Category Archives: Parks and Trails

Scenes From Kensington Market

What presumably started as pristine wilderness for many indegenous nations, the area that came to be Kensington Market began to take shape under the 1793 colonial park lot system established and administered by John Graves Simcoe and his successors. Here, plots 17 & 18 passed through several owners, eventually falling to Denison family. While today we associate the block between College & Dundas Streets and Spadina Avenue & Bathurst Street with a dense mix of narrow streets and an unlikely mishmash of altered structures, the only built form in the first part of 19th century was the Denisons’ Georgian manor, Belle Vue (also spelt Bellevue).

1842 Cane Topographical Plan of the City and Liberties of Toronto. Credit: Old Toronto Maps.

Denison, George Taylor, ‘Bellevue’, Denison Sq., n. side, e. of Bellevue Ave. 1912. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

Lost in the modern geography of Kensington Market is the waterway and pond situated just above Belle Vue. Named for a rather unpleasant character in Toronto history, Russell Creek passed through the southern half of the block towards today’s Entertainment District before flowing into the old shore of Lake Ontario near Front & Simcoe Streets.

1862 HJ Browne Plan of the City of Toronto. Credit: Old Toronto Maps.

In the mid-1800s, the Belle Vue Estate was subdivided and town lots were put up for sale. Several marketing pieces at the time advertised the lots for sale. Notably, an 1854 pitch highlighted their location in “the most healthy and pleasant part of the city” at a great elevation from Lake Ontario. It also promoted the great proximity to the new Ontario Legislative Buildings and Government House, which as far as I know might have been proposed but were certainly never built (the current legislature opened in 1893).

1854 Plan of part of the city of Toronto showing the town lots on Bellevue for sale by the trustees for the Denison Estate March 1854. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

1869 Plan of building lots on part of the Belle Vue estate in the City of Toronto, the property of J. Saurin McMurray, Esq.. Credit: Toronto Public Libary.

To make way for the residential neighbourhood, Russell Creek and its pond were buried in 1876, following a trend with other creeks in Toronto. Today, there is little trace of its existence. Compared to Garrison and Taddle Creeks though, Russell Creek seems to sit lower in the psyche and awareness of Torontonians.  as it is not as readily mentioned. Belle Vue would last for a few more decades, disappearing by 1890. Strangely, it seems to shows up in the Goads fire insurance maps as late as 1903, however. It was replaced by houses and then finally the Kiever Synagogue in 1927. 

Although the house is gone, Belle Vue’s geographic imprint remains in a few locales. Bellevue Square, which historically served as the promenade grounds for the manor, was donated to the city as public space in 1887. Denison Avenue was the driveway to the grounds. The names of the streets themselves offer links to the Denison Estate and the English motherland in general with monikers such as Lippincott Street, Bellevue Avenue, Oxford Street, and of course, Kensington Street. The latter is a throwback to the London commercial district of the same name (it is not clear who in Toronto drew the connection and offered the designation, though).

1889 Insurance Plan of the City of Toronto. Belle Vue House, while now housing an address at 22 Denison Square, is positioned with its corners aligning with the directions of a compass. By the end of the century, one can see the modern roots of Kensington Market’s layout of narrow streets and closely bunched structures. Credit: Old Toronto Maps

Of course, there is also the Victorian housing stock whose architectural style by definition is referential to the reigning monarch at the time. The early occupants of the neighbourhoood were unsuprisingly of largely White Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent. What happened to some of these houses over the next few generations erased that early connection to Britain, however.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the WASPs migrated to more favourable parts of Toronto. Finding opportunity and perhaps low rents, the Jewish community already situated in The Ward moved into those empty houses. It’s a common story to Toronto: a group occupies a space, leaves after it outlives its utility, and then a new group moves in and remakes it accordingly.

