Contemplating Aga Khan Park

Originally published on Torontoist on May 26, 2015.

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“The garden has for many centuries served as a central element in Muslim culture,” the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismali community, noted at the official opening of his namesake park yesterday. “The holy Koran itself portrays the garden as a central symbol of a spiritual ideal—a place where human creativity and divine majesty are fused, where the ingenuity of humanity and the beauty of nature are productively connected. Gardens are a place where the ephemeral meets the eternal, and where the eternal meets the hand of man.”

Serving as the linking element between the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre buildings opened in September 2014 (and nominated as one of the year’s heroes by Torontoist), the Aga Khan Park is the ninth green space the religious leader’s cultural trust has built, joining parks in cities such as Cairo and Kabul.

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Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic based the park’s design on traditional Islamic gardens he visited in India and Spain. The result is a 6.8-hectare site dominated by black reflecting pools that mirror the surrounding buildings. More than 20 species of plants have been incorporated into the garden or line its walkways.

Even with the buzz of heavy traffic on Eglinton Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway, the site has great potential to become a setting for the introspective. Beyond offering pause while visiting the grounds, we imagine it may provide weary commuters a chance to soothe their frayed nerves.

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During his speech at the opening ceremony, the Aga Khan touched upon the importance of green space in urban environments. “Too often in recent years,” he observed, “urban architecture—under pressure from urbanizing rural populations, greater human longevity, and shrinking budgets—has neglected the importance of open spaces in a healthy city landscape. We keep crowding more buildings into dense concentrations, while short-changing the enormous impact that well-designed open spaces—green spaces—can have on the quality of urban life.” His speech also touched on the importance of making cultural connections in a diverse city, and was laced with humour about the immigrant experience for Ismalis who settled in Canada.

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Also present was Premier Kathleen Wynne, who unveiled a ceremonial plaque with the Aga Khan. “The park brings its own unique style and its own atmosphere to this beautiful corner of the city,” she noted. “This is a true 21st-century space, one that’s steeped in history but that speaks to our modern vision of a global, inclusive, and peaceful society.”

Wynne announced the signing of an agreement where the Aga Khan’s agencies will collaborate with the Ontario government in establishing educational initiatives promoting diversity, pluralism, and tolerance. Proposed programs over a three-year period include seconding up to 10 teachers to Aga Khan Academies, granting post-secondary tuition waivers to 30 students from Kenya, India, and Mozambique, and running educational policy forums.

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Guided tours of the park will commence on June 2. Upcoming events include musical performances, film screenings, and, on July 5, a Pan Am Games torch relay stop.

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Happy 50th Birthday, North York!

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on May 12, 2012.

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Cover of The Mirror Special Jubilee Edition, June 1972. All images in this article are taken from this publication.

The summer of 1972 was a momentous one for the Borough of North York. The growing suburban municipality celebrated its 50th anniversary that year with a series of special events throughout that spring and summer. Among the souvenirs was a special edition of the Mirror newspaper which traced North York’s past, present, and future.

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Photo: Doug Hyatt.

The Borough of North York Council enjoy a ride at Black Creek Pioneer Village after rehearsing a planned re-enactment of the first council meeting in 1922 (the councillor in the white coat and red scarf might be Mel Lastman, while Paul Godfrey may be third from left in the front row). North York was born out of a farmers’ revolt over their lack or representation on York Township council. During the early 20th century councillors were voted on by the entire township, which increasingly meant all of the representatives came from the southern, urban end of York Township. A petition was launched to separate the rural northern area, which was taken door-to-door by Roy Risebrough in his 1917 Model T. The petition succeeded: a bill establishing the Township of North York was passed by the Ontario legislature on June 13, 1922.

