Category Archives: Jane’s Walk

Storytelling, Jane’s Walk, and Scarborough’s Wishing Well Acres

Every place has a story.

That was the takeaway when I began looking into the past and present of Wishing Well Acres in northwestern Scarborough. That same takeaway was reaffirmed after hosting my first Jane’s Walk on May 8th, 2016: Wandering Wishing Well Acres.

Jane's Walk Wishing Well Acres 2016

The only picture taken at “Wandering Wishing Well Acres”. Discussing Wishing Well Plaza and its future.

The grand story of Wishing Well, like many communities of Toronto, is contained in its historical evolution. Not surprisingly, the layer of suburbia is probably most central to this area. And that’s where my own fascination began.

The millionth house built after World War II in Canada is located in Wishing Well Acres — a little white corner bungalow originally purchased for $16,200. Of course, this bungalow could have been built anywhere — that is to say, there was nothing really special about Wishing Well that ‘bred’ the millionth house (other than perhaps the timing of the subdivision’s construction in 1956).

Heritage Property Map

The genesis of Wandering Wishing Well Acres came from the discovery of Canada’s Millionth Post-War on an Interactive Heritage Property Registry Map. Source: City of Toronto.

But the fact that the millionth house was here gives a bit of insight about the area in the 1950s — why people were moving to Toronto’s new suburbs. The owners of the watershed home were Mr. and Mrs Camisso and their two daughters (nuclear family, much?). The story goes that they were not even looking for a home but Mrs. Camisso was attracted to the green roof. Other selling points: its proximity to the Toronto ByPass (now the 401) and its automatic heating (no more shovelling coal into furnace!).

Millionth House Globe 1956

“1,000,000th House Built in Canada Since War is Sold to Young Family of Four”, Globe & Mail, Sept 15, 1956. Source: Globe & Mail Archives.

1956 is a funny year. In the grand timeline of history, it really isn’t that long ago. But at the same time, it is hard to find a reference point to that period. Newspapers help; first-hand accounts are better. My goal for the walk was to retell the ‘History’ of the area (via research), and elicit other ‘histories’ (i.e. personal anecdotes) from fellow walkers. Together, those make up a complete picture. I think that was achieved.

Wandering Wishing Well Acres had the wonderful benefit of two original residents and their takes on the neighbourhood some fifty and sixty years ago – one that still lives in the subdivision and one that returned for the first time in decades for the Jane’s Walk! Some of those insights: neighbours really did all know each other, children rode their bikes together, and people would gather in Wishing Well Park’s flooded ice pond. It was a great place to grow up. I get a similar vibe whenever I walk through it today.

Back to the layers: It’s no secret Scarborough was mostly rural fields prior to WWII. The farms are gone, but their geographic legacies remain. Subdivisions were developed 100 acres at a time — the size of patented farm lots that were gradually swooped up in the 1800s. Sheppard Avenue, the main street of sorts, provided access to the three farms that compose Wishing Well Acres as Concession Road III. It was later made a highway between Pickering and Yonge Street (because apparently Kingston Road was too congested in 1931?).

There’s the enduring power of names in local storytelling, too: Wishing Well was the name of Christopher Thompson’s farm; Vradenburg/Vradenberg, of which the street and school is named, was another pioneering family (albeit, with a more European spelling: Vradenburgh).

1860Scarboro - Copy

Wishing Well area via 1860 Tremaine’s Map of the County of York, Canada West. Source: Old Toronto Maps.

Of course, there’s a story before the Vradenburghs, Thompsons, and Masons. Was there Aboriginal presence here? Unfortunately, there’s no proof, but I’d still say possibly. Other sites in Scarborough — the Alexandra Site, Tabor Hill & Birkdale Ravine — point to indigenous settlement as late as around 800 years ago. Those areas all had a waterway in common — and Wishing Well once sported a free-flowing creek through it.

So then, what’s the future of Wishing Well Acres? I’d say it’s similar to its past: redevelopment. Sheppard Avenue is changing to accommodate more density: walkable, mixed use and mid-rise buildings. It’s like a retrofit to the blantantly, car-designed suburb. Of most interest to Wishing Well is the proposed development at Pharmacy and Sheppard. If it gets the green light, it would replace Wishing Well Plaza, which was at one time the commercial nexus of the early community and today home to a few eateries and shops that are largely and perhaps erroneously overlooked.

3105-3133 Sheppard East development 1

And what would a talk of the future be without public transit? Regardless of what transit on Sheppard Avenue ends up looking (or if it ends up looking like anything!), demand for (improved) public transit isn’t new! In 1956, the Town and Country Ratepayers and Community Association were calling for more than just a rush hour bus on Victoria Park. They wanted service on Sheppard! Plus ca change, eh? (That bus didn’t come until the mid-1960s, by the way.)