These East European Jews settled on Kensington, Augusta, and Baldwin Streets, not only residing in the former homes of their white predecessors, but also altering their fronts to accommodate commercial enterprise. And so began the ‘Jewish Market’. This ‘creation and re-creation’ happened over and over in Kensington Market. The Jews’ out-migration around World War II left their storefronts to other populations of Italian, Portuguese, Caribbean, and South & East Asian entrepreneurs, allowing new histories to be created.

The former Sanci’s fruit shop was the first non-Jewish merchant in Kensington Market. There’s a cross in the brickwork atop the store hinting at the building’s roots.

Baldwin Street, 1940s. Credit: Library & Archives Canada.

The importance of Kensington Market in the lives of generations of Canadian immigrants led to its designation as a place of national significance and as a National Historic Site in 2006. In 2017, Historica Canada neatly and creatively distilled its layered history into its first animated Heritage Minute. The clip nicely showcases the physical and cultural transformation of a shop through the decades, moving from the outside to the inside and back out again to show the masses of people who have frequented the Market through the ages.

The grand narrative of Kensington Market has then been this intersection between tangible (geographic) and intangible (cultural). That is to say, the histories of the people within the same physical space they have all come to call “home” over the years. Many writers have explored the theme, including Na Li in her book Kensington Market: Collective Memory, Public History, and Toronto’s Urban Landscape. The original Victorian homes, as altered as it has become after generations of use and reuse, become vessels to tell these stories.

           

From the Baldwin family countryside to the cafe- and bar-filled nexus of today, Kensington Market’s evolution was unplanned, organic, and anarchic, and yet somehow still falling in line with what came before. It survived urban renewal plans in the 1960s whose purpose to preserve the neighbourhood would have actually destroyed it. The quirks in its murals, hidden backways, street sights, and people can only exist within its borders. It cannot be replicated.

           

1889 Insurance Plan of the City of Toronto showing Kensington Place and Fitroy Terrace as part of the initial layout of the subdivided neighbourhood. Credit: Old Toronto Maps

 

Useful Links

Doug Taylor – The Villages Within

JB’s Warehouse & Curio Emporium – “Toronto Back Streets: Denison Square”

Kensington Market Historical Society

Lost Rivers – “Bellevue”

Toronto Park Lot Project

 

Scenes From Rouge National Urban Park – Vista Trail

Gem. Treasure. These rich descriptors are often paired with Rouge Park — and for good reason. The beauty and cultural and natural history make it a must-visit in Scarborough and Toronto.

In October 2017, Rouge Park, which previously fell under mostly provincial protection, was officially transferred to the federal government. The event completed a process to make it into Canada’s first National Urban Park administered by Parks Canada. The title says it all: massive green space within a busy metropolis. It’s not a new idea for Toronto, though. The City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation Department’s motto, “City Within Park”, neatly captures the sentiment its own parklands and trails.

Rouge Park and its trails Credit: Rouge Park.

Rouge Valley’s physical landscape dates to the last Ice Age, when the retreating ice sheet covering the Toronto area left grooves, dips, basins, and indents in the land. This is how the landscape became hilly and flat, and also how we get water bodies. Lakes, rivers, and streams form as meltwater rushes to fill the “holes” in the land. Human activity began from this point with Aboriginal hunters and farmers making use of the valley.

Although evidence is perhaps scarce for the entire period, there was a now well-known Seneca Village Ganatsekwyagon located where the Rouge meets Lake Ontario. The waterway was a portage Carrying Place Trail, too. Ganatsekwyagon is a National Historic Site (although strangely listed under Bead Hill instead of its true name), which perhaps plays into the desire to include the Rouge lands under Parks Canada.

Map of Lake Ontario, ca. 1680. The villages of Teiaiagon and Ganestiquiagon appear in place of modern day Toronto at the Humber and Rouge Rivers, respectively.Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

Although there are many access points within Rouge National Urban Park, a popular locale is the Vista Trail, located off Zoo Road at Meadowvale Road — right across, well, Toronto Zoo. The ‘welcome centre’ is a gorgeous Victorian farmhouse known today as the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre. Operated by the volunteer-based Rouge Valley Foundation, the centre’s mandate is to promote and engage in environmental conservation and offer interpretive and education programming within the Park. The homestead itself was built as the 1893 James Pearse House.

