Monthly Archives: April 2016

Scenes From Lansing & Willowdale

Outside of a McDonald’s and 7-Eleven at Yonge and Sheppard, there’s a blue plaque. The City of Toronto and TTC marker commemorates the 1860 Joseph Shepard/Dempsey Brothers Store which once stood at this site. The plaque tracks the building’s history as a nexus in the historic Lansing community – from the residence of the pioneering Shepard family (for which Sheppard Avenue is named) and post office which gave birth to Lansing to the long-standing hardware store of the Dempseys.

Joseph Shepard House plaque

The funny thing is the building still exists – just not here. The store was transplanted to Dempsey Park on Beecroft Road in 1996.

Yonge looking north at Sheppard 1911

Yonge Street looking north at Sheppard Avenue, 1911. Joseph Shepard House/Dempsey Brothers Store at left. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Nearby, the Joseph Shepard Government Building, built in 1977, also pays tribute to Mr. Shepard (albeit, sometimes  spelled with inexplicably added “P”).

Joseph Shepard Building
Despite running parallel to it only 300 metres to the east, Doris Avenue is noticeably more quiet than Yonge. It offers a great view of its tower-filled skyline.

Yonge Street Doris Avenue

Also on Doris: Willowdale Park. In addition to a large central space with tennis courts and playgrounds, a curving path continues north, crossing a few residential streets.

Willowdale Park

Willowdale Park 3              Willowdale Park 2

The linear park is a little peculiar to me – until I realize that the indent in the land and the sewer grates probably signify a buried waterway.

Willowdale Park Wilket Creek

Willowdale Park Wilket Creek 2

As it turns out, Wilket Creek flows under Willowdale! A section of the creek running northwest from York Mills and Bayview was buried and put into storm sewers in the early 1970s.

Lansing Willowdale 1916

Lansing & Willowdale from the Map of the Townships, York, Scarboro, and Etobicoke, 1916. Source: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

Willowdale 1966

Lansing & Willowdale, 1966. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Willowdale 2016

Lansing & Willowdale, 2016.

Another surprise in Willowdale Park: Lee Lifeson Art Park! The soon-to-be art and green space honours founding Rush members and Willowdale natives, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson. The park was conceived by the local city councillor and voted on in 2014. Construction began the following year. It – river and all – awaits opening some day.

Lee Lifeson Art Park 1

Lee Lifeson Art Park 2

Lee Lifeson Art Park 3

Across the street, Princess Park looks like a grand courtyard leading up to 1999’s Empress Walk mall and condos. It’s probably my own impression, but something about it seems a little too “planned”.

Princess Park
I suppose it functions well for a park, though: things to see, places to sit and linger. No skateboarding, however.

Princess Park 4

The focal point is a restored hose tower, part of North York’s First Fire Hall. A plaque dates it to 1941. It was moved here from Yonge & Empress.

Princess Park Hose Tower 1

North York's First Fire Hall plaque

A second plaque tells the story of North York’s First Municipal Building, completed in 1923 on the south east corner of Yonge and Empress. The building is largely  gone, but its facade was built into the mall’s eastern entrance.

North York's First Municipal Building plaque

There’s also a floor tile with what looks like a plow. An homage to Willowdale’s farms.

Princess Park 2

If one thing comes out of Princess Park, it’s that Yonge and Empress was a historic nexus. But you’d never know it. As is the case with Dempsey Store, it’s great that the fire hall and civic building still exist in some capacity, but the transplanting of the buildings and plaques away from Yonge Street literally pushes heritage to the side. Their context is diminished.

Yonge and Empress

North York Fire Hall 1957

North York Fire Hall, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

North York Municipal offices 1957

North York Municipal Offices, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

The intersection is surrounded on three sides by towers and the mall. On the remaining corner: a much more modest two-storey shop. A cornerstone dates it to 1929. Uptown Yonge has a few of these tiny older stores mixed in with the towers, but the street doesn’t have the character of downtown Yonge, whose history as a retail strip still prevails even among intensification.

North York Waterworks Yonge Street 1
The store, a beauty supply shop, was oddly enough the North York Waterworks. Again, you wouldn’t know it. A parking lot surrounds the building; one wonders how long it will last before another condo takes over the corner.

Waterworks Yonge and Empress

North York Waterworks, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Finally, on Parkview  Avenue, there’s the John McKenzie House, a beautiful Queen Anne/Edwardian/Arts and Crafts farmhouse built in 1913. The McKenzies were pioneers in Willowdale who in 1884 purchased a portion of land from the Cummers, the original European settlers of Willowdale in 1797. The McKenzie farm came to amass some 140 acres from Yonge to Bayview.

Ontario Historical Society John McKenzie House

In 1993, the Ontario Historical Society took the house on as their new headquarters, saving it from demolition. Before moving in, the City of North York agreed to  fund the $600,000 restoration of the heritage house. In 2016, the John McKenzie House is getting a new roof.

