A Natural Benefit of an Extended Municipal Strike

Originally published on Torontoist on July 16, 2009.

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“Naturalized Area” sign erected in Windsor. Photo courtesy of Broken City Lab.

 

We’ve heard a fair bit about the state of Toronto’s parks during the current municipal strike. Most tales have tended toward the negative, from fears of contamination stemming from temporary garbage depots to the unattractive aesthetic state that some green spaces have fallen into. But what if the withholding of certain services led to a positive effect on the local environment?
Over the course of the fourteen-week CUPE strike in Windsor, the lack of grooming at many of the city’s parks has resulted in new swaths of grassland meadows, where wildflowers, birds, and insects have quickly settled. While the initial stages of the transformation drew angry responses from Windsor residents, both the city and the local media are receiving positive feedback about the naturalization effect. Birdwatchers are enjoying the opportunity to observe grassland species like bobolinks that have rarely been seen in Windsor in recent years, while other residents have praised the experience of walking by and hearing the hissing of tall grasses.
Broken City Lab, a group of artists/community activists, took a look at several of the naturalized sites and developed signage to highlight the new wilderness areas, as signs seem to formalize the presence of these locations. The first, shown above, was erected this week near the approach to the Ambassador Bridge. According to Broken City Lab Research Director Justin Langlois, the group hopes that placing these signs “might encourage someone walking by to look at these accidental meadows for what they are—a wonderful addition to the landscape—rather than such a politically charged issue.”
As for the fate of the signs once the strike ends? According to Langlois,

It’d be great for them to come down and for areas just to remain in their current state, but I’m not sure how well that would be read in the city. The University of Windsor had a similar problem where they created a berm around their football field stadium and planted trees on the berm. The grounds maintenance crew didn’t want to try to cut the berm, due to the incline, much less while zipping around trees, so they inadvertently created a naturalized area. The community responded with a number of comments to the effect of, “It looks messy,” so the University erected a large green sign that reads in white letters, Naturalized Area. It’s kind of funny that it takes a sign to make it all okay, but that’s part of what made us do this project, this question about would a simple 8.5″ x11″ sign make this naturalized area acceptable, would it momentarily diffuse whatever is politically charged when looking at it otherwise?

Windsor residents may continue to enjoy several of the naturalized areas in the long run. The city parks department has announced that once the strike ends, the city is considering leaving up to two hundred acres in large, open parks in their newfound state.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Long term, the 2009 municipal strike in Toronto helped pave the way for Rob Ford to become mayor. Polling afterwards showed a majority of Torontonians felt Miller mishandled the strike, a sentiment which may have played a role in his decision not to run for a third term in 2010.

A Collection of Heroes and Villains

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For most of my time with Torontoist, the holiday season meant rounding up Toronto’s heroes and villains for the year. Some choices were obvious, others were hotly debated during staff meetings. Feeling drained by the time December rolled around, I usually stuck to my comfort zones (heritage matters, media), feeling that other writers were better at articulating hot button cultural and political issues.

It took time for me to grow comfortable with writing opinionated pieces. When I worked for the University of Guelph’s student newspaper, the section editors had the opportunity to write editorials. My lone contribution was one of the weakest, being little more than griping about aggressive PR people I had to deal with while handling the arts section (I was probably too afraid to write anything stronger, given the toxic atmosphere in that office). Later on, I always feared any opinions might come off as too trite, too weak, and too bland for anybody to care about. I can be a slow, deliberate thinker, and it has taken years to develop many of my viewpoints.

Let’s dive into my contributions to Heroes and Villains. I did not contribute during my first two years with the site (2007-2008) and certain I skipped 2009 (though it’s hard to say, given the individual entries have vanished from the interwebs – here’s the list). To replace the original artwork, I’ll use a mix of photos and appropriate vintage illustrations.

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“The defendants before the court.” Illustration by Eugene Lampsonius. Oevres illustrées de Balzac, vol. 1-2 by Honoré de Balzac (Paris: Gustave Havard, Maresq et Companie, 1851). Old Book Illustrations.

2010 Villain: Rob Ford’s Campaign Team

Originally published on Torontoist on December 17, 2010.

Pundits and voters who held low opinions of Rob Ford during the municipal election campaign had to admit that his brain trust did a brilliant job of capitalizing on voter anger and the lacklustre campaigns of his opponents to win the mayor’s chair for the outspoken Etobicoke councillor. Beyond appeals to the “little guy” and catchphrases like the focus-grouped “gravy train,” tactics employed in the march to victory by now–Ford Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis and his associates at Campaign Research demonstrated a disconcerting willingness to achieve their goals by any means possible.

When the Ford camp learned the Star possessed the recording of a potentially damaging telephone conversation in which the candidate promised to find OxyContin for constituent Dieter Doneit-Henderson, Deputy Communications Officer Fraser Macdonald jumped into gear—and invented a person, Karen Philby (a.k.a. QueensQuayKaren), a George Smitherman supporter who spouted political views on Twitter. While Philby (whose last name, shared with a Cold War spy, might have tipped off her purpose in life) quickly achieved her intended goal—securing the Ford campaign its own copy of the conversation from Doneit-Henderson—she continued to post tasteful barbs directed at the other candidates (such as referring to Sarah Thomson as a “bitch”).

Philby also proved useful in undermining other candidacies. As “will he or won’t he” stories filled the press regarding John Tory’s intentions, the Ford campaign devised ways to keep him out of the fray, since they figured much of their support would gravitate to Tory if he ran. The methods ran from the mildly amusing (a YouTube video demonstrating Tory’s lack of superpowers when it came to stopping out-of-control gravy trains) to the deceptive: a Ford staffer called into Tory’s CFRB radio show as Philby to attack the host’s integrity.

