The tree-lined streets of Riverdale have become an unlikely battleground.
A war over traffic has polarized the Toronto neighbourhood, residents say, pitting north against south.
Conspiracy theories about a “self-serving” community group hell-bent on driving traffic into the north end of the neighbourhood recently spread like wildfire in the area, which lies east of the downtown core.
“Pitchforks were sharpened and torches were lit,” Riverdale resident Michael Hainsworth said of the fight, which included leaflets dropped anonymously into mailboxes, viral hate emails, and a local meeting that turned into a red-faced “fiasco” last month.
Most of the anger has been directed at the Riverdale Traffic Group (RTG), a community-led organization that developed several traffic-calming proposals to boost pedestrian safety, including a controversial bid to flip the direction of two one-way streets.
The group was not expecting the brutal backlash, RTG chair Stephen Davies told the Star. Members were publicly “vilified” and the group’s email account was inundated with aggressive “hate mail,” he said.
“There was one period of time that it was so intense and so ugly I couldn’t answer the emails because there were too many of them and I was going into shock over it,” Davies said.
“Where we are standing right now, we have certainly failed. We are in a situation where we have a polarized community and no effective solution on the table.”
Some residents blame inaction by local councillor Paula Fletcher (open Paula Fletcher’s policard) for “tearing the community apart.”
Fletcher in turn is pointing the finger at the city’s transportation services division, claiming there is a significant “gap” in support for community groups.
And transportation services director Kyp Perikleous says it’s all a big misunderstanding and the Riverdale traffic war was just a “one-off.”
“I don’t know at what point it went off the rails to create such hostility amongst them all,” Perikleous told the Star. “This is not the norm. This is not what usually happens.”
So, what really went down in Riverdale?
It all began in late 2012 when a few residents from Langley Ave. became concerned about the high volume of cars travelling down their street, which has a pedestrian crossing many children use to get to school.
Fletcher told the residents to establish a working group to identify solutions, and transportation services said it was available only as an advisory body.
The group suggested installing speed humps and stop signs and lowering the overall speed limit to 30 km/h — recommendations that were all approved or are being implemented.
But a proposal to switch the direction of two one-way streets touched a neighbourhood nerve, as some believed it would benefit the group’s members at the expense of the rest of the community.
The drama came to a head during a heated community consultation on May 13, where the group planned to announce that its bid to redirect the streets was being scrapped based on engineering advice.
Andrea Kellner-Bock, a mother who has lived in the area for 10 years, said the meeting was an “awful fiasco” where people actually spat at one another.
The community became “completely radical” in the belief they were being blind-sided by a group pushing its own agenda, she said.
Kellner-Bock, who called the direction-switching proposal “ludicrous,” started an online petition against the idea six weeks ago, collecting 340 signatures to date.
The traffic war could have been avoided if city authorities had taken a more active role, she said.
Because the group was expected to create its own solutions, there were soon whispers and innuendo about their motives, said Hainsworth, a CTV reporter. He quit the RTG on Monday, he said.
“The group by and large wandered in the woods until residents in the north got wind of what was going on in the south. It was like the Hatfields vs. the McCoys,” he said.
“Neighbours should never have been asked to come up with a solution to this problem … The failure of the RTG rests at the feet of city hall.”
Fletcher blames transportation services for the whole saga. “What has become very clear to me is that our traffic people are focused on development applications and big roads,” she told the Star. “What’s missing are those people that can sit down and help neighbourhoods with community traffic planning and real solutions.”
Perikleous said communities usually present their traffic concerns and potential solutions to the city before officials even get involved. The Riverdale drama stems from the fact the RTG was representing only a “small subset” of the community, he said.
Managing traffic flow in residential areas is like pouring water on a maze, Perikleous explained. The water filters through, and if you start blocking certain points, it ends up all flowing in one direction, which can become contentious.
Transportation services has committed to playing a more “upfront role” with the Riverdale community, and Perikleous said he plans to attend a working group with the residents next month.
For Davies and the RTG, the past few weeks have taken a personal toll.
“Yes, there has been more drama than we had anticipated, and yes, after two years of effort we have nothing to show for it,” Davies said.
“Sure, we made some mistakes, but this is a community-led group of volunteers. This working group was not started by a group of activist parents on Langley Ave.
“I don’t think we were set up for success, and as a result of that I think we are seeing the consequences.”
It’s going to take time to repair trust in the community, Davies said, adding that he hopes the Riverdale saga serves as a cautionary tale to others.