The Pearse House is named for the family who came to amass several hundred acres of land in the Rouge River Valley, including the present plot of the Vista Trail and Conservation Centre. This is not the house’s original location, however; it was restored and moved here in 1995 through efforts of volunteers.

Rouge Valley area from the Map of the Townships, York, Scarboro, and Etobicoke, 1916. A winding Meadowvale is located in the centre. Names like Pearse, Sewell, Beare, and Reesor still are prominent names in Scarborough today. Credit: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

European settler presence since the 1800s has had the most transformative effect on the land, with maybe the most changes coming after World War II. In the 1950s, the (Metro) Toronto and Region Conservation Authority was created to put greater emphasis and protection in the Toronto area’s natural ravines. A couple of decades later, the Riverdale Zoo moved from Cabbagetown to the Rouge, further reorganizing the land.

Rouge Valley, 1969-1975. Apple orchards belonging to Joseph Burr Tyrell came to be the site of the Toronto Zoo. Meadowvale Road was reconfigured to bridge over Rouge River as its main right of way. Its former course still remains as a portion of Kirkhams Road. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

The Vista Trail itself is a scenic walk, offering a number of fabulous views along its 1.5 kilometre route. An observation deck in particular allows for a great panorama of the Carolinian forest within the Little Rouge River and its dale.

Its pathway winds through that forest on a central ridge-like formation. On either side, the land dips down to give one a great look of the trees and colours of fall. The trail itself rolls up and down with tree roots serving as defacto stairs.

But speaking to the urban park aspect, the Vista Trail passes through an open space where Gatineau Hydro Corridor power lines run above. It’s a reminder that despite the perceived seclusion, civilization is not actually that far way.

Like the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre, the Parks Canada team host various guided hikes through the Rouge’s trails, ranging from topics like bird watching to tree identification to the wildlife in the valley to even a social hike. These walks run in all seasons too, offering the chance to see what Rouge Park has to show year-round.

Guided or not, a walk through the Vista Trail might offer one the opportunity to engage in some ‘forest pathing’ or shinrin-yoku. The Japanese practice invites one to engage with his or her surroundings in a way to cleanse oneself and relieve stress. And indeed, a calmness follows from taking in all Rouge National Urban Park’s richness.

 

Scenes From Milliken Park

Milliken District Park lies in Scarborough’s northern reaches, hugging Steeles Avenue East between McCowan Road and Middlefield Road. Its story includes the transformative move from farmland to suburbia, as well as its importance to the community both past and present.

The park’s focal point is Milliken Pond, famed for the great wildlife that frequent its waters – most notably, the trumpeter swans. If one is lucky, one might also catch a look at the great blue heron. (I don’t have the pleasure on this day.)

Beyond its great aesthetic, the body of water also serves a functional purpose as a storm-water management pond. According to The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which manages the larger Highland Creek Watershed (of which the park is part of), Milliken Park was built in a low-lying area, and this basin collects the run-off rainwater from the surrounding environment and deposits it into the Highland Creek via underground pipes.

Adjacent to the pond is a great bit of greenspace (and my favourite aspect of the park) called Milliken Forest. This wooded area predates the creation of Milliken Park and has remained in tact even when the farmland around it was redeveloped (more on this below). It joins spaces like Passmore Forest, Brimley Woods, and Wishing Well Woods as woodlots that exist as what I call ‘rural leftovers’.

Milliken Park before redevelopment, 1965. The area that became Milliken Park was Lots 22 and 23 of Concession Road 5, historically farmed by families such as the Mitchells and Myles’. That also looks to be a creek running through the western third. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

While they aren’t the great expansive forests of the Don Valley or the more untouched areas closer to the mouth of the Highland Creek, these spaces are important. They are key as homes to wildlife and help to mitigate the larger impact urbanization has had to the Highland Creek Watershed as a whole. For people, they are gems and escapes.