Now that Ford occupies the mayor’s chair, we wonder what further shenanigans will be deployed to sway public opinion or neutralize opponents. Will a “Gloria Burgess” or “Donna MacLean” step forward to try to embarrass or derail Ford’s enemies? If the campaign was a preview of what’s to come, Ford’s key staff may score points among hardcore devotees and political junkies for the cunning of their tactics, but also further deepen cynicism about politicians in general and about City Hall in particular. We hope what we saw on the campaign trail does not foreshadow four years of dirty politics that use up energy that would be better expended solving the problems of the mayor’s cherished taxpayers.

UPDATE: The Rob Ford era…le sigh. When John Tory won the mayoralty in 2014, one of his campaign advisers was Nick Kouvalis.

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Portrait of William Lyon Mackenzie. Toronto Public Library.

2010 Hero: Shawn Micallef

Originally published on Torontoist on December 22, 2010.

In the foreword to his book, Stroll, Shawn Micallef notes that Torontonians have convinced themselves that our city is underwhelming compared to those world-class ones, such that “we don’t expect to turn the corner and see beauty or be amazed.” Yet Micallef, in an ever-growing number of media outlets (Eye WeeklySpacingYonge Street), uses his sharp observational skills to discover the city’s hidden treasures. In a year in which the media, politicians, and other naysayers suggested that everything in Toronto is broken, Micallef’s curiosity and keen interest in Toronto’s virtues injected a necessary and refreshing optimism.

Stroll, published this year, compiles stories drawn from Micallef’s psychogeographical walks across the city, ranging from the parking lots of Pearson Airport to the tip of the Leslie Spit. Readers gain a sense of the sheer size of the city and are taken to unexpected spots, like the middle of Highway 401 above Hogg’s Hollow. The stories he tells in the book, along with those featured in his Eye columns, weave together history and urbanism, and empathize with the residents of the locales he wanders through.
Micallef’s writing acknowledges the suburbs without denigrating them or deepening the divide between the inner and outer city. Instead, he creates connections between these geographies, mapping the relationships between all who inhabit the GTA. When he went to Etobicoke to cover one of Rob Ford’s campaign barbecues for Eye, Micallef did not mock or demonize those attending, as a journalist for a downtown-based alt-weekly might stereotypically be tempted to do, but portrayed the attendees as normal human beings enjoying their evening. While Micallef irritated several followers on Twitter for not etching those around him as illiterate cavemen, as though the writing were already on the wall, the piece demonstrated his ability to see beyond the echo chamber and understand why people might support somebody who most of his audience finds repulsive.

Micallef’s impish sense of humour was comedic relief during the long, dreary municipal election campaign. For most of the year, he successfully disguised himself as the city’s firebrand first mayor on Twitter: @rebelmayor. While other observers defined the negative tone of the race, @rebelmayor defiantly functioned as a court jester whose mock campaign updates and serious barbs at candidates (those most voters would have also aimed muskets at if given the opportunity) provided a release for the frustrations of the electorate. Though @rebelmayor has been retired for the moment, Micallef’s commentary continues under his own handle on Twitter: after Ford officially assumed office, Micallef encouraged Torontonians to act on their libertarian impulses regardless of how silly they were.

Given how the next four years at City Hall are promising to shape up, we’ll need all the comic relief we can find. Toronto will also need more people like Micallef who are not afraid to defy the defeatists and express what they love about the city.

UPDATE: As of 2018, Micallef is a columnist with the Toronto Star. @rebelmayor pops up once in a while.

Here are the ultimate winners of the competition, along with links to all of the entries.

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The Telegram, September 14, 1965.

2011 Hero: City Hall Deputants

Originally published on Torontoist on December 12, 2011.

One of Rob Ford’s major accomplishments during his first year in office has been to provoke greater engagement in civic government. The mayor’s zeal for cutting City services has energized citizens to defend programs they believe are vital to Toronto’s well-being. If there was a point when any honeymoon Ford had was over, it was during the deputations given at the marathon Executive Committee session in July. As we summed up at the time, “It was the most important slumber party held in Toronto in years.”

Over the course of almost 24 hours on July 28 and 29, 169 citizens commented on service cuts proposed in the Core Service Review report. Speakers were not the lazy, unemployed types that several executive committee members attempted to portray them to be. Many had never addressed city council before and endured insults and reductions in their speaking time. From teary-eyed teens to neurosurgeons, the deputants represented all corners and social strata of the city.

Among the highlights was a speech dripping in Swiftean satire from retired educator Mary Trapani Hines. Her performance quickly went viral, inspired the “yellygranny” tag on Twitter, and possibly encouraged more people to go to City Hall to witness the rest of the session. Other theatrics included a visit from Santa, and puppet show that caused Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti to declare that some deputants were disrespecting council.

But it was councillors like Mammoliti who were being disrespectful. While claiming it was a great exercise in democracy, Mayor Ford paid scant attention to the speakers. Attempts to thin the deputant ranks ranged from running an all-night session to Mammoliti’s insistence that City staff determine if disabled participants were faking their incapacities. These obstacles mattered little when the hardcore Fordites were shown for the fools they were as the testimonials rolled on and a celebratory spirit developed within City Hall.

In the months since these deputations, opposition to the Ford administration’s brain trust has gained momentum as other citizens gained the confidence to fight them—witness the success of CodeBlueTO in derailing a new vision for the waterfront. Another marathon Executive Committee session in September saw an almost equal number of people speak. Early indications are that the voting on proposed City budget cuts won’t go smoothly. Most importantly, the deputants showed that Torontonians aren’t accepting the Ford Nation vision of them as mere taxpayers but instead are citizens who care about the services that make this city their home.

