mean streets

Park Avenue, the Champs d’Elysee, Memory Lane. No matter the urban moniker, the basic premise is always the same: someone or something had such an impact on a specific area that all future reference to that particular spot would carry their memory for years and decades to come. But how do these “Main” streets earn their namesake in the first place? The “Champs d’Elysee”, for instance, literally translates into the “Elysian Fields“, that mythical resting place for the souls of the heroic virtuous. Berlin’s “Unter der Linden Strasse” literally tells the tale of a leisurely stroll under the street’s “Linden trees”. In Madrid, “Avenida Jose Antonio” takes its eponymous moniker from a charismatic Spanish hero. And in Sao Paulo, “Rua Paulista” simply mimics an early nickname for the city’s nearly twenty million inhabitants (originally worshipers of the catholic saint “Paul of Tarsus“). That said, New York’s “Fifth Avenue” is nothing more than a very ordinary number within the greater Manhattan grid, and despite its relatively uninspired nomenclature, it still plays host to some of the most expensive real estate on the planet.With few exceptions, most major street names have long and storied histories, filled with passion and intrigue and often significant regional importance. Take, for instance, the Toronto neighbourhood within which I presently reside. There are at least ten streets in the immediate area whose names begin with “Indian”, a system first established by legendary architect John Howard because they followed a series of ancient trails that were used by Native Canadians. Unfortunately, many of these stories have long since vanished, and their names have simply decayed into our basic urban vernacular. They’ve lost their impressive historical significance.

No street better exemplifies that tragic fate than Toronto’s infamous “Jarvis Street”. Home to the city’s modern sex trade (and, co-incidentally, one of its finest public high schools), Jarvis Street was actually named after a family of Jarvises whose stamp on the city dates back to the early 1800s. In fact, so despised were the last few relics of the Jarvis clan that Toronto’s Jarvis Collegiate went so far as to clearly distance itself from the street’s original namesake (“the school was named after the street. take note of that, please—after the street!”).

The school’s historians proceed to recount the rather sordid tale of the life of their infamous namesake, Mr. Samuel Peters Jarvis. The street was originally named after the young Samuel, inheritor of the land upon which the current street presently lies. Over a century ago, it spanned almost 100 acres of what is now downtown Toronto, but at the time it was mostly undeveloped wilderness. Samuel’s father William had been given the land in exchange for services rendered to the fledgling Province of Upper Canada (allegedly taking a bullet for the infamous Queen’s Rangers in an early battle against his native United States).

He eventually bequeathed that same land to his son upon his natural and timely death, and there it remained for nearly half a century, until his son was caught stealing from the province as the newly minted Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs (a post he was entrusted with on the laurels of his father’s public service). He was forced to sell off the land (known at the time as “Hazel Burn“) to continue funding his exceedingly extravagant lifestyle and to pay back all the money he had stolen from the government. Because the property was so huge, Samuel decided to sell off the land in small parcels, connecting them all with the street we now call “Jarvis”. But that’s just the start of Samuel’s brush with historical infamy.

Described by friends as a “tireless defender of the rich”, Samuel was actually a member of the “Family Compact“, a group of early British settlers who controlled most of the financial and political activity in the young British North America. So devoted was Samuel to the interests of the family compact that he personally led the mob that broke into the offices of a well-known newspaper editor, William Lyon Mackenzie. Political agitator, champion of freedom and equality, and agitator for social reform, this target of Samuel’s elitist mischief turned out to be the very first mayor of Toronto, and fought with all of his strength and resource to rid the young city of Toronto of the sort of old establishment bullies that Samuel so completely personified.

With his gang of wealthy muckrakers, mostly sons of leading local citizens who were studying to be lawyers, Samuel completely trashed Mackenzie’s early independent printing press, and set back the wheels of social progress further than his father ever advanced it. But nothing so typified his callous disregard for others than his participation in one of the last ever “duels by pistol” in historic Upper Canada. That’s right…Samuel Jarvis loved to duel:

No one seems to know exactly how it all began. The Ridouts and the Jarvises didn’t like each other in general. What we do know is that John Ridout, then eighteen, entered the office of Samuel Jarvis and a few minutes later was expelled. Most likely the argument was over some debts Jarvis owed to the Ridouts. A few days later, Jarvis and Ridout brawled in the street and had to be pulled apart. They agreed to meet for a duel…

In fact, it was pretty much as dramatic as any duel can get. The actual event was organized for saturday July 12, 1828 at daybreak. The enemies squared off at Elmsley’s Farm (an area northeast of present-day College and Yonge). The terms of the duel were as follows: the two men would stand back to back, take eight paces forward, then turn to face the other, at which point Jarvis’s second would count “one, two, three, fire!” and their conflict would naturally resolve itself. This time, however, “something went terribly wrong”.

Ridout actually fired his pistol before the count was complete, but he failed to deliver a fatal blow. As ridout’s second later explained, the counting (by Jarvis’s second) was apparently too quiet for him to hear. Regardless, the pair now had a problem: Ridout had fired and Jarvis had not. The seconds conferred for a moment to discuss the various rules of dueling etiquette, and eventually decided, as they expressed it in a later statement and testified in court, that “Mr. Jarvis should have his fire.” Basically, it meant that Ridout would have to return to his firing position, and allow Jarvis to take aim and fire, point blank, at his embittered and unprotected enemy. And without hesitation, Samuel Jarvis did just that.

Ten years later, the young Jarvis admitted as much in a pamphlet that described the whole sordid affair as “a simple tale of woe” which forced him to act “under a fatal necessity, which the conditions of human society imposes”. Needless to say, there was very little sympathy from the family of his fallen target, and the stain of that fateful day lives on in the heart of the historic downtown burrough which even today still carries his family name.

So a street that modern Torontonians associate with hookers and hand-outs actually tells the story of a fallen social angel who stole funds from the government, sacked a prominent Canadian revolutionary, killed his neighbour with a pistol at daybreak, and somehow lived on to write the tale. The best part is, Javis Street is just one of a rich tapestry of names that spell out the history of Canada’s most populous city. Like its peers around the world, they tell us tales that can often elude even the oldest and wisest of residents, and together, they paint a refreshing picture of the ground beneath our feet, and shine a bright light on the great mystery of all that came before.

(for more information on the Jarvises, click here to visit Jarvis Collegiate’s historical archives)