Mapping the Territory: A Youth Perspective on Identity

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Identity, individuality, belonging: These are some of the universal themes of art. And youth bring a particular perspective to these themes that we should always be listening to … like the canary in the coal mine. Their perspectives are harbingers of things to come.

This post is a  bit of a change from my usual heritage-and-public-space posts.  But I want to highlight two projects that interest me because they fuse together traditional ideas of heritage and space creating a unique perspective on the concept of identity.  And they are both projects coming from very young people. So I’ll use the next two posts to highlight each of the projects.

Last weekend I spoke to Ashley Watson, Curator, and Farah Yusuf, Curator-in-Residence for Humber Galleries. We were at North Space, the gallery at Humber College North Campus which was featuring Mapping the Territory.  This is an exhibition developed by Grade 9 Rexdale students from the Pathways to Education programme and mentored by the Department of Unusual Certainties.  The idea was to explore how the virtual space we inhabit relates to the physical, social and economic reality of a community.

Farah and Ashley said they were inspired to create the project by the Myseum Intersections program which invites small galleries and museums to explore the story of Toronto in unique ways.

Students responded to the challenge by creating unique personas based on a variety of themes such as sports, politics, and religion food.

A graphic wheel was developed mapping the attributes of the identities and this wheel is projected onto the wall as part of the exhibit.   The students invented life stories complete with imagined lives, places, fashion, relationships, language and style. The students then brought these fictional identities to life via Facebook posts. One student developed a slang style of speaking to match the persona.


Ashley and Yusuf are effusive about the process and the student insights. None of the students had ever been to a gallery before. They had imagined that an art show would contain paintings on a wall. Instead their own invented identities and storylines were projected on to the gallery’s blank walls. The stories reflect both the students’ aspirations and their personal experience.


The students located their personas globally rather than locally. They visit and live in countries that many Grade 9 students have probably never heard of. One story starts with a character who lives in a poor area of Kenya, is adopted by Somalian pirates, and then meets his half-brother who teaches him to play soccer.


The exhibit is both a documentary and a reflection. The process of developing the identities and their final stories was documented and the footage is shown as part of the exhibit in a pixelated format.

The project is a graphic view of the world these young people carry around in their minds. I felt privileged to get a glimpse of it.



A Barren Jut of Concrete gets a Makeover


“A barren jut of concrete at the intersection of Dundas and Roncesvalles.” That’s how community mover shaker Abby Bushby described what is now a welcoming public space called the Dundas Roncesvalles Peace Garden.  Abby was inspired by a combination of natural, military and Indigenous history.  The catalyst was the 200th commemoration of the War of 1812 and the opportunity to become part of an international Bicentennial Peace Garden Trail Network.  “The idea was to commemorate the end of conflict to create a place of quiet and tranquility.”

The shape of Dundas Street West and its distinctive, sharp bend to the north at the Dundas Roncesvalles intersection is because the land immediately to the west and north was once swamp in what is now the northern section of High Park.  Roncesvalles ends here, where it merges with Dundas.   If you can’t picture the intersection, but you know the movie, Hairspray, this is the intersection that was the principal location of Toronto as Baltimore and the famous street dance scene.

During the War of 1812, Anishinaabe warriors likely used this route and retreated along it from the Battle of York after the Town fell to the American invaders on April 27, 1813.  Within months following the invasion, the military improved the road as part of the defensive improvements to protect Upper Canada.


There is a detailed military reconnaissance of the area, created in 1868, published on page 72 in Derek Hayes’ Historical Atlas of Toronto. It’s one of the earliest topographical maps of the city, showing the area from Humber Bay to Davenport Road, the Humber River just west of Roncesvalles.  It is featured on a plaque at the Peace Garden which was paid for jointly by the Roncesvalles Village BIA and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.

The group of citizens that engaged around the project wanted to honour the 1812 Battle of York when Canadians of both immigrant and aboriginal status fought side by side to fend off American invaders, and to open a new relationship with the descendants of the veteran Indigenous warriors.


One of the most exciting parts of the project is the artwork on the site’s traffic signal box painted by indigenous artist Monique Bedard (Aura).  Her work combines ideas of healing and movement and femininity. Monique took a crash course in the history with Abby. With Nancy King and Jesseca Buizon helping, they worked intensely for three days. One passerby,  the owner of the Boxing Gym up the street,  was so impressed with the work he got them to paint the huge Boxing Gloves that mark the entrance to Bloor St. Boxing and Fitness at 2295 Dundas.

Shortly after, Meg Graham of superkül architects, whose offices are across the street from the Peace Garden, hired Monique and Nancy to paint the doors between Noodleholic and superkül. The two works, now create a colourful definition to one to the bleakest parts of Dundas.


The whole project was a textbook case of a community being engaged in telling its story and creating a new public space. “The idea.” Abby said, “was to include as many community groups as possible.” The project had the support of City Councillor Gord Perks, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, the Roncesvalles Village BIA, Horticultural Societies of Parkdale,  Roncesvalles MacDonnell Residents Association, Sunnyside Historical Society, Toronto Public Space Initiative, Romero House, Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Secondary School, RoncyWorks, and City of Toronto’s Museums Services, Economic Development and Beautiful Streets Program.