UPDATE: Giorgio Mammoliti was defeated in the 2018 municipal election. It will be interesting to see if the repercussions of Premier Doug Ford’s downsizing of city council and other acts against the city will cause a similar cycle of public pushbacks in 2019 and beyond.

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“Compositor at his case.” Illustrated by E. Bourdelin. Les grandes usines, volume 1 by Julien Turgan (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1875). Old Book Illustrations.

2011 Villain: Sun Media

Originally published on Torontoist on December 21, 2011.

When the Toronto Sun sought a new comment page editor in October (a job filled by former Rob Ford press secretary Adrienne Batra), one requirement was an understanding of the paper’s self-mythologized role as “an organization with edge and attitude that sticks up for the little guy.” Problem is, Sun Media’s shameless support of right-wing politicians who gut programs supporting the vulnerable and who distort facts to play to their ideological base is screwing the little guy.

Decisions to pull its papers out of the Ontario Press Council and to mercilessly attack the CBC reveal a desire to be accountable to no one, especially when Sun Media’s properties bully those they perceive as different or not aligned with their world view. Their refusal to apologize for running a transphobic ad during the Ontario provincial election reconfirmed the organization’s perennially poor relations with the queer community. April’s launch of the Sun News Network brought a Fox News mentality to Canada’s airwaves, complete with guest-haranguing anchors. Krista Erickson’s vicious attack on dancer Margie Gillis for receiving government grants, which Sun Media’s corporate parent Quebecor has been known to accept, prompted thousands of complaints to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

The Gillis incident illustrates Sun Media’s desperation to grab attention by any means. Despite the Sun’s “Welcome to Hell” cover following Dalton McGuinty’s re-election, a ring of fire hasn’t encircled Ontario. While most of Jack Layton’s political opponents paid their respects during the public outpouring of grief following his death, Sun News Network outfitted provocateur Ezra Levant with a garish orange wig and cans of Orange Crush while he and Michael Coren mocked people’s genuine feelings.

To the surprise of few, the Sun emerged as an unofficial City Hall mouthpiece this year. The paper and its City Hall columnist Sue-Ann Levy share the Ford administration’s view of Torontonians as taxpayers first, citizens who appreciate social services, the arts, and fire protection second. Levy’s unwavering support of the gravy hunt and her sycophantic attacks on administration opponents make us wonder if secretly she’s a satirist pulling an elaborate joke on everyone.

But it’s Sun Media’s consumers who are being played for fools. By ratcheting up the outrage to appeal to those who hate to see anyone receive any (perceived) advantage over themselves, and creating resentment of any use of public funds for purposes that its readers feel provide no direct personal benefit, Sun Media’s properties appeal to the worst in human nature. They prey upon our anger and foster a fear of those who don’t share their views or fit into their preferred societal norms. Sun Media’s revered “little guy” would do better to educate himself elsewhere on the nuances of issues that affect him than be patronizingly urged to direct his frustrations in destructive ways.

UPDATE: Postmedia bought the Sun papers in 2014. Sun News Network folded in early 2015. As the Toronto Sun was the heir to the Telegram upon that newspaper’s demise, it can be argued The Rebel was SNN’s offspring. The outrage expressed by the Sun has only grown shriller since this article was written.

Roundups of 2011’s other heroes and villains.

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Checking out the former location of centre ice in the Maple Leaf Gardens Loblaws, November 2012. 

2012 Hero: Maple Leaf Gardens

Originally published on Torontoist on December 9, 2012.

It probably comes as a relief to many hockey fans that Ryerson University has been using part of Maple Leaf Gardens as an arena since the Mattamy Athletic Centre opened in September. The reminders of the building’s past are all around you: from the recreation of the old marquee above the entrance, to the walls of photos of memorable moments, to the row of old seats lining the wall by the escalator.

At street level, the Loblaws store, which opened in November 2011, also mixes past and present. Beyond the wall of cheese and specialty food counters, the store’s pillars commemorate important dates in Gardens history. You can look at old newspaper wrestling ads while sitting down with a coffee. Centre ice is quietly marked with a red dot in the middle of aisle 25, though we hope staff haven’t been called too many times to clean up broken bottles of soy sauce from the adjoining shelf. There’s a hanging sculpture made from a jumble of salvaged arena seating. Even the parking garage is decorated with names of sports teams from the past.

The current state of Maple Leaf Gardens is a large-scale example of what can happen when a heritage building’s new owners embrace the structure’s past, rather than treat it with token recognition. Even future bookings, such as the upcoming Ontario Liberal leadership convention, harken back to the political events that regularly graced the Gardens. The site’s deep resonance with the public probably helped in its renewal. One can only imagine the outrage if the Gardens had suffered the fate of 81 Wellesley Street, which was suddenly knocked down in January before it could receive a heritage designation.

For years after the Toronto Rock played their last game there in 2000, we wondered if Maple Leaf Gardens was going to rot away. Former owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment might have been satisfied with that fate, given its reluctance to sell the Gardens to anyone who posed the remotest threat to the Air Canada Centre’s event bookings. As recently as last year, MLSE filed a lawsuit against Ryerson to prevent the university from using the name “Maple Leaf Gardens” for promotional purposes. Ultimately MLSE’s obsession with the bottom line won’t prevent the public from referring to the building by that name: we still call the Rogers Centre “SkyDome,” after all.

Besides, as long as the NHL lockout continues, the Gardens can boast it has hockey games. The Air Canada Centre can’t.

UPDATE: The NHL lockout ended the following month.

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“The shriek of Timidity.” “The defendants before the court.” Illustration by Gustave Doré. The days of chivalry, or the legend of Croquemitane by Ernest L’Épine (New York: Cassell Petter and Galpin, c. 1866). Old Book Illustrations.

