Vid Ingelvics and I sat down recently to recall the “Friends of a New Park” effort to save the barns as a central feature of the Wychwood Park. Photography, as it did a century ago in the Toronto park movement, played a strong role in claiming this former industrial space as a public recreation ground.
How long have you lived in this neighbourhood?
In the late fifties early sixties, as a kid, I lived on Atlas Avenue. I moved back to the neighbourhood as an adult in the nineties and eventually bought a place on Maplewood where I still live. It’s about two blocks from where I grew up.
When you heard that the streetcar barns were to be demolished, did you remember the building from your childhood?
The historical connection from my childhood relates more to popular culture. When I was growing up, movie theatres dominated St. Clair and it was a magnet for the entire city. Small businesses were still very successful here, it was a normal street; it had a lot of life. One of the things I saw when I moved back into the neighbourhood was how much it had deteriorated.
That’s why the vehemence of the opposition to the proposed streetcar right-of-way surprised me. A vocal minority seemed to feel that an unbelievable catastrophe was descending on the street and everyone was going to suffer terribly. It was as if it had never happened before, however if you go to the archives and you can find hundreds of pictures of tracks being worked on over and over again. The construction and reconstruction has been going on for over a century.
You saw the revitalization of the neighbourhood as dependent on the streetcar right-of-way and the re-purposing of the barns as a cultural hub?
Yes, I saw them as linked, as bringing back life to St. Clair. It was important that people were aware that the barns fit into something. They weren’t dropped into this location from the moon. They were here because of the streetcar, they were linked together. So it was important to provide information so that people would learn about where they live.
Some people were trying to make it into a local neighbourhood issue and we (Friends of a New Park) knew it wasn’t. The future of the barns was not just a neighbourhood issue; it was about the whole mid-town area. So we immediately started to reach out to other local business improvement associations, local schools and community organizations.
How did you position the issue?
We presented the barns as a cultural centre that was going to be of interest to people for a lot of reasons. Already the idea of farmers market was in place and The Stop was involved, food was already part of it. We figured that the artists’ part was really important as was the heritage preservation.
To highlight the importance of heritage I photographed sites along St. Clair where buildings had disappeared. I then printed archive images from the City of Toronto Archives of what had been in the same location. We exhibited these in the barns showing what had already disappeared on the street.
So the idea was to bring back the memory of the street by creating a visual thread of its lost life.
Yes, I think it was in opposition to people who were trying to argue about the present without any reference to the past. To me that was really bizarre, that you could talk about something as though it existed only in the present and future without reference to history. So to historicize the discussion was a really important part of the campaign.
On what occasions did you present these exhibitions at the barns?
We would put them up during Open Doors, Environment Days or any time when we could let people in. They were pictures mounted on simple foam core panels and we hung them up with clips including on fences inside the barns. People would wander through along the platforms and look at the photos.
I have photos documenting the exhibitions. We had these on the “Friends of the Park” website. I think when the site was finally shut-down we had 700 to 800 people who had signed up in support. That number was important because they were real people as opposed to the shadowy network of opponents to the barns who would never give their names.
In a sense you created a beach-head cultural institution at the barns before it had taken form as an official cultural hub.
Yes, we programmed it so to speak. We used it as a site and we did that exhibition. At that time when people talked about the barns it was easy to condemn them because they were forlorn, ugly, there was plywood on the windows and it was full of over-grown weeds. It looked like it should be knocked-down. No one had seen the amazing light inside the building. We were well aware of how beautiful the interiors were. As well, studies had shown that the buildings were structurally sound.
A big breakthrough was when we organized a student exhibition called “Industrial Strength”. I got my friends in university photography departments around Toronto to solicit their students to take part in what we called a community-based exhibition. We got Ryerson students, OCAD students, where I was teaching at the time, York students and Sheridan students.
We got them into the barns, sneaked them in during the summer and they would shoot. We went all along St. Clair and solicited shop-keepers who were willing to host a student. We connected the students with the shop-keepers and together they had to work out how they were going to exhibit their photos. So it was an interesting experience for the students, they had to negotiate and to deal with less than optimum conditions for presenting their work.
We got support from the local Business Improvement Association. We were able to produce a beautiful poster of the show and we papered the street with it. Then we just sprang the exhibition on the public. And suddenly the photos were everywhere, all up and down the street.
