Five reasons to save Riverdale Farm

Like many others I was appalled at last week’s news that KPMG, the firm Rob Ford hired to uncover the gravy he’s been yammering on about all these months (which, as it turns out, is about as existent George W. Bush’s weapons of mass destruction), recommended shutting down Riverdale Farm as part of an effort to shave dollars from the city budget.

Moments like this are both frustrating and inspiring. On the one hand, it’s embarrassing to Toronto as a city and the people who live here that such a notion would even be entertained. However, to see entire communities shake away their apathy and stand up for something that matters to them is to be reminded that cynical politicians are wrong to gamble on us not caring. It’s always nice to see some good old fashioned community activism in action.

For those that haven’t been, Riverdale Farm is a park, conservation area and small-scale model of a rural farm from a bygone time, the kind of farm you could imagine having actually existed in Toronto in the mid 19th Century. The park is located on Winchester Street just west of the Don Valley (a 10-minute walk from Parliament Street). While it’s nothing fancy—a wetland park and a few pens and small barns housing pigs, horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits and a fucking ugly turkey—almost anyone that grew up in central Toronto has childhood memories of visiting the farm. Having grown up in Etobicoke, I have no such memories. My early animal interactions took place at the High Park petting zoo (also potentially on the City’s chopping block) and the Toronto Zoo, where I distinctly recall being mauled for food by a frenzied pack of goats.

The farm also hosts the tiny-but-still-worth-popping-into Cabbagetown Regent Park Community Museum, which displays photos and artifacts from the neighbourhood in the late 19th Century as well as first-person accounts of the Regent Park development from its earliest residents in the 1950s.

To close Riverdale Farm is to deprive future generations of children of an important piece of local history and the only location in downtown Toronto where they can interact with animals that are not dogs, cats, rats or pigeons. And to prove you’re never too old to experience the farm for the first time, I went myself. And I’ve got the pictures to prove it.

Signs asking you not to feed the animals are so unfortunately futile.

See what I mean?

Rooster furiously nodding when asked if Riverdale Farm is worth saving.

I'm happy I wasn't a child when I saw this for the first time.

No farm is complete without a purely decorative windmill.

Sign the petition to save Riverdale Farm.

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Why you probably haven’t heard of the Parliament Dance Belt

Something significant and sad happened just before I moved into my Cabbagetown apartment. In a failed attempt at ambush journalism, the newly minted Sun News Network invited Canadian dance legend Margie Gillis onto the network for a surprise verbal assault disguised as an interview. The show’s host, a sow named Krista Erickson, was indignant over the many government grants Gillis has received over the years despite working in a medium not exactly beloved by the majority of Canadians. Barring the fact that it’s hardly Gillis’s fault the government appreciates what she does even if others do not, the incident brought to a head something I’ve been struggling with for over a year, as someone who often works with dancers and dance companies.

Parliament Street is often known, as Carol Anderson puts it in her 2006 essay, as Toronto’s ‘Dance Belt.’ Anderson’s piece focuses mostly on two Cabbagetown dance centres, Toronto Dance Theatre/School of Toronto Dance Theatre at Winchester and Metcalfe and the Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre at 509 Parliament Street, which also houses the Danny Grossman Dance Company, Fujiwara Dance Creations and more.

To these we can add Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, which is in the process of renovating its new home on Parliament south of Dundas, COBA, which will soon be based out of the nearby Artscape Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre and the dance organizations and studios in the Distillery District such as DanceWorks, Dance District and Le Labo, among others.

The emerging image is Parliament Street as a dance epicentre in Toronto, and it’s something you can feel when you’re here, from overhearing gossip from STDT students on the crowded patio of the House on Parliament to witnessing the excited crowds that linger outside the Winchester Street Theatre for what seems like hours after every show, which I often do from my balcony across the street.