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Likely as a reward for his work in establishing the Township of North York, Roy Risebrough was named its first police constable. When he noted that he knew nothing about police enforcement, officials told him “you’ll learn soon.” In his 34 years as North York’s chief constable he never carried a gun and knew most of the township’s early citizens by name. Outside of occasional gas station robberies (which were mostly committed by Torontonians), crimes tended to be minor. “Ninety percent of the cases were settled out of court,” he told the Mirror.” I used to go round to the house and talk to the people. It was different in those days. Instead of taking them to court, you gave them a tongue-lashing. And in a month, they were good friends again.” In many ways, Risebrough was the stereotypical small town law enforcer, to the extent that at least one long-time resident believed he never wore a uniform so that he could slip away for a few hours to fish.

Make that almost never wore a uniform. When George Mitchell campaigned for reeve in 1941, he promised to make Risebrough wear official clothing. After his election, Mitchell took Risebrough to Tip Top Tailors to be measured. When the uniform was ready, Mitchell had Risebrough put it on before both men made an evening drive from Willowdale to Hogg’s Hollow. Mitchell said “Now I’ve fulfilled my campaign promise, Roy. You can do what you damned well like.” Risebrough never wore the full uniform again.

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North York’s planning department prepared a series of maps tracing the municipality’s growth. The following description was provided for the 1922 map (population: 6,000):

North York’s population in 1922 was scattered in small farm-based communities centring along Yonge. It continued the development spine of the city of Toronto. Various villages thrived along the Yonge axis—York Mills, Lansing, Willowdale and Newtonbrook. Many of the borough’s historic sites are located in the bygone villages—Gibson House, C.W. Jeffery’s home, the Jolly Miller Tavern, and the Hogg store, Dempsey Brothers’ store, York Cottage and the Joshua Cummer house. A population nucleus existed in a strip development at Humber Summit on Islington, on the road leading to Woodbridge. A small development existed at North West, at Wilson and Weston Rd.

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By 1945, the population had spread from both sides of Yonge. Most of the growth was in the area south of Wilson, between Yonge and Bathurst. By this time, Lawrence Park, was largely developed to its present extent. Humber Summit expanded more towards the Humber River and became largely a community of summer cottages. These were soon winterized for year-round occupation. North Weston expanded further to merge with the Pelmo Park area to its east.

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This map shows the vast population growth which occurred in the decade. It took place largely in the area west of Bayview. East of Bayview the township remained largely in farm use. With the exception of a few pockets, development took place south of Sheppard and west of Bathurst. It went as far north as Steeles between Bathurst and Bayview. Why the growth? New family formations brought the need for single-family homes. Unified water and sewerage in Metro helped speed development. The growth of car ownership brought people to the suburbs, starting in 1949. North York’s 1948 official plan helped planning and the comprehensive zoning bylaw of 1952 showed permitted land uses. By 1955 the Yonge St. villages had merged into the community today known as Willowdale. But only a small population had moved to Don Mills by 1955.

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It was during the decade 1955 to 1965 that North York changed from being a dormitory community for Toronto’s labour force. It became a more integrated urban community with the introduction of industrial and commercial developments and the jobs these provided. By 1965 Don Mills was developed to its present extent. Yorkdale Shopping Centre had been opened in the western half of the borough. Development had almost reached the northern limits of the municipality at Steeles and left a few remaining pockets of undeveloped land south of Finch, such as Windfields Farm.

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With the notable exception of Windfields Farm, the filling in of large subdivided tracts of land is now almost completed. What remains in the borough? There are vacant single-family and apartment building lots. Also, not all land is at its full potential use as, for example, where single-family homes stand on land planned for apartments. The planned population of the borough, according to the district plan program is 734,000 people. North York is expected to reach this figure sometime after 1990. During the 1966–71 period the major developments in North York include the Ontario Science Centre, Flemingdon Park and Fairview Mall Shopping Centre.

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During the debate over the Spadina Expressway, some North York residents protested in favour of the controversial roadway. Director of traffic operations S.R. Cole professed an open mind toward Spadina in his contribution to the Mirror special. “I simply note that if we had left the Lake Shore Blvd. as it was in 1945 and not built the Gardiner Expressway or the Don Valley Parkway, downtown Metro might be like some downtown areas in other cities—deteriorating, lacking in development. There might be no North York as we know it today. North York needed a downtown core to grow as it has.” Cole also believed that rapid transit on Eglinton Avenue was needed “sooner than the Toronto Transit Commission will likely propose it.”