We heard a lot of interesting things… It drove certain people opposed to the project absolutely nuts when they heard what was going on because now people were seeing the inside of the barns and it was opening up their eyes to what a treasure the building was. That was a moment when things turned because, every person casually walking down the street could see what was going on. Posters were everywhere, photos were everywhere. There were fifty students and fifty shops, from St. Clair and Bathurst to Oakwood.
We used art and photography to open up people to the space. Students could do what they wanted. Their work wasn’t exclusively documentary some students did really conceptual projects. Each thing was different and that was what was really exciting.
It wasn’t just aestheticizing the interior so that people understood its heritage value in those terms?
The students could use the building any way they wanted. Some, of course, did do beautiful pictures of the interior; most students in an undergraduate photo program love the romance of the ruin.
With the skylight who can resist?
Exactly, the light is so fantastic that it guaranteed the beauty of almost every photo. Then we followed that up a year or two later with a photo auction with the assistance of Artscape. This time I solicited such well-known photographers as Edward Burtynsky, who at the time lived not far from the barns, and Barbara Astman and Geoffrey James. Everyone got time to look at the barns and shoot. Artscape framed the works and we held a big fundraising auction for the barns in the Distillery District.
Those are some of the important ways that photography played a role in changing people’s attitudes and opening up the discussion. Apart from that it was sheer politics. Going down to those horrible council meetings, lobbying, producing literature and leading the action campaign.
I would say that the photographs, while they didn’t do everything, gave us an outreach presence. We could go out and tell people what things looked like. And, the enthusiasm of the students was really great. Who doesn’t love a student exhibition? It’s a feel-good thing. You can imagine all those students in there, shooting and working with local store-owners and small business people. We also had a wrap-up exhibition that brought together their work at a soon-to-be-demolished store at Bathurst and St. Clair that was donated to us by a local businessman.
What role does the story of that campaign have in shaping the identity of the barns now?
Those of us who were involved in organizing Friends of a New Park have talked about it. It does feel important to, at some point sit down and solidify that historical narrative because it’s one of those things that slip away. You could probably go into the barns now and when you’re talking to people in the market most of them probably haven’t got a clue of what it took to keep those buildings up. It is important, the question of how and where it should be situated.
I’ve talked to the City of Toronto Archives; they’re interested in acquiring my archive. I do have an archive of stuff that we produced. Half of the stuff from this process is well organized and the other half I still have to properly categorize.
You don’t call it a true archive until you’ve pigeon-holed everything?
Otherwise it’s just a collection, an archives implies organization of some kind.
Yes, but how do you do that and to what end?
We always keep talking that we should sit down and try to do this but everyone is always so busy. What we probably need is to get a grant of some kind to be able to focus on documenting the history properly. I see it based on an academic model of research with a research assistant to make it a concrete project.
Where would it be lodged, would it be part of the institutional memory of Artscape? The Stop?
It could be part of the City of Toronto archives. If I were to donate to them all of my stuff, I would work to have some kind of way to understand what the stuff is. It has to be kept together and it would therefore need some kind of introduction – a finding aid.
I’m always thinking of archives as a kind of institutional memory and not a discrete unit within government collections.
The campaign to save the barns represents a kind of interesting space somewhere between community-based art and art practice and local history production. It crosses a few different lines. It’s not strictly an art project I would say.
It has the community art context from your recruitment of students, from the permission given to them to express their own viewpoints and artistic agendas in negotiating the exhibition spaces. There was a strong political agenda behind the whole exercise. And, it relates to creating a framework collectively for the barns as cultural space.
That kind of interaction between art and its context would probably define it as community practice. It was a collective impact that had to happen. It didn’t hang on one person’s coming in and saving the day but had to be about an interaction with people, social organization, it was site specific and it is was about a specific issue.
It had an orientation to a very specific moment. And that was what was also important about it. When the barns opened it was almost shocking.
But you had invested so much in that opening.
I think that what happens is that as the real infrastructure starts you start to withdraw. I couldn’t keep going at the time and energy level I had been expending for several years. I was ready to step aside. I really saw the Barns as a community asset that needed to be secured. I thought, ‘Folks, take it on. You run it now. ‘
However, I should note that I have been involved again from time to time – not in an ongoing way but on specific projects, such as last year’s community-organized Streetcar Centennial celebrations. For that I helped organize an exhibition at the Barns that included a series of videos about St. Clair that drew on research carried out by students and a number of dedicated local residents.
Photographs courtesy of Vid Ingelvics.
For more background from a previous post: The Battle Over Wychwood Barns Park