Exploring Milliken Forest piques my interest in labyrinths (albeit sans a mythological beast in the middle). One walks with hopefully a general sense of where they are, but ultimately not knowing where one path may lead. There are several forks in the road, leading me to also think of the Robert Frost poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ about choice, regret, and self-discovery.

On the theme of discovery, moving out of the trees, I locate a cache placed within the park. Geocaching is a global scavenger hunt where individuals hide trinkets of many sizes and shapes in personally significant locales in hopes of drawing folks to those places. I would say Milliken Park is perfect for that — people should know about this place.

A gaze around and one can see this is a well-designed, well-utilized park. In addition to the variety of programming at the community centre, there are walkers, picnickers (barbeque, anyone?), people-watchers, children on various playgrounds, and athletes. A regular sight for a beautiful Sunday morning I imagine. This connection goes back to the intent of the park in the first place: to serve the great amounts of new residents. News articles at the time wrote about the integral part greenspace played in linking new neighbourhoods.

Globe and Mail, January 7, 1984. Credit: Toronto Public Library Globe and Mail Archives.

For historical context, the Millken Park area was subdivided in the 1980s, continuing a process that had been going on in Scarborough since the 1950s. Going through historical aerial maps, one can see suburbia marching northward with every decade. It’s interesting when you get to a year like 1975 and you see that a good part of the borough up until Finch Avenue has been populated, yet still a simple drive or even look north produces agricultural fields. It’s a weird in-between period for Scarborough. For the areas of North Scarborough around Steeles Avenue, it’s odd to think of them as fields as late as the 1990s in some spots.

Milliken Park and its subdivisions under development, 1985. The farmhouses look to be gone. The creek that might have ran through the property has been buried and the stormwater pond has taken shape. Previously two parallel roads north and south of Steeles Avenue, McCowan road has been rerouted to curve through the intersection, eliminating the jog. To the south, Passmore Avenue (5th Concession) has been largely overtaken by housing and today only remains in segments.

Milliken Park looks to have been possibly created as a ‘deal’ between developers and local government to allow greenspace in new areas of suburbia. The article below outlines the design, planning, and marketability of new parks in new suburbs, and the views different cities and developers take on the form and utility of parks. It also states that Milliken Park was supposed to have ‘model farms’.

Globe and Mail, July 20, 1985. Credit: Toronto Public Library Globe and Mail Archives.

A final feature of the park is the beautiful meadow and garden area towards the northwest quadrant. The gorgeous space is prime for wedding shoots, which indeed happened on this day, or just quiet contemplation.

    

    

 

Scenes From Berczy Park

If I could sum up the new Berczy Park, it would be a heavy expression of changing landscapes mixed in with a bit of whimsy — in a city that perhaps needs a lot more whimsy. One gets that immediately with the cat greeting patrons on Scott Street.

Dogs populate the inside and outside of the pool, water cascading out of their mouths and into the bone-topped fountain. Well, there is one confused feline among the canines, too.

Part of the appeal of parks is the context they exist in. Think Withrow Park, Christie Pits, and Trinity Bellwoods and how crucial they are to the larger Riverdale, Christie Pits, and Queen West Queen neighbourhoods, respectively. While the revitalized Berczy Park is going to be huge in the Old Town-Downtown Core area, the interplay between the park and its immediate surroundings is most intriguing. Having the fountain and the 19th century streetscape to its south as a backdrop makes for a perfect scene.

Robert Rotenberg in Old City Hall describes this stretch of Front East as having a  “comfortable, almost European feel”. With the addition of the park, I think this holds even more true. In particular, the Beardmore Building, 1872, is my favourite of the row with its beautifully restored yellow brick and arched windows.

The existence of Berczy Park is bittersweet in that the triangular block was once filled with warehouses and shops like the Beardmore. Beginning in the late 1950s but accelerating in the 1960s, these historic rows were knocked down, became parking, and then finally usable public space in 1980.