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Sheppard Avenue, facing east towards Leslie Street. Photo by Doug Hyatt.

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Borough councillors were asked to write about the biggest challenges facing the municipality. Mayor Basil Hall thought traffic problems due to massive construction projects like the Yonge subway extension were the biggest concern in the present, while redevelopment to prevent urban decay would be required in the future. Controller Mel Lastman targeted municipal strikes and inadequate TTC service as his beefs, while fellow controller Paul Godfrey was determined to protect North York’s ecology.

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York University had existed for just over a decade, and operated from its main campus for seven years when North York celebrated its golden jubilee. The school’s first president, Dr. Murray Ross, noted the best course for York’s continued progress:

The only possible problem which could adversely affect York’s development is the kind of confrontation found frequently on other campuses in North America. We have avoided such difficulties at York thus far. It is not conflict of view which is inevitable in all families and organizations, but the manner in which conflict is resolved that is important. We have been able so far to work out our difficulties and differences in discussion and debate. If we are able to continue to do so, York’s future is assured. I predict, and I believe sincerely, that in the future York will enhance its already established reputation.

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When it opened in 1970, Fairview Mall was the first multi-level shopping centre in Metropolitan Toronto. Among its early attractions was the lengthy movator, which was removed during the 1980s.

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One of the many ads found in the Mirror special from North York’s major corporate citizens. The IBM complex at Eglinton Avenue and Don Mills Road is currently home to Celestica.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The municipal ad on the back cover. “The astonishment of North York,” according to writer Robert Moon, “lies not so much in its multi-billion-dollar construction since the Second World War, which is profound in time and space, but in the creation of a quality place to live and work for 520,000 people, which is simple and grand in concept.”

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A collection of North York historical landmarks.

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The accompanying map.

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Some scenes in North York never change, such as the eternal traffic jam on the northbound Don Valley Parkway around Lawrence Avenue.

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While some of the corporate offices and landmarks shown in this ad are still present in Flemingdon Park (Foresters, Ontario Science Centre), others are long gone. As of 2018, Inn on the Park is a car dealership, IBM is Celestica, the Imperial Oil property is Real Canadian Superstore, while the Bata and Shell properties are now the Aga Khan Museum. The spotlighted property, the Ontario Hospital Association and Blue Cross building, is now bannered with ICICI Bank.

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Toronto Star, June 13, 1972.

Scenes of Toronto: The Sign Lives On at Consumers Distributing

Originally published on Torontoist on April 21, 2011.

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Behind the gloss of the Shops at Don Mills, a few office buildings and plazas that haven’t experienced redevelopment still line the southwest quadrant of The Donway. A passing glance at the tenants of 49 The Donway West reveals an exiled anchor of the old Don Mills Centre (Home Hardware), service-based merchants (Cadet Cleaners, The Beer Store), and vacant space temporarily filled by the campaign office of the local Conservative candidate. It’s when you hit the western back corner of the plaza that you encounter one store banner in disbelief: Consumers Distributing. Disbelief, because it’s been 15 years since anyone ordered from a Consumers catalogue.

To a kid, the Consumers Distributing catalogue, along with the doorstop Sears dropped on the front step, was like a religious text. One could dream for hours about playing with any of the showcased games, toys, and video systems. Needed to show your parents what you wanted Santa Claus to bring on his sleigh? The catalogue provided a visual guide to pass on to the Jolly Old Elf. Whenever a new catalogue came out, the old one could be hacked up for cut-and-paste school presentations.

