She is soft-spoken and unassuming but with an inner strength radiating from her calm blue gaze. Florence Watts is a woman whose legacy is evident all over the Regal Heights community. Whether it’s the flowering Rosemount gardens, the flourishing mini-forest on Springmount Avenue or the bright yellow bursts of daffodils on the northeast corner of Davenport and Dufferin streets, her relentless drive has helped to create these green zones.
Florence moved to Toronto in 1966 with her husband Dick and their children. “It was a time when Yorkville was a hub for artists and musicians and our teenagers loved it,” she says with a bright smile. “Regal Heights was in the path of Jewish, Italian, Portuguese and Jamaican immigrants who had settled at some point in the area. It was different from small towns such as Brantford and Weston where we lived before and we liked the diversity.” Even though the Watts were nervous when occasional violent disputes arose from rooming houses nearby, they were determined to make their neighbourhood a safe haven for their family.
Soon, Florence joined the Oakwood Escarpment Residents’ Association, which later became the Regal Heights Residents’ Association (RHRA). Kay Rex, a resident and Globe and Mail reporter at the time was the chair. Kay’s main agenda was a much-needed local daycare. Although Florence’s children were now teenagers and did not need daycare, she and other volunteers and parents scrambled to set one up that met government standards. She recalls, “We begged and borrowed equipment, hired a supervisor and did quite a lot of persuading.” They made it happen at Regal Road Public School and 28 children enrolled immediately.
“Things needed to be looked after,” she says, as if it was natural that the community was her responsibility, her extended home. Dick felt the same way and eventually became chair of the residents’ association. Florence’s quiet, gentle personality complemented Dick’s vocal and energetic one. He says of her, “It is wonderful to have a partner who enjoys, as I do, building the social and environmental qualities of a community.”
The dynamic couple worked tirelessly with other RHRA volunteers as well as city councillors to build a safe and friendly community. A major accomplishment was the transformation of Glenholme, Lauder, Northcliffe and Westmount into one-way streets to reduce the traffic flow coming through the area.
As Florence became more engaged with the neighbourhood, she came across a book entitled St. Clair West in Pictures written by Toronto Public Library staff Nancy Byers and Barbara Myrvold but not published. Apparently, a copy had been sitting on a library shelf for years. Florence, an avid reader, was thrilled by the book’s documentation of the area’s rich history and committed to selling 600 copies if the library agreed to print it. The enticement worked and the book was published in 1997. To Florence’s relief, RHRA members and the neighbourhood shared her keen interest in St. Clair West’s past and a second edition came out in 1999.
The Watts’ enthusiasm about St. Clair West’s history also led them to the discovery of Garrison Creek, an old stream that was a waterway used by native people but now forgotten and buried as a sewer under Regal Heights streets. With the backing of RHRA, the couple persuaded the city to recognize Garrison Creek’s historical significance. Markers and brass medallions were inlaid on pavements to indicate the creek’s route towards the lake.
Regal Heights residents, impressed by the Watts’ devotion to the area and the power of the RHRA to implement positive changes, joined the association in growing numbers. Florence and Dick guided and befriended the new members who contributed to the community by publishing newsletters, organizing a Canada Day parade through Regal Heights streets, putting on a Christmas Carol Sing on the grounds of Oakwood Collegiate and hosting, alternately, a bi-yearly street sale and street party. These events fostered a sense of belonging and bonding within the community but required time and organizational skills. Florence, with her humble and positive outlook, says “I didn’t think of it as much more than having a good time with people I liked.”
Her passion for gardening led her to join other volunteers for what they termed ‘guerilla gardening’. “When I saw the possibility for making a new garden, I couldn’t resist. Back in the ’90s, communities could get free daffodil bulbs from the city,” she recalls. Wherever there was a neglected spot that could be turned into green space, Florence would get permission and support from the city to plant and her group of volunteers would start digging. That is how the patch of land that was a receptacle for various abandoned objects and garbage on Springmount became a thriving mini forest and the patches of grass on Rosemount were transformed into perennial gardens.
Click on any image to enlarge
The gardeners also went door-to-door to persuade homeowners to plant new trees. Florence added a warm personal touch to the area by placing wooden barrels of colourful flowers at strategic corners, changing them to evergreens with red bows at Christmas time. Even though there were challenges, such as the upset of having plants stolen, she was not deterred and always found ways to replace them
The arid slope that faced Davenport Road was one of the most daunting projects, but it is the one that makes Florence’s eyes sparkle with pride. It had a crumbling path that was dangerous for children taking a shortcut to school. In 1998, with the cooperation of the Toronto District School Board, the path no longer had access to the school grounds. Florence recruited volunteers to plant trees along the slope as well as daffodils to hold the soil from erosion. The trees have now grown into a small forest that acts as a buffer from traffic noise for students at Regal Road School, and in the spring, daffodils bloom in profusion showcasing the slope’s new name, Daffodil Hill.
The apple tree on Daffodil Hill grew on its own, thanks to a discarded school lunch thrown over the fence several years ago!
With the safety of Regal Heights’ residents as a major priority, Florence and Dick also supported parents’ initiatives to renovate the playground at Regal Road School to include community use and ensure the design would protect school children during the day and keep out troublemakers and drug dealers at night.
Florence and Dick have been recognized for their contributions to Regal Heights with a plaque by the stairs going down from Regal Road to Davenport Road, an initiative led by their daughter. They have also received a community service award from the city. Regal Heights is often used as an example for councillors to improve their own wards. Indeed the area has changed from a neglected gem to a prized neighbourhood in which houses are now selling with million dollar price tags.
When asked what drove her to devote so much of her time to Regal Heights, Florence says, “It’s a wonderful community and we were happy doing it. We met a lot of marvelous people and made good friends. Everybody helped.”
However, the consensus among volunteers is that it’s impossible to refuse Florence when she asks a favour. Her devotion to the community, her kindness and her belief in others’ goodwill prompt them to gladly follow her lead, even if they can make only limited contributions.
Florence and Dick are now enjoying their retirement and have passed on the reins to younger residents. The couple will remain icons in the history of Regal Heights and Florence will always have a special place in residents’ hearts as the graceful matriarch who inspired them to cultivate and beautify the area.
– Peggy Lampotang
Photos by Peggy Lampotang, Schuster Gindin and courtesy Florence Watts
Such an inspirational story of a special woman/couple and so nicely told through words and photos. Made me try and think about who our community builders are in our neighbouhood. Thanks!
Carol Phillips, Richmond Hill