If a ‘Field of Dreams’ gathering of the Toronto Horticultural Society were to take place it would happen this summer on the centenary of their 1913 gathering on the lawns of Casa Loma. Members’ conversations would turn to their triumphs and defeats in their flower beds, the increasing plant varieties available at local nurseries and the contenders for awards at this year’s exhibition. After this, they might lament the disappointing results of their group’s missionary work. Their campaigns to inspire fellow city residents of all social classes and ages to take up gardening had not been wholly successful.
However, were they to drift westward for several blocks, they would be gratified to learn of the continuing efforts to teach gardening at Hillcrest Public School. In its time the Society grew plantings for the city’s school gardens and gave special attention to the need of ‘Jewish and other foreign children’ for instruction on the beautification of their environment.
They would also nod approvingly at the current appearance of Alcina and Helena Avenues just across from the school. The Society had aimed their street improvement competitions at just such areas. In 1913 this was the southern edge of “shack town”. Today, instead of half-built homes and weed-filled empty lots, home-owner pride and civic propriety is visible at every corner of this midtown neighbourhood. Victorian Toronto’s boast to being the “City of Homes” can now extend to these streets that were once among its unsightly residential edges.
If Society members continued down Alcina they would recognize the north entrance stone gates to Wychwood Park; glancing north they might also know that the long brick streetcar shed was a beachhead of the newly expanded transit system. Would they recognize the structure and its surroundings as an urban park?
In 1996 the streetcar barns site was on the brink of being sold to developers. Residents who preferred to see it as a park began to organize; however, the question of whether it was necessary to eliminate the barns to make way for a park became a sticking point. Councillor Joe Mihevc asked for a Heritage Study to be carried out. The TTC who had inherited the site, was unwilling to pay for the necessary renovations after the structures were identified as historically significant; it transferred property ownership to the City of Toronto.
In 2000, with no available funding to create a park, the city proposed three plans for mixed residential and park development. All involved razing the barns. Only after an environmental assessment and architectural inspection outlined how these were salvageable was the city ready to consider the barns as an integral feature of a park. But how was it to be funded? Mihevc appointed Artscape, a local non-profit organization that had created successful live-work artist studios/cultural hubs in downtown neighbourhoods to carry out a feasibility study. The battle lines became firmly drawn during Artscape’s subsequent community consultation.
Alarm grew over the prospect of a ‘hub’ consisting of artists’ live-work spaces, community group offices and other high traffic and intensive use features. The barns-focused park embraced the heterogeneous forces of the city. This was a direct violation of cherished notion that a park is a natural buffer removing home-owners from direct contact with the street. A group calling itself ‘True Patriot Love’ was formed to defend their turf. They joined an earlier group ‘100% Park’ in opposition to the barns.
At the outset of the conflict, several residents walked down to the nearby City of Toronto Archives and rifled through its photo collections searching for evidence to support their sense of the neighborhood’s authentic character. Each selected a view that contrasted with the other and held it up as the legacy that should be reflected in the design of a local park.
The first of what were eventually five streetcar maintenance sheds or, “car barns” can be seen in the background of this 1915 City Works department photograph of a shinny rink. It was built in 1913 several years after the city had expanded public transit to service newly annexed districts. The above image became the banner of the “Friends of a New Park” because the barns symbolized a new spin on the park idea, one that turned on the adaptive re-use of large, abandoned industrial buildings.
In the opposing camp, the members of ‘True Patriot Love’ rallied behind the more familiar version of a park. James’ views of the Wychwood Park homes in their landscaped setting highlighted the idyllic repose of the park estate. The group held to these as emblems of the neighborhood’s desirable remove from city streets and advocated a traditional park design.
Both visions for a neighborhood park held to the need for residents to connect with nature and to preserve local heritage. But how was ‘nature’ to be introduced in the most socially relevant way? And, what version of local architectural heritage—public transit industrial or private park estate—should dominate?
The word “park” had gathered a heavy freight of meanings in the past century. This fact would have been keenly understood by members of the 1913 Toronto Horticultural Society because they participated in generating its local symbolic value. Along with the developers who marketed the earliest residential subdivisions, they knew that the idea of a park was associated with an enclosure that kept the purity of nature and good society in and the undesirable elements of city life out. By extension, they pushed the image of the garden-focused home as the ideal domestic environment and incubator of a model citizenry.
It was the image of the leisure zones where all classes gathered to enjoy luxurious lawns, dense plantings, and vista-offering winding streets that was already stamped in the popular imagination of pre-First World War Toronto as ‘the park’. Such examples of blended private residential and public recreational zones as the Island Park and Rosedale,from the evidence of their popularity as postcard subjects, were the most admired districts. Serving as ideal setting for picnics, hikes, and boating excursions, they fueled a widespread desire for a house set in natural surroundings.
As speculators bought up tracts in the most picturesque zones for future luxury housing developments, the city was pressured by the Civic Guild and leading citizens to put up the funds for public parks. A benefit of the close and positive association between public park and private development, investment in both, as in the case of developer Robert Home Smith’s donation of Humber River shoreline for a park beside his Kingsway Park subdivision, went forward in lockstep.
The most recent episode of this valuing of a residential area through it being intensively used and identified as a place of fashionable recreation is the Artscape Wychwood Barns. Homes in the area have significantly increased in value since the hub opened, evidence that the definition of park with its corresponding property stakes has shifted in Toronto in recent times.
The final proposal tabled by Artscape had as a unique feature the use of one or two of the barns as a ‘Green Barn’. This vision was detailed by a steering committee consisting of one representative each from The Stop Community Food Centre, Food Share Toronto, an artist gardener, a Toronto Public Health Department Dietician as well as local residents Jody Berland and Bob Hanke. Taken up as the central plank of the Friends of a New Park in their description titled the ‘Dream of a Green Barn’ the group outlined a new hybrid form of public space with its mixed purposes being brought together through food growing, food education, and food sharing.
The Dream was To provide a public space for spontaneous enjoyment and planned activities where people of diverse backgrounds can socialize, eat, meet their neighbor, and learn about food and nutrition, environmentally friendly practices, social justice and the arts. While the Toronto Horticultural Society members would have applauded the moral, educational, cultural and public health scope of this mission statement their own motives and means differed radically. Instead of envisioning the requirements for a new form of meeting ground that brings together a cross-section of the population, the Society’s paramount concern was with enhancing the home-life of the lower classes through inspiring them to garden and by doing so developing property pride, responsibility to the upkeep of the street and ultimately, the welfare of the city. Instead of organizing farmers markets to motivate middle class citizens to connect with local agriculture, the society distributed information on plants and flowers ‘…for the garden, greenhouse, conservatory and dwelling’. Instead of cooking workshops and market gardening education for food bank clients the Society concentrated on plant donations to “beautify” institutions for the needy. However, the goals of the Society strike an inspirational note in common with the Friends: By these means we aim to educate citizens to grow beautiful flowers, vines, roses, etc. and make Toronto a more desirable city for ourselves and our children after us to live in.
In January 2004, based on the final proposal that incorporated the Green Barn, Artscape was given approval. It opened in late fall of 2008 and quickly took its place as one of the province’s flagship urban projects.
 Artscape DIY Creative Placemaking, Case Studies, Wychwood Barns http://www.artscapediy.org/Case-Studies/Artscape-Wychwood-Barns.aspx#situation Web 30 May 2013.
To read more see “Paving the Way to Paradise” Conclusion.