Useful Links

Scenes From A City – “Scenes From North York Centre, Gibson House Museum, and Mel Lastman Square”

Scott Kennedy – Willowdale: Yesterday’s Farms, Today’s Legacy

Toronto Star – “John McKenzie House a part of North York history” by Shawn Micallef

Vanishing Point – “Wilket Creek Storm Trunk Sewer”

“The Ward: Representations and Realities, 1890-1950” at Campbell House Museum

I was first introduced to The Ward several years ago through a compelling archival photograph. It was of an impoverished child standing in the debris-filled lane of what looked like a ‘slum’. In the background were the unmistakable Romanesque Revival towers of Old City Hall. The disparity between the two places – the majestic civic heart of the city and the desperate ‘ghetto’ literally at its doorstep – struck me at the time. And it still does. Even more striking is that photo was taken in what is now the southern end of Nathan Phillips Square.

Rear of 21 Elizabeth Street 1913

Rear of 21 Elizabeth Street, The Ward, 1913. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The story of St. John’s Ward is very much one of lost geographies (like in the photo), lost narratives, and how and why we remember or don’t remember. The Ward’s former borders were from Yonge to University and College to Queen. Those streets still exist of course, but the built form between them largely hasn’t survived. For a long time, the stories associated with those landmarks and their Chinese, Italian, Jewish, and Black communities also went underground.

The 2015 release of The Ward: The Life And Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood was an excellent step in revealing those narratives. The book was co-edited by John Lorinc, Ellen Scheinberg, Michael McClellan, and Tatum Taylor, and features the great contributions of many talented writers. It is easily one of my favourite titles in the Toronto History genre. Today, “The Ward: Representations and Realities, 1890 – 1950” continues that work.

The Ward Toronto

Part of the Myseum of Toronto’s 2015 “Intersections” festival,  “The Ward” exhibition is housed in Campbell House Museum, the 1822 residence of Sir William Campbell, a former Chief Justice of Upper Canada. In 1972, the Georgian-style house famously moved from its original location on Adelaide Street to Queen and University.

Cambell House Museum Toronto

It’s a fitting locale given the museum’s placement near the historic area of The Ward (and indeed, above the mantle of the ballroom is an aerial photograph of the neighbourhood taken from the location of the museum.)

Cambell House Museum The Ward 2

The challenge of interpreting and showcasing The Ward’s histories is the lack of contemporary borders attached to those stories. Thus, from a museological perspective, it affects the kinds of artefacts one has access to. Photos of The Ward are abundant, so the curators –  Paul Bishop, Daniel Panneton & Marisa Strom – had no issues there. Photographer Arthur Goss, at the instruction of the health department of the day, did a remarkable job of documenting the troubling conditions of the enclave.

The show is organized thematically with well-displayed panels and pictures about The Ward’s politics, labour strife, Lawren Harris’ artistic take on the area, and other realities. New to me was Albert Lane was one of Toronto’s notorious laneways.

Cambell House Museum The Ward 3         Cambell House Museum The Ward 5

Cambell House Museum The Ward 4
A nice collection of loaned artefacts offer some physical connections to The Ward. They include a labour union banner, restaurant items and Eaton’s pins, and a copy of the (in)famous 1911 Hastings Report in which Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Charles Hastings, observed and critiqued the overcrowded, ‘diseased’ conditions of the enclave. Slums were not a good look for Toronto, according to the high-ranking civil servant. The report came to be the official representation of The Ward.

Cambell House Museum The Ward 7

Cambell House Museum The Ward 8

The neatest addition for me, though, was the collection of oral histories from surviving members of the neighbourhood. “The Voices of The Ward” offer different realities than the Hastings Report — one that emphasizes its deep community. Stories include the ethnically diverse clientele of its shops, being an Italian during the War, and how Eaton’s would not hire Italians.

The interviews provide an audible, human element to The Ward in a way that faces in pictures or names in old news articles cannot. Archival images and words are certainly great resources, but they can put history at a distance. The recordings are a very important reminder that there are living connections to St. John’s Ward today. After all, 1950 wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of history. Residents of The Ward and their descendants still live in Toronto.

Cambell House Museum The Ward 9
“The Ward: Representations and Realities, 1890-1950” is on until April 23, 2016 at Campbell House Museum at 160 Queen Street West. Admission is free, although donation is always appreciated.

Cambell House Museum The Ward 1

Scenes From The Scarborough Bluffs

The Scarborough Bluffs are Scarborough’s claim to fame and claim to name. Although the southern part of borough and its winding main streets are another world to me personally, I know that in the general consciousness of Torontonians, the Bluffs usually come up in Scarborough word association. Or, at least, they should.

The built form of the southern end of Scarborough is a result of the Bluffs, including Kingston Road, whose course roughly follows the top of the landform. Laid out in 1817, it is one of the oldest European routes in the borough. In a pre-401 world, Kingston Road was the highway in and out of Toronto from the east. Its existence made it ideal for hotels and inns to aid travelers in their voyages. Some motels still dot the street today.