2012 Villain: Extreme NIMBYism

Originally published on Torontoist on December 10, 2012.

Condos will destroy neighbourhoods, blot out the sun, and reduce my property values. Rapid transit lines in the middle of wide suburban streets and bike lines on busy downtown arteries will cripple my commute by minutes. Change will kill my comfortable lifestyle and bring strange new people into my community.

Those are effectively the arguments provided by the loudest, NIMBYest opponents of building and transit projects around the city. While there are many people who offer reasoned, carefully thought-out arguments for and against new construction plans, they are often drowned out by those driven by fear, innuendo, and sound bites. The result over the past year has seen ugly battles in neighbourhoods stretching from Humbertown to the Beach.

There is little space left within the city to develop the classic single-family homes that characterized Toronto’s neighbourhoods until the middle of the 20th century. To cope with an ever-increasing population, the city needs to build up. This does not mean 45-storey towers everywhere: smaller-scale projects like the proposed six-storey condo causing havoc in the Beach provide one solution. Yet, to hear the loudest opponents of that project, even a small condo will destroy the community’s character.

What these people forget is that Toronto neighbourhoods have changed before: Jarvis and Sherbourne streets were once the preserve of the ultra-wealthy, Cabbagetown was a slum, Liberty Village was industrial, and the suburbs were farmland or small settlements. Even if they benefitted from a wave of gentrification that shaped their neighbourhood into the comfortable community they know now, these people expect things to remain static. Like it or not, the “villages” they live in are part of the city and cannot stay removed from its overall infrastructure issues.

The true ugliness of the loudest NIMBYs emerges when the economic homogeneity of their neighbourhood is challenged, prompting fear of what even a slightly more economically diverse neighbourhood might mean. At one community meeting regarding Humbertown recently, one proponent of a proposed residential development was told to “get a job” when he argued it would keep area prices affordable. That kind of fear is ugly, and unfair.

In these cases all parties—tenants, homeowners, developers, designers, activists, and bureaucrats—need to put kneejerk, defensive, and reactionary responses aside and work together, to arrive solutions that benefit whole neighbourhoods in the long run. Painful as the process can be, it’s better to work the kinks out of a development proposal than obstinately block it, and better to accept that change is a healthy part of life in a healthy city than to reject even small alterations to the landscape as gross betrayals.

UPDATE: Roundups of 2012’s other heroes and villains.

 

2013 Hero: Church Street Parklets

Originally published on Torontoist on December 30, 2013.

A parklet is, as the name suggests, a teeny tiny baby park. Generally an extension or reuse of existing space, like a sidewalk or a parking spot, it’s a small sliver of the street that’s used to provide greenery and public enjoyment. As we observed earlier this year: “The idea isn’t to promote recreation. Instead, the goal is to reclaim space for pedestrians and idlers and bring vibrancy back to streets that have been dominated by automotive traffic. Building a parklet is a means of creating a sidewalk cafe atmosphere, even—especially—in places where there aren’t any sidewalk cafes.”

A series of parklets was installed this summer along Church Street, in Church-Wellesley Village, as a test run for similar street infrastructure initiatives planned for World Pride in 2014. Backed by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) and the local BIA because of its constructive use of public space and potential to boost local businesses, the project found sponsors in Home Depot and a carpenter’s union. They were installed in a flash, as well: to observers like the Star’s Christopher Hume, their speedy implementation marked a break from the city’s traditionally timid approach to such experimentation.

Beyond offering lounging space from which to watch the city pass by, the parklets offer a glimpse of how we can make streets more amenable to all. Traffic flow improves when fewer drivers block the road with complicated parallel-parking manoeuvres; friends running into each other can move into a parklet to talk without disrupting the pedestrian flow or inducing sidewalk rage.

We’d be happy if similar initiatives to reclaim public space spread across the city. While there’d inevitably be complaints that losing a handful of parking spots would provoke a disaster of St. Clair-ish proportions, we suspect most people would latch on to the parklets—perhaps then, most complaints would take the form of sighing over filled seats.

UPDATE: While parklets didn’t return to Church Street after 2013, they made summer appearances on Elm Street for several years.

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Goad’s map of Corktown area, 1884. 

2013 Hero: Corktown Common

Originally published on Torontoist on December 31, 2013.

The appeal of Corktown Common is as simple as getting to hear the rhythm of frogs who live there. The chorus of croaks emerging from its marshes on a hot summer night temporarily transports you from a heavy construction zone to somewhere far from the city lights.

Though the park won’t be finished until 2014, the sneak preview we enjoyed this summer demonstrates how aesthetic, environmental, and recreational needs can be realized and met in a space Torontonians can be proud of. Adults appreciate the effort Waterfront Toronto made to create a varied green landscape; kids can run wild up and down the knolls, glide down the built-in slides, or go for relaxing swings; cyclists riding the Don or Martin Goodman trails are able to fill their water bottles or take a stretch. (We also recommend just lying on the grassy field and staring up at the clouds). When residents move into the condos rising to the west, we imagine the park will become a community gathering place, an oasis amid the desert of concrete and glass.

July’s intense downpour tested one of the park’s major purposes, which is to function as a berm by protecting downtown from the effects of flooding along the Don River. It passed the test, holding back the waters that trapped commuters and motorists in the lower Don Valley.

Corktown Common demonstrates the viability of Waterfront Toronto’s efforts to improve our lower shoreline, do so in a way that’s enjoyable as well as functional—and in the process, increases our excitement about the many other projects they still have in the works.

UPDATE: It’s still a great park.