It’s a scene the Krista Ericksons out there will likely never see, and I’m going to argue this is a bad thing, both for the dance scene and for the community at large. More so than any other form, contemporary dance is perceived to be inaccessible or uninteresting to the average person. The majority of us show little interest in it beyond parodies in film and television, and few can name more than two or three Canadian dance artists. Even the Torontoist website, in my opinion the best new media outlet in the city and one I am proud to write for, neglected to review any of the 15 dance shows at this year’s Fringe Festival.

Partly at fault for the public perception of dance are the individual shows. Having been going to dance shows on semi-regular basis for more than a year, I can say some, often in an effort to challenge the audience, reinforce the stereotypes of contemporary dance tenfold. But many don’t. Some are even, dare I say it, fun.

The challenge is to make dance enjoyable to a larger audience, and the Dance Belt affords opportunities to do so. I would love to see the Parliament dance companies coordinate a weekend of open houses all down the Dance Belt, where studios and theatres would be open to the public with free short performances and the opportunity to meet the artists. Even better, take the party to the street with performances on Parliament during one summer weekend afternoon. Or at the very least, get more involved in the http://cabbagetownfestival.blogspot.com/Cabbagetown Festival.

The Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts sponsored lamppost banners declaring the area around Bathurst from Queen to Dupont the ‘Off Bathurst Theatre District.’ While banners cost money and money is a problem for everyone in the arts, dance companies should do more to promote the Parliament Dance Belt and make it part of the city’s wider consciousness, something tour guides will mention to out-of-towners. And then maybe even Ms. Erickson would take note.

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Three Cabbagetowns

This month I live in a bachelor apartment in a housing co-op just west of the Don Valley near Parliament and Carlton, in the neighbourhood now known as Cabbagetown.

I call it the neighbourhood now known as Cabbagetown because, for much of its existence, the stretch of Parliament Street from Gerrard to Wellesley and its surrounding cross-streets was called Don Vale. The original Cabbagetown was actually the area immediately to the south, now called Regent Park.

The term ‘Cabbagetown’ began as a somewhat racist nickname based in stories that the poor Irish immigrants that moved into the area en masse in the 19th Century dug up their front lawns to grow cabbage, ensuring their families had something to eat during hard times.

Why the name was endearing enough to be co-opted by the Don Vale-ians after the original Cabbagetown was demolished to make way for Canada’s first social housing project is beyond me. Cabbage has never been something with whom I have actively sought to be associated. But nevertheless, as the slum buildings that made up the original Cabbagetown were torn down in the 1940s, the name migrated to the still-standing slums a few blocks north at Carlton.

And in the 1970s, as the 100-year-old Victorian homes that had been protected from demolition by community activists years before were restored and began to fill up with affluent professionals (while, in one of the greatest social ironies in Toronto history, the once heralded Regent Park turned into Canada’s biggest ghetto), a new neighbourhood was born. As a result, we now have such curiosities as the Old Cabbagetown Busines Improvement Area, situated right smack dab in the middle of the new Cabbagetown (although, to the organization’s credit, it openly acknowledges this fact).

It also hasn’t stopped my block from being labelled an official Cabbagetown Heritage Conservation District, which I’ve discovered does not in fact require me to dress in period clothing and entertain tourists. Rather, it is the largest stretch of Victorian houses in North America according to the Cabbagetown Preservation Association. The houses are gorgeously refurbished, with modern living rooms visible through the windows creating a contrast with the Victorian architecture outside.

That's my apartment building under all that foliage.

A stroll through the area during the day reveals a quaint, mostly upper middle class neighbourhood, where parents walk their children to lessons at School of Toronto Dance Theatre before going to the local ice cream parlour, and where the obnoxiously large strollers so present in The Beach(es) seem mercifully absent. And walking down Metcalfe Street south from Amelia Street at night, with the canopy of tree leaves lit bright green from the moon and streetlights and everywhere climbing vines, the neighbourhood feels downright magical.