Town and Country Globe 1956

“A Bungalow in Scarboro”, Globe & Mail, Aug 6, 1956. Source: Globe & Mail Archives.

There are other aspects to the story  too: the burying of Taylor-Massey Creek, the gem of Wishing Well Woods (another rural remnant), the lost O’Sullivan’s Corners village at Victoria Park and Sheppard (of which the Johnny’s Hamburgers building is a leftover), and the Northwest Drive-in once located in Consumers Business Park (which is also getting a makeover.) It’s fitting that “Wandering Wishing Well Acres” ran overtime — there was too much to say!

Northwest Drive-In 1975

Northwest Drive-In & Consumers Business Park, 1975. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Being located in Scarborough, the Wandering Wishing Well Acres Jane’s Walk was likely not destined for popularity. It’s admittedly not a “sexy” topic nor located in a “sexy” area. But I tried not to let that deter me.

Wishing Well Acres has a story. It’s a good one. And it should be told and celebrated.


Useful Links

City of Toronto – Heritage Registry Interactive Map

Jane’s Walk 2015 Roundup

Day 1: Friday May 1, 2015

The City’s Best Hiding Places: A Geocaching Tour!
Walk Leader: Denise Pinto
4pm

I liked this walk because it reintroduced me into a hobby I took up a few summers ago…and then inexplicably dropped. Geocaching is basically a treasure hunt involving GPSs and storytelling.

Denise Pinto, the very awesome global head of Jane’s Walk, led us around her own neighbourhood south of the Danforth around Donlands and Greenwood. It’s a neat area full of parks connected with corridors of green space. Looking at old maps, some of those parks are the remnants of a buried creek. Who knew?

And actually, that feeds into the point of geocaching: One hides a cache in order to bring someone to a place that is special to him and wants people to know. It’s about sharing stories and experience. Denise hid caches along the way and had us find them.

Among our route, we passed a playground, a community garden, and a lookout for the Greenwood Subway Yard. As a bonus, it ended at the Allenby.

Jane's Walk 2015 Geocaching (1)

Jane's Walk 2015 Geocaching (2)

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Jane's Walk 2015 Geocaching (4)

Day 2: Saturday May 2, 2o15

To demolish, or not to demolish? Exploring Heritage Character in Toronto’s Downtown
Walk Leader: Michael Matthys
11am

This one was about the layers of history, heritage preservation, and how we make use of historic buildings that live past their original uses. Michael Matthys, a planner by trade with DIALOG, took us through the Downtown Yonge Street neighbourhood and showed us examples – good and bad and controversial – of sustainable adaption of modern buildings.

75 St. Nicholas Street, for example, is a condo development that utilizes an old planing mill as its base.  The problem – and it is one in many people’s eyes – is that the factory is no more than a facade. The mill was dissassembled, rebuilt brick by brick, and incorporated into the condo. Michael raises the question on whether this kind of preservation makes sense. What heritage is preserved? What’s the economic benefit from it?

Another case comes with 5 St. Joseph, which like 75 St. Nicholas, reuses a light industrial space – the old M. Rawlinson factory. Also like 75 St. Nicholas, planning got into the discussion. Are condos what we want? The city is growing; people need to live somewhere. It’s hard to strike a balance. It’s how we – citizens, government, developers – go about it. A nice bonus of going on Jane’s Walks, you get unexpected perspectives: while talking about this development, a resident of the building across the street told us that tower blocks sunlight to it.

After passing through the infamous site of the floating Irwin house development, the walk ended with a stop at Maple Leaf Gardens, which is a great example of a transformed space that pays tribute to its original use. The Gardens is one of two remaining Original Six arenas, and out of the two is the better preserved and utilized. The Mattamy Centre, the home of the Ryerson Rams, on the top floor is great because once again MLG is used for its original purpose.

Jane's Walk 2015 Heritage Character of Downtown Toronto (2)

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Jane's Walk 2015 Heritage Character of Downtown Toronto (6)

Jane's Walk 2015 Heritage Character of Downtown Toronto (7)

Building Bloor: Alec Keefer with the Rosina Shopkeeper Project
Walk Organizer: Alec Keefer
3pm

This was the most attended walk of my weekend, and there was good and bad that came with that. It was the first of two walks this weekend on the Rosina Shopkeeper Project, a great grassroots effort to tell the stories of the tenants and entrepreneurs of Bloor Street.

The leader – local historian and former president of the Toronto Architectural Conservancy – Alec Keefer, is a library on all things old Toronto. His insights into the architecture, the construction, and function of the structures of Bloor Street West is remarkable.  He explains the start of Bloor Street as a residential street of 1910s Edwardian homes which were then often fitted with an addition to support commercial space. He points out details about the face of structures like the important of cap roofs – many of which are now gone – and fire walls separating units.

