Film recalls Bleecker St. battle of early ’70s

Block-busting developers and resistant residents collided in days when John Sewell, later Mayor of Toronto, was an alderman

By Bulletin Staff –

The fight over the future of a large part of Cabbagetown occurred in the early 1970s, and the world has changed so significantly since then, that it is hard to believe what actually occurred. A window on this extraordinary time is available on Sunday evening May 6, when the Hugh Garner Housing Co-op shows the historic film, “Bleecker Street.”

Forty and 50 years ago developers assembled land using a tactic called “blockbusting.” A house would be purchased, it would be badly maintained and managed, becoming so much a blight on the neighbourhood that other owners would decide they wanted to leave the area. The only buyer was the developer, so another property was picked up and the block busting intensified.

That is what was happening in the early 1970s in the area between Sherbourne and Parliaments streets, south from Wellesley Street. A group of local people stepped into the situation and under the leadership of John Sewell, then an alderman for the ward, managed to secure a lease of 20 houses from the developer on Ontario and Bleecker Streets. The houses were fixed up and the area was stabilized within a few months—but then the developer gave Sewell notice to vacate the houses. The tenants refused to leave, and a violent confrontation ensured, with the sheriff and many police officers present and supporters chaining themselves to radiators.

The film, by Chris Alexander, tells the story in chilling detail, interviewing the key players as the story unfolds. The showing takes place Sunday May 6, 8 pm, in the Party Room on the eighth floor of the Hugh Garner Housing Co-op. John Sewell will be present.