I don’t remember the reason why I didn’t contribute a villain in 2013 – either I was nearing my fill of the City Hall gong show by that point, or felt it was better to stick to positive contributions.

Roundups of 2013’s other heroes and villains.

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Grounds of Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Cultural Centre, May 2015.

2014 Hero: The Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Cultural Centre

Originally published on Torontoist on December 22, 2014.

The need for an institution such as the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre, which opened in September, was brought into relief during this year’s municipal election. Anti-Muslim incidents, including sign defacing and slurs, underlined the usefulness of a bridge-building complex. Though bigoted louts probably won’t venture near it, the complex’s role as a cultural centre has great potential to, according to its mission statement, “foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage. Through education, research, and collaboration, the Museum will foster dialogue and promote tolerance and mutual understanding among people.”

Though controversial in some circles for bringing about the destruction of John B. Parkin’s 1960s modernist Bata Shoes Head Office, the complex at the Eglinton Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway has the potential to become a new architectural landmark—much as Mies van der Rohe’s iconic steel and glass Toronto-Dominion Centre did after replacing the Beaux Arts–influenced Bank of Toronto headquarters 50 years ago. Like that project, the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre has architectural heavy hitters behind it, including Fumihiko Maki, Charles Correa, and Moriyama and Teshima.

“Don Mills once was a locus for innovation in architecture and planning,” Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic noted, “with offices and warehouse buildings designed by some of Canada’s top architects in the 1960s. That modernist legacy has been badly diluted by new buildings, but the absurdly fine quality of the museum and Ismaili Centre will set a new standard.”

The items displayed in the museum, which has been touted as the first in North America devoted solely to Islamic art, literally provide a colourful take on the culture. Among the most impressive items are painted, lavishly illustrated manuscripts. Cross-cultural influences stand out, whether through works inspired by local cultures or in Iranian paintings that would not have looked out of place in Renaissance Europe.

For once, Toronto may have received just the kind of world-class institution it covets.

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Fort York, 1885. Toronto Public Library.

2014 Hero: The Fort York Neighbourhood

Originally published on Torontoist on December 23, 2014.

For years, it seemed as if Frederick Gardiner had had the last laugh. Though attempts to move Fort York to make way for the Gardiner Expressway failed during the 1950s, the historical site’s location, hemmed in by traffic jams in the middle of an industrial neighbourhood, did it few favours. But thanks to recent developments, the old military grounds now sit at the heart of a revitalized area of the city.

The big news from Fort York itself was the opening of its new visitor centre in September. Though still incomplete, the structure offers a visually stunning space for exhibits and other educational activities. The result of a partnership between Vancouver’s Patkau Architects and Toronto’s Kearns Mancini Architects, it has been described by the Globe and Mail as “part building, part landscape” due to its string of steel rectangular panels.

This year’s edition of Nuit Blanche took advantage of the space within the fort’s grounds (even if the entrances did create bottlenecks), as well as nearby parks such as Canoe Landing. These green spaces offer a place of respite for visitors and incoming residents amid the condo towers rising nearby—and more are in the works, including Mouth of the Creek Park. The chain of parks creates public space and pedestrian corridors, even if the Ford administration did manage to stymie progress through actions such as delaying the construction of a bridge to Garrison Common.

To serve the community’s creative, intellectual, and social needs, the Toronto Public Library opened a two-storey branch across from the fort in May. The branch offers amenities such as a digital innovation hub (complete with 3D printing) and architectural features such as wooden ceiling beams that honour the area’s historic wharves—and it has filled the large library desert that was created by the closure of the Urban Affairs Library in 2011.

While the neighbourhood emerging around Fort York will experience growing pains, it seems poised to integrate itself at last into the fabric of the city.

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Cartoon of Olivia Chow by Andy Donato, originally published in the Toronto Sun.

2014 Villain: Not-So-Latent Bigotry on the Campaign Trail

Originally published on Torontoist on December 23, 2014.

“Diversity Our Strength.” Toronto’s official motto reflects our idealized image of the city as a shining beacon of multiculturalism and tolerance. Yet, as Rob Ford’s mayoralty proved, a significant segment of the population finds bigotry and divisiveness palatable.

Public displays of intolerance marred the recent municipal election campaign. During the mayoral race, Olivia Chow faced a steady stream of slurs about her ethnicity. Some questioned her speaking ability, referencing her accent and the slow speed of her talking—the latter the result of partial facial paralysis. During a debate at York Memorial High School, a heckler told Chow to go back to China. The Sun lowered the conversation by publishing an Andy Donato cartoon depicting a Mao-suited Chow riding the coattails of her late husband Jack Layton (the paper lamely defended it by claiming it always depicted NDPers in the garb preferred by historic Chinese dictators). Whatever your opinion of Chow’s campaign, these attacks were despicable.

So too was the anti-Muslim bigotry that reared its head in ward races. Running in the heart of Ford Nation, Ward 2 candidate Munira Abukar saw her campaign signs defaced with messages such as “Go Back Home.” In Ward 10 (York Centre), TDSB trustee candidate Ausma Malik was targeted by opponents who tried to depict her as a supporter of fundamentalists. Candidates also reported car window smashings and garbage tossed on volunteers.

In the wake of these incidents, front-running candidates had little or nothing to add. As Torontoist’s Desmond Cole observed, “If diversity is our strength, why do political candidates believe they will lose ground for publicly condemning racism?” Pandering to the basest instincts of some voters encourages the ignorant and intolerant and demeans our public discourse—and so does remaining silent.

UPDATE: Roundups of 2014’s other heroes and villains.

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The City, June 18, 1978.

2015 Villain: Paul Godfrey

Originally published on Torontoist on January 4, 2016.