The flip side to huge turnout on a great topic: it’s hard to take in everything. I lost out on a lot of stories just because I could not hear. Also, it can be a task to travel down Bloor on a beautiful Saturday afternoon; it is definitely a challenge to meander its narrow sidewalks with over 100 other people.

The one tidbit I do recall is on the Black Horse pub. It had an ornamental horse on the front of the building, which suggests that the original occupants might have been saddlers and worked with leather.

As a side note, this walk was also memorable because I had my first interaction with a fellow blogger in the real world. Shoutout to Mary (notcontary) for the chance encounter!

Jane's Walk 2015 Building Bloor (1)

Jane's Walk 2015 Building Bloor (2)

Jane's Walk 2015 Building Bloor (3)

Jane's Walk 2015 Building Bloor (4)

Jane's Walk 2015 Building Bloor (5)

Day 3: SUNDAY May 3, 2o15

Intriguing, industrial, Sterling Road!!
Walk Leader: Catto Houghton
1pm

I not only attended this tour, but as a volunteer for Jane’s Walk, I wanted to help out on this walk. So I did. It’s a street loaded with industrial history and one in huge transition. How could I not be part of that?

Led by artist Catto Houghton, who has connections to Sterling and the Junction & Junction Triangle areas, it’s a street that has a ton of hidden history – and a hidden reality to most Torontonians today.

The whole time I mentally equated it as the Carlaw Avenue of the west side.  Factories started popping up on both streets in the 1900s and 1910s, relied heavily on the surrounding railroads, reached a heyday in the mid part of the century, and then closed and subsequently either demolished or vacant until purposing in the latter part. It seems that Carlaw is nearing the end of its shift, but Sterling has a bit to go.

The east side of the street immediately north of Dundas is a parking lot, but that was populated with factories way back when. The lot now services Nestle, the great complex that hugs both sides of the street. Nestle is latest incarnation of a lineage of chocolate making enterprises on Sterling dating back at least 100 years, starting with Cowan Cocoa and Chocolate. Cowan went under 1926 and was taken over by Rowntree’s, which created to first chocolate bar. Finally, Nestle bought Rowntree’s in 1988. The original Cowan building is still part of its facility. Catto, part of her great research, brought out some great ephemeralia of these companies.

The Tower Automotive building is an intriguing case. It’s a landmark on the street, but not looking so good now. There was plans to rezone the street to allow mixed use development, including repurposing the tower into lofts. Our friends Nestle fought hard against this because having residents as neighbours is not in their interests. I’ve seen it before in the Weston’s factory I worked in. Operating in a residential neighbourhood leads to noise complaints lead to buckling to pressure. Those plans are on hold and it’s definitely a case to watch.

The walk was unlike others in that in Catto arranged interior tours. Like Carlaw’s Creative Lofts, Sterling has a few complexes of live-work space where artists and entrepreneurs set up shop. The street is also home to an axe throwing league and a circus school. But you wouldn’t know it.

I’ll definitely have to come back and explore more of the area.

Jane's Walk 2015 Sterling Road (1)

Jane's Walk 2015 Sterling Road (2)

Jane's Walk 2015 Sterling Road (3)

Jane's Walk 2015 Sterling Road (4)

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Jane's Walk 2015 Sterling Road (6)

Dark Age Ahead – The Wizard of Ossington Jane’s Walk
Walk Leader: HiMY SYeD
5pm

If I understand HiMY‘s message correctly from this walk, I can summarize everything here, but to truly understand The Wizard of Ossington, you have to attend it, experience it, and share in the conversations and story telling. Still, I’ll do a bit of summarizing and encourage people to check out the next time.

HiMY’s took us through the Christie Pits neighbourhood and picked out visual examples as well as examples from his own experience which help to illustrate Jane Jacob’s last book, The Dark Age Ahead. For a last book, it’s definitely not a pick-me-up. She identifies trends in North American society that if continued might lead to a Dark Age.

One of the themes of the walk is memory and how we remember and forget, and what happens when we, as a collective, forget. Mass amnesia is what Jane calls it and it’s the result of a decaying society.

An example HiMY uses is a Greek temple house. There’s danger in assembling a few artifacts, recreating a Hellenic style temple, and then claiming to have an understanding of Ancient Greek culture. Culture isn’t the physical remnants of a peoples; it’s the day to day interactions and stories that are passed down through oral tradition and language.

Jane's Walk 2015 Dark Age Ahead (1)      Jane's Walk 2015 Dark Age Ahead (2)

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Jane's Walk 2015 Dark Age Ahead (5)