A Barren Jut of Concrete gets a Makeover

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

The Fort, the Roundhouse and the Streetcar Barns part 1

I will highlight over my next few posts three more civic spaces that have used heritage as their source for inspiration.  They are: Fort York National Historic Site (built by the British government in 1793), Artscape Wychwood Barns (built by the Toronto Civic Railways in 1913), and Roundhouse Park/John Street Roundhouse (built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1931)

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All three have emerged over the past decade as exceptional additions to Toronto’s public realm serving as community meeting and event spaces.  They are exceptional because they have effectively used the heritage of the site to create a special place,  a place that has a story and meaning to the community. Each place has taken care to understand the meaning of its built heritage resource, its landscape and the story of the place to create an evocative space where people want to be.

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Each of the three were originally built as major pieces of infrastructure to service public needs: Defence in the case of Fort York and transportation for the other two.  Both the Roundhouse and the TTC Barns were abandoned by their owners as the technologies they represented became obsolete. While the Fort was never abandoned its defences were left to deteriorate following their last improvement during the US Civil War. (Carl Benn, Fort York A Short History and Guide) By the early 20th century plans began to convert the Fort to a historic site museum. All three pieces of infrastructure ended up being owned by the City of Toronto. In each case, a strong community group emerged that provided the needed energy for revitalization and directed that the story and authenticity of the places had to be preserved and recognized if they were to have a sustainable future.

Fort York National Historic Site

When I first visited Fort York in 1990, as a newly minted employee of the Toronto Historical Board, I thought, how could I not have known such a place was here: the founding site of urban Toronto still intact in the downtown. I had a degree in Canadian history and thought I knew all the signifcant sites in Toronto; how had I missed this? And it’s not a small place. It is huge: 43 acres near the centre of the city stretching east-west between Strachan and Bathurst and north-south between the rail lands and Fort York Blvd. It is the place where the British decided to build the city’s primary defence in 1793.  It contains Canada’s largest collection of original War of  1812 buildings and is operated as a museum by the City of Toronto.

Five things you need to know about Fort York and about Toronto

  • Fort York is located on the Lake Ontario shoreline as the shoreline existed in the early 1800s. It now fronts on Fort York Blvd., but this street and all land to the south is actually lake fill.
  • Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe selected the location across from the tip of the Peninsula, (now Toronto islands) where the British established the Gibraltar Point Defences. With the aid of these defences, and with Fort York, the British guarded what was then the only entrance to the Toronto harbour.
  • Fort York was the site of a traumatic 6-hour battle that resulted in 477 British and American casualties
  • The Americans first put ashore at present day Dowling Avenue and were met by an advance party of 40 to 50 Ojibwa and Mississauga warriors who fought on the side of the British
  • Victoria Memorial Cemetery, located south of Wellington and east of Bathurst, is part of Fort York National Historic Site. Katherine, infant daughter of Simcoe and his wife Elizabeth, is buried there.  The cemetery was in use between 1793 and 1860. 

Fort York’s new addition to the public realm

A new 22,000-square-foot-Visitor Centre opened in 2014, finally bringing the city’s most significant public landscape and story in to public view.  The new Visitor Centre is the culmination of more than a quarter-century of work by citizen advocates, especially The Friends of Fort York and the Fort York Foundation, and City staff to properly recognize the significance of this place and to knit it back into the life of the city.  Designed by Patkau Architects and Kearns Mancini Architects, the Visitor Centre is embedded in to the original escarpment of the site, following the original shore line. The defensive nature of the site is conveyed by the rusted Corten steel cladding extending along the façade of the building. The original shoreline in front of the Fort is evoked by wetland-inspired landscaping and a boardwalk to be completed in 2017. With a new front door to the Fort, visitors enter at the lake level and move up through the building using a ramp system that releases them on to Garrison Common, now a grass field,  but once a battlefield. The exit at the Common level provides visitors with views to the 7-acre walled fort containing the original war of 1812 buildings as well as views to the west through what would have been the field of fire. It’s also a great place from which to see how the city rose around its founding landscape, with the rail lines and Gardiner expressway to the south, and Toronto’s downtown to the east.

Inside the Visitor Centre, visitors can get an orientation to the 43-acre site, see a brand new exhibit on the War of 1812  and see precious artifacts that are on display at a City museum for the first time thanks to the environmentally controlled exhibit space afforded by the new Visitor Centre.  My favourite are the two colours or flags of the Third Regiment of York Militia. They were sewn by Toronto’s young women in 1812-1813 and presented to the regiment just before the American invasion of Toronto. They have been painstakingly restored by the Canadian Conservation Institute.

The Visitor Centre exhibit on the War of 1812 is one of the most thoughtful on this period in Canadian history.   In this year of commemorating Canada 150 and the different perspectives on this anniversary,  take particular note of the exhibit section on First Nations which examines the long term consequences of the War of 1812 through the experience of the Mississagua of the New Credit who occupied the lands we now know as the CIty of Toronto. (The Toronto Purchase Specific Claim was finally settled in 2010.)

The Fort York Visitor Centre has been named one of the top 10 Toronto buildings from the last 15 years by Blog TO. When it opened in 2014 it pioneered use of the public space under the Gardiner. Now it will link directly to other major city building projects, The Bentway linear park and the Fort York Pedestrian Bridge.