Since debuting as a fresh-faced, twenty-something North York city councillor in 1964, Paul Godfrey has, for better or worse, played a key role in shaping modern Toronto. Since early crusades against “sip n’ sex” at fast food drive-ins, Godfrey has rarely shied away from controversy. During half-a-century in the public eye, he became a consummate networker and backroom operator, especially in local Conservative circles. He often jokes about a line his mother told him as youngster: “When you have your choice in life between smart and lucky, take lucky all the time.”

That luck produced an impressive string of top-level jobs: chairman of Metropolitan Toronto, publisher/CEO of the Toronto Sun, president/CEO of the Blue Jays, chair of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, chair of the board of trustees of RioCan, and now president/CEO of Postmedia. But his track record has sometimes raised questions regarding whose interests he works for. This is a guy who promoted amalgamation, Mel Lastman, and our desperate need for a casino.

This year was not one of Godfrey’s better ones. His ham-fisted support of the Conservatives during the federal election campaign made a laughingstock of the country’s largest newspaper for the Tories regardless of the opinions of local editorial staff. Andrew Coyne resigned as comment editor of the National Post after a column was spiked for his support of another party. Reeking of desperation, the front page of the chain’s papers bore a Tory attack ad during the final weekend of the campaign. Readers and employees were disgusted, while the competition (including Toronto Star chair of the board John Honderich) had a field day attacking Godfrey’s disregard for freedom of the press.

While Postmedia newsrooms were slashed and its papers hemorrhaged circulation, Godfrey and other officials didn’t exactly share in the pain. A total of $925,000 in bonuses was paid to its top six executives, some of which stemmed from the acquisition of Sun Media, which closed this spring. The optics of these payments, including the $400,000 given to Godfrey, did little to improve Postmedia’s optics in an industry in crisis. He was paid a total of $1.76 million for his trouble, thus living up to his mother’s adage about luck.

Godfrey has enjoyed a long run wielding the levers of power. It’s time to turn them over to somebody else.

UPDATE: As of 2018, Godfrey is still at Postmedia, where he continues to draw a healthy paycheque.

Roundups of 2015’s heroes and villains.

I declined to contribute to 2016’s batch, which proved to be the final edition. By that point I was only writing Historicist for the site, slowly edging toward my decision to leave Torontoist for good.

What would a 2018 edition of Heroes and Villains look like? A few candidates would be obvious. Doug Ford would be high on the villain side, for any number of reasons. I put out a call for suggestions via Facebook and Twitter, and here’s what came back:
2018 Heroes
Ulli Watkiss
Tanya Talaga
Kyle Lowry
Austin Matthews
Overdose prevention activists
Candidates in the 47-ward council race
Chanty Marostica
2018 Villains
Doug Ford
Ontario Proud
Dean French
Faith Goldy
Giorgio Mammoliti
Sidewalk Labs
Sky Gilbert

Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rosedale Field and the First Grey Cup

This is an expanded version of an article which first appeared as The Grid’s “Ghost City” column on November 20, 2012.

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Rosedale Field clubhouse, November 30, 1921. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 615.

During World War II, Montreal-based Park Steamship Company decided to name additions to its war cargo fleet after neighbourhood parks across Canada. Among those chosen were Hillcrest and Rosedale. Assigned to write historical plaques about each park, poet P.K. Page contacted Toronto civic officials for background information. Parks commissioner Charles E. Chambers provided Page the info she required, but noted at the end of a March 27, 1944 letter that “neither park has any historical importance.”

Chambers forgot Rosedale Park’s key role in Canadian football history. This might be understandable, as the Grey Cup’s debut there on December 4, 1909 was an anti-climatic affair. Fans and media expended their energy during the semi-final at the park the previous week, when the heavily-favoured Ottawa Rough Riders were trounced by the University of Toronto Varsity Blues 31-7 in front of a crowd of 11,000 spectators forced to sit 15 deep around the field. Among those playing for U of T were future Ontario chief coroner Smirle Lawson and future Ontario Rugby Union head Billy Foulds.

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Toronto Star, December 6, 1909.

By comparison, only 3,807 spectators barely flowed out of the grandstand to watch U of T defeat the Parkdale Canoe Club 26-6. Though it was anticipated that the Parkdale squad would be steamrolled, a close score during the first quarter prompted headlines like the Star’s “Parkdale Gave Varsity an Interesting Argument.” The World observed that “the interest in the struggle was probably the least ever shown” in a football final. “Even the college contingent lacked spirit, and choruses led by the Highlanders’ band were half-hearted.”

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Toronto World, December 5, 1909.

There wasn’t even a trophy to hand to the victors; it took a series of frustrated letters from football officials to Grey’s staff to produce the $48 bowl made by Birks jewellers handed to the champs three months later.

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The News, December 6, 1909.

Rosedale Park’s association with athletics stretches back to May 24, 1892, when it officially opened as the Rosedale Lacrosse Grounds. “It is safe to say that the majority of those who attended the grounds yesterday for the first time expected to confront a bare open area, with a grandstand and high board fence as necessary adjuncts,” the Mail reported. “What they did see was a revelation. Five acres of beautifully levelled and sodded ground, broken only by an oval track of a third mile in circumference, by a picturesque club building, and by low division fences, was the scene immediately facing them.” The grandstand held 3,000 spectators, while another 2,000 people filled the grounds to watch Toronto fall to Montreal three games to two in the day’s lacrosse action.

Those disappointed by the home team’s loss during the debut lacrosse match found other distractions during the opening festivities. “The presence of a large number of Toronto’s most charming belles was a noticeable feature,” the Mail noted. “The galaxy of beauty which congregated on the grandstand was enough to turn the head of even the most experienced among the players.”

