Program, designed to accelerate affordable residential development in areas outside the core of Metro Toronto.
In 1977, a report Comay authored made 62 recommendations and suggested more than 100 changes to Ontario’s dense Planning Act, which incorporated some of his ideas in a revision five years later.
It all boiled down to one idea: that the Minister of Housing must take direct responsibility for housing at the municipal level. Housing was “a matter of direct and urgent provincial interest.”
He wanted Queen’s Park to give municipalities the power to control the delivery and even set the price of housing for low- to moderate-income residents. He wanted the government to force developers to deliver affordable housing. And he wanted the province to use its power to allow people to create flats and basement apartments in their homes.
“The way the process works, we are not serving the main target,” Comay said in 1983, noting that there was an increasing number of single-parent families applying for public housing. “Whenever we develop in the central core, we have to charge very high rents. We could make better use of our resources.”
From 1981 to 1988, Comay directed Toronto’s Non-Profit Housing Corporation and served as chairman of Cityhome, the city’s housing company.
Another Comay study presented to then premier David Peterson renewed calls for more provincial muscle. If cities and towns could show they were playing an active role, Queen’s Park would leave them alone. But if they were blocking low-income housing, the province could compel them to relax their zoning.
He made no public pronouncements when Ontario’s NDP government allocated more money to social housing, or in 2000, when the province downloaded social housing to municipalities.
Simply, Comay and like-minded planners “were trying to democratize the city,” said onetime urban affairs columnist David Lewis Stein. “And in that sense, they failed.” Comay, said Stein, was “the resigned planner – the guy who knew he was saying what had to be done, and also knew that, given the political realities, it probably wasn’t going to happen.”
Eli Comay leaves his wife, Hélène (du Bouchet), whose Jewish family fled Nazi-occupied France; daughters Julie and Rebecca; four grandchildren; and a sister, Chana.