Today’s Cabbagetown is a small town within the city, a pocket of upper and middle class homes sandwiched in the middle of the downtown east side. The hardware and pet stores, along with some restaurants, even try to fit into the small town style with the sort of facades one sees in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It would be nice if the Shoppers Drug Mart and No Frills could do the same, but that doesn’t seem likely.

Despite its gentrification, Cabbagetown hasn’t forgotten its (transplanted) poor immigrant roots, nor will it be able to any time soon, as it is bordered by St. Jamestown, Regent Park and Moss Park, three of the city’s lowest income neighbourhoods. People of all income brackets mingle here, and at Wellesley Street to the north and Gerrard Street to the south the neighbourhood takes a decidedly ethnic turn as stores offering halal meat and cheap clothing dominate the sidewalkscape (although tucked away on a residential street just south of Wellesley is one of the city’s best French restaurants, known for its duck confit and ludicrously expensive wines).

But I think what I like best about the neighbourhood is how it seemingly offers so little to the visitor (apart from farm animals and contemporary dance) but so much to the resident. And, as I sit on the rooftop of my building looking out over Cabbagetown and the rest of the city, I let out a sigh knowing that I will turn back into a visitor at the end of the month, and a sip of beer knowing the month isn’t over yet.

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Doors closed and open: The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

Doors Open Toronto is an annual weekend-long event where various buildings in Toronto become accessible to the public. By far one of the most exciting participants this year is the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, the Art Deco “palace of purification” mythologized in Michael Ondaatje’s novel, In the Skin of a Lion. The plant’s buildings are considered to be among of Toronto’s most beautiful.

Named after noted public works commissioner Roland Caldwell Harris, under whom the plant was built, R.C. Harris provides about 45 per cent of Toronto’s water. It is located on Queen Street just east of Neville Park, the last stop eastbound on the streetcar line.

As I’m currently living in The Beaches, I decided to check out the plant the night before its opening to the public, seeing out how close I could get. I walked eastbound on the boardwalk next to Lake Ontario, and on sand after the boardwalk ended. Eventually I came to the back yard of the plant, which many may not realize is actually a Toronto Discovery Walk. I walked around the grounds of the plant in darkness, peeking into the lit windows to catch glimpses of the plant. There was nobody around, and no sound except the whirring of machines from within.

I visited again during Doors Open, arriving about an hour after the plant was opened. The crowds only slightly diminished the incredible feeling of being inside such notable buildings. The two trips resulted in very different experiences, and very different images.

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Stomping through Queen West – Part 1

Hello world, it’s me Brendan.

First off, allow me to apologize for the recent lack of updates. The combination of becoming progressively busier at work, starting to write articles for the fantabulous Torontoist website and not having been able to find a place for a month meant I hadn’t touched this blog in a while. Now allow me to blow off the dust.

To quickly summarize my progress in the last couple of months: I was back in Etobicoke at my family home, then at Queen West, and am now living in The Beaches (and screw all you people who call it The Beach). Entries on The Beaches are forthcoming, but first, a long piece about Queen West I’ve been meaning to write for a while.

Stomping through Queen West – Part 1

Last month I lived in a condominium in a lowrise complex just north of Queen Street West at Bathurst. The area was ground zero for not just my own teenage development but for the coming of age of an entire generation of weirdos, losers, brawlers and freaks, fondly remembered by artists and journalists for its Friday night tapestry of subcultures. In the nineties and early aughts, a nighttime stroll at Queen and Bathurst would reveal a cross section of non-conformity, from the punks, skinheads, goths and aging rockers outside the Big Bop to the squeegee kids, drunks and drug addicts perched on the steps of St. Christopher house across the street.

But like the stretches of Queen Street to the east and west, Queen and Bathurst is succumbing to the sweeping wave of gentrification that is changing so much of the city. And now, as I walk around the area in my topcoat and Blundstone boots, I can’t help but wonder where future generations of underage misfits will go to feel at home.