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Rosedale Park, July 1, 1921. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 52, Item 947.

The site was purchased by the city from the Toronto Lacrosse and Athletic Association in 1917. Following the First World War it considered as a site for a new municipal stadium, but the location was considered too isolated. Arguments over the site’s suitability led to tons of wasted newsprint on the editorial pages of the Star and the Telegram. The grandstand disappeared, leaving more space for sports like cricket, high school football, ice hockey, lawn bowling, and tennis. A few athletic organizations, like the Toronto Track and Field Club, wore out their welcome with neighbours and city parks officials. Despite being denied a permit to continue practicing running and pole jumping on the grounds in 1951, the “Red Devils” continued to use Rosedale Park. Living up to their nickname by hurling “ungentlemanly remarks” at park staff and hanging around the fieldhouse after closing time didn’t help the group’s appeals to Parks and Recreation. After arrangements were made to move the club to Varsity Stadium, the pole vaulting pit was quickly filled in lest they return.

Most complaints about the park during the 1940s and 1950s were directed at the aging fieldhouse. Clubs battled for precious dressing room space—by 1950, women had to use a small lobby to change after a cricket club took over their quarters. The city rejected a request from the Highland Tennis Club to build an addition from fear other users would request their own extensions. Neighbours complained about smoke from the coal-fired building due to a lower-grade rock introduced during World War II continued to be used. The building was eventually replaced by the current clubhouse, which includes changing facilities and offices for the Rosedale Tennis Club.

One of the most tragic events in Rosedale Park’s sporting history occurred on October 25, 1960. During a football game against Jarvis Collegiate, North Toronto Collegiate halfback John Ellwood received a hard hit to the head. After continuing for two more plays, he left the field complaining of a headache. When his coach told Ellwood to tilt his head back, he slumped forward with a brain hemorrhage. Five hours of surgery followed at Wellesley Hospital, but Ellwood never regained consciousness, remaining in a coma until his death in 1972.

The park remains a central part of North Rosedale’s leisure time. For decades it has hosted the Mayfair community celebration. Twenty-first century upgrades include new playground equipment and a revamped historical plaque honouring the first Grey Cup. If he had been on hand for the plaque’s unveiling, Charles Chambers would have eaten his words about the park’s lack of history.

Additional material from the October 20, 1959 and January 1, 1963 editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 25, 1892 edition of the Toronto Daily Mail; the December 6, 1909 edition of the Toronto Star; and the December 5, 1909 of the Toronto World.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Please Walk on the Grass

Originally published on Torontoist on July 8, 2015.

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Key to Toronto, August 1970. 

As the 1970s approached, Toronto seemed primed to throw off its old cold, unfriendly shackles. The puritanical laws which had cut down on fun, especially regarding alcohol or doing anything on a Sunday, were slowly loosening. The city’s increasingly multicultural mix boosted the number of summer festivals residents enjoyed, opening new worlds to tourists and long-time Torontonians alike. This thawing may have inspired tourism officials to promote our town as “The Friendly City,” even if making that a reality took baby steps.

One huge leap seen in today’s ad was made a decade earlier, one which grabbed attention across North America: erecting signs in Metro Toronto parks urging users to “please walk on the grass.”

The signs were the brainchild of Metro Parks Commissioner Tommy Thompson. Hired as the department’s first employee in July 1955, Thompson spent the next two decades cultivating the region’s natural beauty into over 7,800 acres for the public to enjoy. “We saw our job as wilderness management,” Thompson told Weekend magazine in 1972. “Letting the land express what it was meant to express.” Instead of installing elements like baseball diamonds, Thompson saw the mix of open spaces and flora as places where people could just enjoy themselves.

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A map spotlighting recreational spots around Metro, including some of the parks under the direction of Tommy Thompson. Toronto Star, May 6, 1967.

Thompson also believed that problems such as vandalism could be reduced if you encouraged people to use the parks and didn’t present them with long lists of fineable offences. According to a 1958 Star editorial, Thompson “holds the revolutionary theory that people go to parks for the freedom from the thousands of niggling restrictions that hem in urbanized man as much as for the fresh air and sunlight.” He encouraged activities like tree climbing, as long as the plants could support it. He even thought that lovebirds carving their initials into a tree was charming:

A young couple are madly in love with each other and in the park they carve their initials together on a tree. Now, 20 years later, they return to that spot, maybe with a few children, and they look into each other’s eyes and relive that wonderful, youthful moment of love. I’ll be damned if I stand in the way of that.

During a meeting in 1969, Thompson was challenged on his assertion that one could take a 10.5 km walk through the geographic centre of Toronto without crossing a paved street. To prove his point, he led up to 400 people on a stroll through the central Don park system. This began a long series of walks with the public, where he pointed out natural highlights with his wooden snake adorned walking stick.

Not everyone admired Thompson’s commitment to expanding green space. He supported the eviction of the remaining residents of the Toronto Islands to create more parkland. There were also signs of a thin skin, as he sometimes threatened to quit whenever his decisions were challenged publicly. Generally, he was regarded as an able administrator called in to fix administrative problems, especially at the Metro Toronto Zoo, where he served as director between 1978 and 1981.

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The impact of the sign’s message lives on, as seen in this ad promoting other municipal environmental efforts. Globe and Mail, May 31, 2002.

When Thompson died in 1985, everyone referred to his “please walk on the grass” signs, which he admitted came about after he told a sign company to change the wording on what were supposed to be “keep off the grass” warnings. The growing parkland along the Leslie Street spit was named Tommy Thompson Park in his honour.

Additional material from the August 17, 1965, April 14, 1982, and March 2, 1985 editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 18, 1958 and March 1, 1985 editions of the Toronto Star; and the June 17, 1972 edition of Weekend.

