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Toronto A Toronto troublemaker wins one last battle against city hall

Residents of a housing co-op created by former city councillor Al Sparrow, seen here in a Globe and Mail file photo, helped name a laneway for him.

Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail; Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

It's a tribute to the happily contentious Al Sparrow that city officials tried, and failed, to keep the late councillor's name from adorning a tiny passageway just east of Church and Isabella.

The residents of the housing co-op adjoining the lane had unanimously chosen him for the small-scale honour: The high-achieving troublemaker engineered the creation of the co-op in 1975 by helping tenants negotiate with a property owner who intended to demolish their historic buildings.

Toronto's laneway naming project has been embraced by residents' groups that want to supply the anonymous back alleys of the old urban grid with a stronger identity – to make these dark corners safer and more visible, but also to commemorate local heroes whose values were neighbourhood-based.

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"He championed the causes of the downtown core," said co-op member Greg Greason. "The everlasting effects of his work are still here with us."

No one expressed a stronger belief in the power of the neighbourhood than Mr. Sparrow, who served as a downtown councillor in the noisy period between 1974 and 1980. "Anything that reimagines Toronto's landscape to be more people-accessible and funky has echoes of Sparrow," said Myer Siemiatycki of Ryerson University.

In an obituary he wrote in 2008, just before he died of cancer at the age of 63, Mr. Sparrow described himself as someone "who fought rapacious developers, gouging landlords and a xenophobic police force while simultaneously helping to craft a new city plan. This period is now widely referred to as Toronto's golden age of community participation."

Much of what seems normal about the modern city is the result of often desperate battles fought by Mr. Sparrow and fellow reformers – to check the power of the development industry, preserve old neighbourhoods, prevent the building of downtown expressways, develop bike paths, establish independent oversight of the police force, eliminate discrimination against children in rental housing and champion a gay presence in the city.

"He played a crucial role in maintaining a more livable and energetic Toronto," said councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who helped Mr. Sparrow's advocates overcome the city hall naysayers.

The long-haired and undiplomatic Mr. Sparrow rubbed many people the wrong way back in the 1970s. "Al had courage," said his wife, Sue Sparrow. "He was the only guy to take on the police, at great personal cost. And as a result the police targeted him."

His office was broken into and he was wrongly arrested twice, once as a suspected thief while out for a late-night walk (a case of mistaken identity, the police maintained), another time accused of sexual assault on a 12-year-old girl – a charge that was thrown out by a judge who called the evidence in the case "incapable of belief." Because of comments he made after the first arrest, he was convicted in a libel action and ordered to pay one of the arresting officers a minimal $2 in damages – but he was also forced to pay huge legal costs that compelled him and his wife to sell their row house on Monteith Street.

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So it seemed appropriate even decades after his heyday, when many of his uncivil reforms have become civic norms, that an honour could be held back by the power structure he opposed – because both his first and last names resembled those in other Toronto street names, and could therefore confuse emergency responders.

Sue Sparrow heard rumours that the rejection was politically motivated. "But I'm assured this happens all the time and it's no big deal."

Al Sparrow probably wouldn't have cared either way. He wasn't in politics for the glory. Back in 1974, he was the second choice of the community group that decided to oppose a pro-development incumbent. He'd taken time off from his work as a systems analyst to write a novel about his childhood as a military brat on an Edmonton-area air-force base.

"I looked at him and said, 'Al, you're not doing anything,' " his wife remembers. "And that's how Al Sparrow became a city councillor."

He was an avid walker, a champion of cyclists who never owned a car, so the tiny laneway fits his style as well as his limited ambitions. His wife remembers him exploring every small street and back alley in his ward, ancient Dictaphone in hand, recording potholes and other problems that he would pass on to city staff for immediate action.

It was an activist life that was all-consuming, and even after he walked away from city hall in 1980, having promised never to be a career politician, he kept at his reforming efforts: Refusing to accept that there was such a thing as a losing battle in a good cause, he led the fight against the seemingly inevitable expansion of the Island airport.

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"The battle isn't over yet," said Councillor Wong-Tam as she prepared to unveil Al Sparrow's small sign of recognition. "The challenge for us is to do better and not squander these legacies and opportunities that have been opened."

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