Map of the Townships, York, Scarboro, and Etobicoke 1916

Map of Scarborough Township, c. 1916. Source: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

Half-Way House, Kingston Road. - [1920?]

Halfway House, Kingston Road & Midland Avenue, c. 1920. The building is currently situated at Black Creek Pioneer Village. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

One notable landmark near Birchmount Road is not a rest stop but Scarborough Arts. The non-for-profit arts organization has a mandate “to create and cultivate innovative arts and cultural programs in Scarborough.” It’s a good one.

Scarborough Arts 1

In addition to facilitating and promoting artistic programs, Scarborough Arts also has rotating exhibition space, appropriately named the Bluffs Gallery. In March 2016, its showcase was ‘YEARBOOK’, a brilliantly-conceived and -executed exhibit which utilized high school yearbooks to tell Scarborough’s history and its remarkable demographic change in particular.

Scarborough Arts Yearbook 1

Scarborough Arts Yearbook 3

It’s not a surprising discovery, but Scarborough didn’t begin to really diversify until around the 1980s. In addition to offering demographic snapshots, I enjoyed the cultural tidbits that could be gleaned from the yearbooks, such as what kind of school clubs existed and the advertisements of local businesses of the day.

Scarborough Arts Yearbook 4

Agincourt Collegiate Institute yearbook, 1964. I attended and graduated from the school some 50 years later.

Scarborough Arts Yearbook 5             Scarborough Arts Yearbook 12

The Scarborough Arts office is a little  unconventional in that it is housed in a converted 1920s dwelling. Its ‘backyard’ is the Harrison Properties, which makes up part of the Waterfront Trail and whose name strikes me as having some sort of history perhaps relating to a previous owner of the lot. I’ve found nothing on the topic, however.

Scarborough Arts 2

Harrison Properties 2

The park backs onto the Bluffs, although a fence and a warning blocks access to the ridge for safety reasons. More on that later.

Harrison Properties 3

Further up Kingston is the Rosetta McClain Gardens. The backstory of this gem is fortunately known and offered up in a couple of plaques. Rosetta McClain once owned this land, and upon her death, her husband and son gifted the lot to the City of Toronto for a public park. Interesting to me in the story is McClain’s father was in charge of the J & J Taylor Safe Works operation in Old Town.

Rosetta McLain Gardens 10                       Rosetta McLain Gardens 1

The gardens are naturally a better a sight in the summer, but even in spr-winter the awe of the space is evident.

Rosetta McLain Gardens 6

Rosetta McLain Gardens 5

The frame of the old McClain house also still stands in the park as a monument…and as a backdrop for wedding shoots.

Rosetta McLain Gardens 9

Access to the Bluffs themselves can be tricky and elusive. There are many’a sign on local streets south of Kingston which advise people to, well, go away. It reminds me of the ire of local Hollywood residents concerning tourists trying to get to the Hollywood sign.

Scarborough Bluffs 6

Fortunately, there is a path beside Wynnview which leads down to Scarborough Heights Park. The bottom of the steep trail delivers a great view. The eye can follow the curve of the Scarborough coast as seen in maps as well the endless blue expanse of Lake Ontario.

Scarborough Heights 1

This is easier going down than up.

Scarborough Heights 3

Scarborough Heights 2

*** Local Caption *** Item consists of one photograph. The park was near Stop 31 (on the street railway?).

Scarborough Heights Park, 1911. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The way is long and muddy (and marked with bricks), but the reward at the end is worth-while.

Scarborough Bluffs 2

Scarborough Bluffs 3

These natural wonders are the leftovers of Glacial Lake Iroquois, whose geography is apparent throughout the city, most famously along the Davenport escarpment near Casa Loma. They are the same Bluffs that might exist in unknown narratives of Aboriginal settlement in this part of Scarborough. And they are the natural wonders Elizabeth “Don’t-Call-Me-Lady” Simcoe sailed past in 1793 which reminded her of her English home.

Scarborough Bluffs 4

Scarborough Bluffs 5

Of course, the elements and human activity have taken their toll on the Bluffs today, robbing them of stability and their chalky exterior in some places. I might argue their erosion is, though, a good – albeit, unfortunate – marker of time and a reminder of their history and pre-history.

Scarborough Bluffs - pierced rock from above 1909

Scarborough Bluffs, 1909. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

One thing that has remained consistent about the Bluffs is the marvel surrounding them. Sometimes it is hard to connect to bygone times and the psyches of people who lived within them, but human feeling and intelligence was no less primitive one hundred years ago than today. The people who explored Scarborough’s coast for an afternoon outing likely thought and felt the same as us when we do the same. That’s a comforting idea.

Scarborough Bluffs - general view from west 1915

Scarborough Bluffs, 1915. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The Bluffs of course stretch beyond Scarborough Heights for more stunning views, including across the way at Scarborough Bluffs Park. But that’s another day.