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.

No Whining at the Toronto Park Summit

Originally published on Torontoist on February 24, 2014.

Nobody likes a whiner. Complaining is part of activism, but advocates for causes like public parks must ensure that their words are supported by concrete actions and a positive, constructive approach to problems before bureaucrats will take them seriously. This was one of the points discussed during Saturday’s Toronto Park Summit organized by Park People.

“Telling a city what to do all the time is a certain amount of use, but unless you’re actually helping, you’re taking up their valuable time,” observed keynote speaker Adrian Benepe during a Q&A session. The former New York City parks commissioner often tells parks activists to “advocate all you like, but stand up and show us what you’re actually doing. What are you doing to actually help this park? It’s easy to complain, but do something substantive rather than complaints to show what you can do.”

Substance was the key to the presentations shown to the 400 attendees at the Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park for the fourth edition of the summit. Instead of presenting imaginative sketches of pie-in-the-sky proposals, both Benepe and representatives of four local parks advocacy groups discussed achievable aesthetic and operational improvements for urban parkland.

For dense city cores like Toronto’s, Benepe promoted recycling existing abandoned infrastructure such as brownfields, old factories, and rail lines into parks. While Benepe discussed New York projects such as reclaiming the Brooklyn waterfront, it’s easy to see Toronto spaces like Evergreen Brick Works, Corktown Common, and Waterfront Toronto’s system of parks filling this model. “These marginal spaces are the parks of the future,” Benepe noted.

He also stressed the need for a range of partnerships spanning the public/private spectrum. In cities like New York, this has meant establishing non-profit conservancy groups to manage some parks. Benepe believes that employing outreach coordinators, which was done as part of a project between the New York City parks department and a local advocacy group, was vital to nurturing parks advocacy groups and their volunteers. When an audience member raised the spectre of a two-tiered park system where some spaces would be better funded and maintained than others, Benepe discussed “sweat equity”—parks advocacy groups not rolling in money could rely on volunteers to aid with planting and general maintenance. He feels that those who invest their time in a particular park shouldn’t be charged event fees.

The importance of partnerships and volunteers was evident during short presentations on four local advocacy groups. Friends of the York Beltline, a group dedicated to promoting a linear park along the Beltline trail west of Allen Road, has developed its membership through a Facebook group and its local city councillor’s mailing list. Friends of Earl Bales Park evolved from local Filipino and church groups into an organization that has coordinated a local arts festival. In Etobicoke, a community health centre and the Panorama Community Garden teamed up to promote the first Rexdale Foodie Fest last year, bringing the neighbourhood together for free, healthy food.

At the opposite end of the city, Friends of the Guild Park and Gardens are working to revive the Scarborough landmark, which has suffered from “demolition by neglect.” President John Mason discussed that the group wants to be part of a strategic plan, noting doing so would be far more effective than just complaining.

Echoing many of the other participants, he said, “We’ve got to take a positive approach, in taking the best practices [of other large city parks] and seeing what can happen.”

The Evolving Landscape of St. James Park

Originally published on Torontoist on November 24, 2011.

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A man enjoys two forms of sunshine in St. James Park during the late 1970s. The park was partly conceived to provide a spot for office workers to relax during their lunch hour. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 302, Item 4.

With the eviction of Occupy Toronto, St. James Park will gradually return to its former, emptier condition. But the temporary landscaping changes the protesters created with their signs, tents, and yurts did not constitute the first physical redesign of the park. Over the course of the past 50 years, as this gallery shows, the site has gone from housing 19th-century commercial buildings to Victorian-inspired landscaping.

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Section of Toronto survey map, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives.

St. James Park began to take its modern shape when St. James Cathedral sold the land to its east to the City of Toronto around 1960, not long after this survey map was prepared. Both Commercial Street and the northern stretch of Market Street disappeared as the park developed.

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Exterior of St. James Cathedral, northeast corner of King and Church Streets, 1923. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 83.

Though a condition of the sale was that the property should become a park, the city toyed with using the site as part of a civic project that evolved into the St. Lawrence Centre over objections from the church. Instead, over the next decade, the city demolished the buildings on the former church property, along with purchasing those within the park’s present boundary, and replaced them with benches and basic landscaping. In this photo from 1923, you can see some of the buildings that were demolished.

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Looking west at St. James Park from Jarvis Street, circa 1978-1979, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 302, Item 10.

St. James Park was seen as a final opportunity to create a large public green space downtown; in a 1970 interview with the Toronto Star, Toronto Parks Commissioner Ivan Forrest believed that due to the prohibitive cost of assembling land, any future parks in the core would depend on the generosity of developers.

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Looking south toward St. Lawrence Hall and CIBC branch, circa 1978-1979. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 302, Item 9.

By the mid-1970s, the park assumed the entire eastern end of the block except for a holdout on the northwest corner of King and Jarvis whose tenant wouldn’t shock the Occupy crowd: a Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce branch.

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Sketch of the St. James Park Bandshell, circa 1977-1981. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 27, Item 8.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, coinciding with renovations to St. James Cathedral, plans went ahead to make the park look less spartan. The new landscaping was inspired by surrounding Victorian-era buildings like the church and St. Lawrence Hall.

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Sketch of the proposed Victorian Garden, circa 1977-1981. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 27, Item 7.

The Garden Club of Toronto spent two years researching a proper Victorian garden for the park, though their work was sabotaged by the theft of 22 antique rose bulbs from the site in November 1980. As garden convenor Nancy Colquhoun noted at the end of a letter to the Globe and Mail, “it is discouraging that such a generous gift to the city is treated so maliciously.”

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A model of a gateway to St. James Park. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 27, Item 10.