It’s easy to lament the loss – and indeed, we should (a plaque showcasing the former streetscape, anyone?) – but at some point we should move forward and make the best with what exists. Fortunately, that point has been taken very well Berczy Park.

Looking east, above more seating and gardens, one sees the giant mural draped across the back of the Gooderham Flatiron Building. The artwork was commissioned for the opening of the park in 1980.

Below it, an art piece stands for the park’s namesake, William Berczy, a settler in the Town of York and the communities along German Mills Creek in Markham.

Then, there’s the Gooderham Flatiron Building itself, at one time the great headquarters of Toronto’s brewing and distilling industry. It’s perhaps the most imaged structure in the city. With the updated Berczy Park, it’s in a position to be captured even more.

While its lasting existence seems so natural, the Coffin Block actually manned the odd intersection before it. I would say this is a case where heritage replacing potential heritage was not so bad.

Wellington St. E., looking w. from Church St., 1888. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

Scenes From Eglinton Avenue West

Eglinton Avenue is Toronto’s east-west midpoint. It is the only street in the city (although took some doing in the 1950s and 60s to make it so) that traverses all six former municipalities. This attribute has made it perfect for a crosstown transit line. Although it was laid out in 1793 as the Third Concession from Lot (Queen) Street, I would argue that Eglinton’s form, at least from Yonge Street to Latimer Avenue, as we know it today does not begin to take shape until 130 years after it was laid out.

Might’s correct city directory map of Greater Toronto, ca. 1940. The extension across the Don River branches were completed by 1956. In 1967, Richview Sideroad in Etobicoke was absorbed into Eglinton Avenue when the two streets were joined via a bridge across the Humber River. Credit: Map and Data Library, University of Toronto.

This stretch of Eglinton Avenue west of Yonge Street and the surrounding area was historically part of the Village of North Toronto. Even though the village was absorbed into the City of Toronto in 1912, allowing it to reap the benefits of better service delivery, the street was still a sparsely populated dirt road. It wasn’t until the coming decades when Eglinton’s fields morphed into a mixed residential and commercial zone. By 1930, the road was paved and possibly widened.

Eglinton Ave, west from Yonge, October 19, 1922. Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 1637.
Credit: City of Toronto Archives

Eglinton Avenue west from Yonge Street, April 23, 1930. Fonds 1231, Item 1646. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

At Duplex and Eglinton stands a power station. The yellow-bricked structure was built in 1920 at a time of rapid expansion in Toronto. With the Toronto Hydro-Electric System (now known as just Toronto Hydro) becoming the only distributor of power in Toronto at the tail end of the 1910s, Toronto was experiencing the pressures of an electrified transit network and a growing population.

The Eglinton sub-station was one of many built in this era to cope with this demand, specifically serving the surrounding residential community and “the Metropolitan radial line on north Yonge Street and subsequently to the TTC Yonge route and Eglinton Carhouse in the area.”

Eglinton Sub-station, August 10, 1925. Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3975. Credit: City of Toronto Archives

Related, a short distance across from the station, there’s a row of mid-rise apartments. The positioning of these 1930s Art-Deco inspired buildings one after the other leads one to conclude that this was by design, although I wonder at their context considering the larger history the Toronto has with this kind of housing stock.

One historical narrative has been that whereas at the time the City of Toronto avoided this housing style, outlying communities like York and Forest Hill including them in their planning. For example, a more prominent row of these decorative lofts exists further west on Eglinton near Bathurst Street in the former Village of Forest Hill. These ones close to Yonge would have existed on land already annexed to the city, though. Curious.

Next, Eglinton Park has a neat past. As Lost Rivers explains, long before its colonial period, Huron peoples occupied its land and the nearby area – notably, the site of Allenby Public School – in the 15th century. In more recent history, the park was a brickyard! Capitalizing on the clay beds created by the now buried Mud Creek, James Pears ran his establishment here beginning in the 1880s.