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From one location that opened in 1957 on a site now occupied by Eglinton West subway station, Consumers Distributing grew to more than 200 stores across Canada and a few south of the border. The model was simple: flip through the catalogue, choose an item, go to a store, fill out a form, and pray the item was in stock. Despite supply-chain hiccups, the model worked for four decades. By the mid-1990s, the combination of the refusal of its foreign owner to inject more money into the business in light of a couple of poor seasons, a new superstore model that didn’t perform to expectations (which included touch-screen computers for ordering), the decline of the catalogue-store business across North America, and competition from Wal-Mart and other new big-box stores caused the chain to go bankrupt. As 1996 closed, so did the last Consumers stores.

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How did this sign survive in pristine condition? Being hidden under a Blockbuster Video sign didn’t hurt. At first glance, the site appears vacant apart from a sign directing customers to a relocated dry cleaner. A small whiteboard with faded writing inside the door reveals the store’s current use as a dog-training facility.

UPDATE

As of 2017, the building has been demolished.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Short Cuts 5

Feeding BP to the Lions

Originally published on Torontoist on July 20, 2010.

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Don Mills Mirror, October 28, 1970.

We imagine that if BP stations still existed in Toronto and offered a circus-themed promotional event, the public would want to see a few executives served as a tasty snack for the lions in the wake of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Forget giving the kids sugar-laden food—give them a real adrenaline rush and a lesson in corporate responsibility! We also hope that the prizes in the treasure chest were nice toys and free fill-ups that weren’t soaked in crude.

British Petroleum entered the Canadian market in 1957 and acquired one thousand service stations in Ontario and Quebec within four years. Problems of limited refinery resources were solved when BP acquired the Canadian arm of Cities Service (now Citgo) in 1964 and its 25,000 barrel a day processing facility in Bronte. Within a year of today’s ad, BP picked up “Canada’s All-Canadian Company” Supertest, whose stations gradually lost their patriotic fervour as they switched to the green shield. BP stations were a staple on Canadian roadways until 1982 when Petro-Canada purchased its retail and refining operations, including the station that still pumps away at Don Mills and Lawrence. BP retained some properties and built up its current presence in Canada through subsequent acquisitions, including Amoco Canada, from whom the company derives its current Canadian launch date of 1948.

Additional material from the March 13, 1964 edition of the Globe and Mail.

The Best Sound System Money Can Buy

Originally published on Torontoist on July 27, 2010.

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Maclean’s, March 2, 1987.

Why waste money on pricey luxury stereo systems when creating an enticing sonic environment at home? A simple investment in two concrete blocks certified by the Ontario Concrete Block Association will amplify your life. And when your house, condo, or apartment is built with high-quality concrete blocks, you will never receive a noise complaint from the neighbours when life dictates that you have to crank the volume up to eleven or commit any potential audio atrocity no one else should hear. Ask your friendly neighbourhood stonemason how they can create customized concrete blocks to house your iPod, turntable, and other system components!

We looked into the soundproofing capacities of walls made from concrete blocks in terms of sound transmission class (STC) units. According to the National Research Council, walls made from concrete blocks do an effective job of containing noise, with a basic, no-frills wall earning a rating of 45 to 55 STC (at 30 STC, a loud human voice can be heard through the wall, at 60 STC, it shouldn’t be heard).

Since this ad appeared, the Ontario Concrete Block Association has expanded its scope across the country and is now known as the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association.

A Clean Gala Opening

Originally published on Torontoist on January 4, 2011.

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Weston Times and Guide, October 20, 1960.

Despite the plethora of attractions the proprietors of Chester Drive-In Cleaners secured for the grand opening of their modern premises in the south end of Weston, it’s possible that terming the festivities as a “gala” may have been a last-minute decision. They might have needed an extra word to hide the mess created by the charming yet clumsy majorette in this ad after she accidentally popped the balloon beside the banner.

We haven’t determined who “Dale” was. Perhaps he or she was a local florist, the chief dry cleaner, or a neighbourhood musician specializing in pleasant, inoffensive music. Whoever “Dale” was, we imagine anyone who still has a carefully pressed and preserved bouquet of roses bearing his/her signature owns a priceless memento of that Saturday morning.

Time Machines for Now

Originally published on Torontoist on January 25, 2011.

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Maclean’s, November 27, 1989.