Even in the 1920s, the crowds loved the Big Bop. Photo from the City of Toronto archives.

I can’t say for certain how it started. All I know is that by the time I got involved at the age of 16, it was almost over. As an Etobicoke teenager unhappy with my surroundings and enamored with the grimy urbania of the inner city (which actually put me in the majority among the people who frequented the area most nights), Queen and Bathurst had just what I was looking for.

Anchoring the intersection was the Big Bop, a purple giant that housed three clubs, each catering to a slightly different demographic. I came to know the Reverb, on the second floor, as the domain of the bands of my art school friends. And I never so much as climbed the stairs to Holy Joe’s, on the third floor. For me, the grungy main-floor Kathedral was where everything happened. Where, while waiting one night for the Dayglo Abortions to start playing, I had my first toke of weed. Where I witnessed countless couples making out on the back couches, envious and lonely, before finally doing it myself. And where I sobered up just in time to remember the second half of the now defunct streetpunk band Riot 99’s last-ever set, which is more than I can say for the band’s singer.

The Big Bop currently sits empty, its already dumpy exterior further tarnished with middle grade graffiti and a real estate sign. It’s supposed to become a furniture store. It was eulogized in alt-weeklies when it shut in 2009, its closing considered symbolic of the area’s gentrification. But for me, Queen and Bathurst was gone years before that.

***

There is a fence running along the north end of the condominium complex I called home in April, bordering Alexandra park and preventing anyone from entering the complex from the park. There are even spiked ends at the top of the fence’s bars to discourage climbers. Apart from being an inconvenience to anyone wanting to go for a walk in the park or the community garden next door, the fence, along with security guards on all-day patrols, serves the more practical purpose of keeping the park’s denizens out of the complex. It also effectively shuts an entire city block out of public use, ensuring the walkways that run through the complex of European-style lowrise buildings are used by residents only.

My brother Nick came over one evening and we discussed urban issues over a few beers, because, well, we’re lame and that’s the sort of thing we like to talk about. Nick is fond of calling me a yuppie and a hipster whenever possible, using the terms interchangeably as if they mean the same thing. Over our third or maybe fourth beer of the night, he accused me (and my hipster roommate) of being part of the gentrifying force at Queen and Bathurst. “I’m not gentrifying it,” I said. “I still like the culture, I just also want a nice place to live.” “That’s what gentrification is,” he said. “You yuppie.”

***

I remember with vivid detail my first punk show at Queen and Bathurst. I was 16, a typical angry teenager from Etobicoke who felt blessed just to be somewhere else for the evening. My friend Dave was doing video work for a band he would later join, and he took me along to record one of the group’s sets. Before the show we drank pitchers of beer in a tiny but notorious dive called the Q Bar, all of us underage and without any sort of ID.

The show took place at another small bar called Ania’s International Café, and was almost ended twice by the owner: when three band members were caught smoking pot in the bathroom, and after the headlining act ripped the bar’s ‘No admittance to any person under 19’ poster off the front window and used it to write down their setlist. I rode the subway back to Etobicoke afterward, slightly drunk and with ringing ears, confident I had in some small way transcended my own boring existence. I came back to Queen and Bathurst almost every weekend for the next two years.

After finishing university I returned to the area, not for the countercultural vibes but to do an internship at a nearby public relations firm where I would eventually be hired full time. I cross the intersection every day and I always marvel at what has and has not changed after eight years. After being shut down by the police enough times, the Q Bar changed owners and suffered several unsuccessful makeovers before its current use as a trendy club, which seems to be working out well. Rotate This!, still in my mind Toronto’s best record store, has moved further west on Queen Street but is otherwise unchanged. Ania’s International Café disappeared sometime before the building that housed it burned to the ground in the infamous purging fire of 2008. And the back alleys behind the bars, where we drank malt liquor 40s like so many other teenaged pseudo-rebels and where I enjoyed my first drunken makeout, are still there, just as pleasantly grimy as I remember.

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