The Eglinton Hunt Club (foreground) & Pears Brickyard (background), looking southeast,1920. The Pears home (now gone) can be seen at the top of the image at 214 Eglinton Avenue. A water tower stood on Roselawn Avenue near Avenue Road. A communications tower is in its place today. Credit: Toronto Public Libary

The modern geography within the park shows off the layers of time: the ‘dug-in’ escarpment leading up to Oriole Parkway, the hilly topography of Roselawn Avenue. Pears formerly worked out of today’s Ramsden Park in Yorkville before moving up Yonge Street, which has similar rolling features. These are the former lives of our parks.

Later, with North Toronto annexed, the City of Toronto attempted to purchase the yard from Pears before outright expropriating it in 1922 when he refused. The entire exercise came at a time in the 1920s and 30s when the City’s Parks Department was expanding, creating parkland and accompanying infrastructure such as shelters, gazebos, and bandshells. In fact, the Toronto Archives has a wonderful collection of ink & pencil drawings as a part of an Architectural Drawings Scrapbook prepared by the Department of Buildings for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Eglinton Park (Roselawn Avenue) Shelter, August 12, 1930. Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 934. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

Pears’ legacy did live on for a while as the space was unofficially known as Pears Park for a time (and still might be?). Modern amenities have been added to the park since then of course, including a community centre, playground, and a Cretan maze via the Toronto City of Labyrinths Project!

A final sign of the street’s arrival was the eventual population of the street with commercial activity. The north side of Eglinton east of Avenue was one of the first retail blocks, coming to us around 1930.

CANATCO house index map of Toronto and environs, 1932. Credit: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

Eglinton Ave. north side Avenue Rd. looking east, April 23, 1930. Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1223. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

With the opening of the Eglinton Theatre in 1936 to serve the growing local community, another commercial dimension was added. Neighbourhood theatres were abundant in Toronto by World War II, but The Eglinton was a benchmark in grandeur.

Whereas other ‘nabes‘ were more low-key in aesthetic, the Kaplan and Sprachman-designed Art Deco movie house and its neon-lit tower announced itself on the commercial strip. It’s amazing considering this was also during the Great Depression. It was operational until 2002, remarkably late in the history of comparable theatres. Today it’s the Eglinton Grand.

 

Useful Links

City of Toronto Archives – “Turning on Toronto: Toronto Hydro-Electric System” Web Exhibit

City of Toronto Planning Department – “Eglinton Connects Planning Study July 2013 Draft”

Historic Toronto – “Memories of Toronto’s Eglinton Theatre” by Doug Taylor

Lost Rivers – “The Eglinton Park Hill”

Scenes From A City – “Scenes From Yorkville”

Silent Toronto

Spacing – “Toronto’s Art Deco district? Take a walk along Eglinton Avenue West” by Daniel Rotsztain 

Torontoist – “Historicist: The ‘Manifest Destiny’ of North Toronto” by David Wencer

Scenes From East Don Parkland

It’s all about the layers in the East Don Parkland. The residual landscape from the last Ice Age, the ravine, which stretches from Leslie and Steeles to Don Mills and Sheppard, has come to see pre-contact wilderness, colonial farming and industry, and post-war revitalization and reconfiguration.

But ‘East Don Parkland’ is a bit of a misnomer if only because it encompasses not only the east branch of the Don River but another – albeit smaller – tributary waterway.

German Mills Creek originates just to the north of Steeles in its historic namesake Markham community (sadly, now lost). The label is pretty literal, too: German Mills was once an industrious village along John Street founded by Bavarian-born William Berczy and a group of his countrymen and women. In addition to being a prosperous settlement, the community was instrumental in the early development of York too. The goods supplied by the mills aided in constructing the actual built form of the young town. The German Mills pioneers also cleared Yonge Street from Eglinton to Thornhill before the Queen’s Rangers finished the job.

East Don Parkland became part of Toronto’s parks network in the 1980s after efforts to remediate and rehabilate a river that had been worn out by European activity. Today, it is home to a number of flora and fauna, most notably salmon and white-tailed deer, the latter which are prominently displayed on the park’s signage. A neat tidbit: the deer’s precense in Toronto dates back to around 9000 years after the end of the last Ice Age.