It’s Tuesday morning, early in the second decade of the twenty-first century. There’s little time to sip a glass of crystal pure water, as there’s only fifteen minutes before a hover-taxi arrives to take a load of passengers to the Greater Toronto Spaceport in north Pickering. Better remember to bring the right keys this time before shooting off to the international moon base: light yellow for the house (not the dark yellow one that holds the morning edition of the Toronto Star-Sun), pink for your passport. Waiting patiently on the kitchen table is a venerable Casio timepiece, which has dutifully kept time for over two decades. The watch’s artificial intelligence knows that odds are fifty/fifty that the taxi will have to come back for you to retrieve it when you realize you’ve forgotten to put it on as you glide over Scarborough Town Centre.

Back in our version of 2011, unless a steady supply of not-yet-obsolete batteries have kept these beauties in perfect operating order, these watches are time machines only in the sense of preserving designs and technological advances from the late 1980s.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Western Days in Don Mills

Originally published on Torontoist on March 9, 2007.

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Source: Toronto Life, August 1968.

“Hey kids, let’s dig out that cowboy gear we bought for Halloween last year and hum the theme to Bonanza on the way to the Western Days hoe-down in Don Mills! Don’t forget the toy gun, pardner!”

Suburban shopping centres used plenty of gimmicks in the early days to get consumers to hop in the car and drive out to stores where they didn’t have to worry about paying for parking or carrying their goods home on the TTC. Modern indoor sidewalk sales have nothing on their ancestors — when was the last time you received free grilled meat from a server in a Stetson at Bayview Village or Yorkdale?

Note the description of the aboriginal element of the event. Based on everything else in the ad, it’s easy to imagine a depiction of Native culture as sensitive as a 1940s B-western.

Much of the advertising for the Don Mills Centre from this period plays on Wild West terminology, appropriate for a pioneer in Toronto retailing. One of the region’s first large-scale suburban shopping centres, it was designed to be the heart of the Don Mills development. The centre opened in 1955 as an open-air plaza which included long-term tenants like Dominion, Brewers Retail and Koffler Drugs (which evolved into the Shoppers Drug Mart empire). Eaton’s built their first suburban store at the centre in 1961, to be joined by Zellers in 1965. A roof came with a 1978 expansion.

The closure of Eaton’s when the chain was sold to Sears in 1999 began the stampede towards the centre’s demolition last year, to make way for an outdoor “lifestyle” shopping area. The current blank space is large enough to hold a decent-size carnival and rodeo, if anyone is interested…

Vintage Toronto Ads: Opulent Penthouse-Style Living

Originally published on Torontoist on February 23, 2007.

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When searching for a new place to live, what is the first thing you look for? Location? Lifestyle compatibility? Enticements? A blank slate to shape in your unique style? Groovy wallpaper?
Judging from today’s ad, the latter may have been a key condition in North York back in 1970.

This was the era of “swingin’ singles” apartments, promoted in areas of the city like St. James Town. Think of this ad as the late 1960s equivalent of lifestyle ads pitched to upwardly-mobile condo buyers, without the benefits of ownership—replace “penthouse living” with “loft”, “condo” or “lifestyle community” and the text could be slotted into the next project to hit the weekend paper.

Depending on decorating taste, your eyes may be thankful for the decision to make this a black and white ad, given the loudness of the “luxury wallpapers” in this “opulent bathroom.” Is the tenant pointing into space, admiring her new surroundings or relieved that she found the mirror in the midst of everything? Conversely, the decor may provide cozy memories of homes you grew up in or your first snazzy pad.

Note the prominent placement of the toilet paper dispenser—was the photographer passing subliminal judgement?

While current enticements to potential tenants include free TVs and time-restricted reduced parking rates, this company capitalized on the recent opening of Fairview Mall (then anchored by Simpsons and The Bay) by offering a shuttle service. Today, residents further south in Don Mills have use of a shuttle to the mall in the wake of the demolition of the Don Mills Centre.

Source: Toronto Life, September 1970