Designed by Mary Tremain of PLANT Architect, the Peace Garden provides a space for contemplation and community gathering. The 72-metre-space contains wooden benches, flowering perennials, grasses, and tress reflecting contemporary and heritage varieties local to the High park area. Granite paving tiles comprise the walkways, known as the Peace Path. These are the result of a joint art project between youth from the Roncesvalles and Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation communities.

When the park finally opened in June of 2016, the whole community shared in the celebrations which were co-officiated with the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation and the Friends of Dundas Roncesvalles Peace Garden. Follow them on Facebook to keep up with the DRPG programmes and activities.


The Fort, the Roundhouse and the Streetcar Barns Part 3


This is the last of the posts on exploring four great public spaces in Toronto that have been created using heritage as their inspiration over the last decade.



The TTC Streetcar Barns site, once a community eyesore, has become a much loved community gathering space with artists live/work studios, The Stop Community Food Centre, a weekly farmers’ market, lots of community events and creative non-profit agency offices.  There’s even a beach volleyball court.

The TTC Streetcar Barns located at Christie and St. Clair were built over the period 1913 to 1921. The five barns were used for streetcar repair and employed about 170 people at their peak. But as the city expanded the site no longer made sense as a streetcar hub and by the mid 1990s, the TTC declared the site surplus. As with the Brickworks, the Fort, and the Roundhouse, their built structures had outlived their technology,  and the Barns became the responsibility of the City of Toronto. The result was a 5-acre derelict site with building that was both enormous and unique, housing five barns, each about 200 feet long and several storeys high.

The neighbourhood pushed for the site to become a park but at the first the vision did not necessarily include keeping the street car bars.  A community engagement process led by Artscape resulted in brought about a consensus to retain the historical structures. Capital funding for the project was raised by Artscape and the community.


The historic barns with their unique layout provide the organizing principle of the space it. Each barn has a different use and different colour-coded signage.  The history of the space is ever present because the basic form of the buildings is intact. One of the barns, termed the “Covered Street” acts as a central spine featuring large scale historic photos.  For a great analysis of the history and adaptive reuse of the Barns, read Toronto Brownfield Redux, by the architect in charge of the project, Joe Lobo.



What to do with brownfields and old industrial buildings representing obsolete technology, will continue to be an ongoing issue.  I am reminded of this every March Break, when my husband and I visit a different Ontario town to spend the weekend exploring and hiking.  Every town contains abandoned industrial buildings stretching out along abandoned rail sidings waiting for a new vision.

The Fort, The Roundhouse and the Streetcar Barns part 2

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The first time I visited the Roundhouse site, I was amazed  that what I had once thought of as derelict land lying somewhere between Union Station and the lake, was now a 16-acre green space animated by a miniature passenger train carrying loads of smiling kids. Enclosed by the semi-circular Roundhouse with the CN Tower, Skydome and banking towers looming overhead, I felt as though I was in the cradle of the city. The world of rail history was completely new to me at the time. My kids happily paid the toonie to ride the train that loops for half a kilometre through the park.  After the train ride we were able to ride on the turntable, a special treat because it was Doors Open Toronto weekend.   A railway turntable, I discovered, is a device for turning railway locomotives (referred to as rolling stock) so that they can be moved back in the direction from which they came.  After the turntable ride we were able to actually climb inside the historic locomotive, CNR 6213.  It’s a way higher climb into the engineer’s seat than one might think.

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This wonderful park is part of the Toronto Railway Museum opened in 2010 and located on Bremner Blvd, south of the CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium. Its headquarters and artifact displays are inside Stall 17 of the Roundhouse and it’s well worth a visit.  The rest of the Roundhouse is occupied by Steam Whistle Brewing and Cineplex Entertainment is opening its second  Rec Room in Canada there this summer.

The Roundhouse, otherwise known as the old John Street Roundhouse was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1929 to service the CPR passenger trains using what was then the new Union Station.  The last locomotive was serviced in the Roundhouse in September 1982, after which the Roundhouse was used for storage until it was closed in August 1986. It then became the property of the City of Toronto.

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I had never really given much thought about rail technology but the sheer size and shape of the Roundhouse — 9,300 square metres contained in a semi-circular  building with 32 stalls — made me want to at least get a basic understanding.  As a National Historic Site, its history can be found at Canadas Historic Places. When it was constructed, it was considered state-of-the-art because it used a new direct steaming-technology that allowed the engines to maintain their steam pressure while they were in for repairs. Previously they lost their steam pressure because their fire boxes had to be extinguished in the roundhouse.  At its peak, it employed 160 people. But with the introduction of diesel locomotives in 1947, the need for the roundhouse diminished because diesels needed far less maintenance than steam engines.

The Roundhouse and park together are one of the city’s most evocative spaces because. And I think it’s because the heritage  has been respected and has inspired the new use of the site.   The place feels new but it also feels like authentic Toronto.