Cummer Avenue bisects (or trisects?) East Don Parkland and offers more history. Unsurprisingly, the street’s name plays homage to the family who toiled around and built it – although to different designs.

Jacob and Elizabeth Kummer (the name was inexplicably changed to a ‘C’ around 1820), like the pioneers of Markham were of German descent, and came to the Toronto area in 1795, first settling near Yonge and Eglinton. They would relocate further up the main street to Willowdale where they would amass an extraordinary fortune. Their original property was a 190-acre lot fronting Yonge and stretching to Bayview. With subsequent generations of Cummers, their holdings grew to encompass not only large plots fronting Yonge but portions of the East Don Valley too. Whereas the former real estate was good for farming and commercial activities, the power of the river allowed the Cummers to engage in some industry. In 1819, they built and began operating a sawmill.

The Don property was interestingly significant in that early settlers as well as First Nations peoples took part in church and camp activities there. Through the meetings, the area was famously known as “Scripture Town” and “Angel Valley”.

East Don from Tremaine’s Map, 1860. Source: Toronto Historic Maps.

Around the 1850s, Jacob III, grandson of Jacob Kummer, built a farmhouse to overlook the valley. The home isn’t perfectly parallel to the street it rests on, making it a bit of an intriguing anomaly with the surrounding post-war subdivision.

To connect the Cummers’ Yonge and East Don holdings, a side road was constructed. Today, we know that road allowance as Cummer Avenue. Where the street crossed the East Don, it veered south to follow the curve of the river on its way to Leslie Street. The aforementioned mill was also located near this junction.

East Don River and Old Cummer, 1950. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

In the mid-1960s, Cummer was re-oriented away from the valley. A bridge that used to carry car traffic across the river serves as a reminder of its former course. One has to think of the vehicular ghosts when traversing the recreational trail that replaced the street.

A paved portion also leads to Old Cummer GO Station, where the street once passed through before the station’s construction in 1978. For years I puzzled about the station’s name. 

South of Finch Avenue, with golden foliage of fall to accentuate the walk, the trail winds on. 

So does the river, although not as it once did. Like Cummer Avenue, the Don’s history has come with some alterations. Along the way is at least one algae-covered oxbow – an orphaned or even ghost segments separated from the river’s course. This particular one was severed around the early 1950s.

East Don River, 1950. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

East Don River oxbow, 1965. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

One has to note the monstrosity of human construction that is the CNR Richmond Hill GO line looming above the park.

A fallen tree trunk spanning across the river instantly urges me of more pioneering connections. It reminds me of an Elizabeth Simcoe depiction of an early bridge across the Lower Don River.

Winchester Street, bridge over Don R. (Playter’s bridge), 1794. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Finally, at the park’s southern end is Old Leslie Street. Just like Old Cummer, Leslie used to take on a different route. Heading south, the street used to jogged west at Sheppard before continuing south, all presumably to avoid crossing the Don River.

Sheppard and Leslie, 1961. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The junction of Old Leslie and Sheppard was the nexus of the tiny, lost mill community of Oriole, named for George S. Henry’s homestead located off the Betty Sutherland Trail

Old Leslie Street and Sheppard, 1956. Source: Toronto Public Library. Oriole Wesleyan Methodist Church stood on the southwest corner from 1873 to the 1950s.

By 1969, the street was rerouted directly through Sheppard. Old Leslie remains mainly as a service road for the Leslie TTC Station, terminating across from North York General Hospital.

Useful Links

City in the Trees – Retrospective: Sheppard, Leslie, and the Don

Discover the Don – Walk The Don – East Don Parkland 

City in the Trees – Treasures on the Doorstep

Hiking The GTA – Old Cummer Road 

Lone Primate – Closed Old Cummer Avenue

Patricia W. Hart – Pioneering in North York: A History of the Borough

Richard Fiennes-Clinton – Muddy York: A History of Toronto Until 1834

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

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”