Imagine that we were watching a time-lapse film of what is today Trinity-Bellwoods Park, starting at, say, 1850. We would see a vast 50-acre vacant field, and in the distance a house here and there. But most astonishing would be a small river, Garrison Creek, famous for its salmon fishing running from somewhere north of St. Clair down to Lake Ontario, its course carving a steep ravine through the land. The feeling must have been like Little House on the Prairie, especially in the desolation of winter.
In 1851, Bishop John Strachan, indignant that the legislature had insisted that the new University of Toronto be a secular institution, raised money to start his own Anglo-Catholic university, Trinity University, on this land just above Queen Street West. Thus arose a large Gothic Revival building, meant to mimic as closelyas possible those of Oxford, which dominated this area until the 1950s, when the City, now the owner of the land and buildings, decided to demolish it. In a sense, a replica of it was constructed at the University of Toronto campus on Hoskins Ave., just off Queen’s Park Crescent, yet many believe the City was short-sighted in tearing down this extraordinary building. All that remains today are the gates along the north side of Queen St. with their graceful stones and Latin inscriptions.
In the second half of the 19th century Trinity-Bellwoods attracted land developers who built more and more houses around the old college. Nearby, just east of the campus, St. Matthias’ Church was built in 1873, and has maintained the Anglo-Catholic tradition to this day. The interior of the church is off limits for the time being because of repairs, but the east window has a striking gold-tinted watercolour that dates from the inception of the building. The painting is on three sheets of wove paper laid down on cardboard. The façade reminds me of the village churches we see in English mystery series on PBS. The church was one of the first projects designed by Frank Darling, whose buildings shaped early Toronto, including Convocation Hall and the Applied Sciences Building at U of T, the Toronto General Hospital, and the Toronto Club (at St. George and Bloor). St. Matthias is also distinguished by its chaplaincy at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and as a venue for group therapy for those addicted to drugs. At 227A Crawford St. is John Gibson House, now a permanent or transitional home for people over 55 with mental health, addiction and housing issues, run by the Anglican Diocese, but formerly St. Hilda’s College, the women’s residence at the original Trinity University. It was built in 1899.
As population density grew, it was felt that a bridge should be built across the ravine, in what is now the northwest corner of Trinity-Bellwoods Park, near Crawford and Dundas. The first bridge, constructed of wood was finished in 1884, but was replaced by a triple-span concrete-and-steel bridge in 1914-15, the design influenced by Roland Caldwell Harris, Commissioner of Works, whose style can also be seen in the similar Prince Edward Viaduct (Bloor-Danforth bridge over the Don Valley), which was built about the same time.
This lovely bridge has suffered a most unusual fate: in the 1960s the City decided to fill in most of the ravine with dirt from the massive excavations for the Bloor St. subway. With the ravine filled in, there was no need for a bridge, so the bridge was simply buried, intact, a well-kept secret for most contemporary Torontonians. At least the City in 2008 placed a plaque and other markings where the bridge lies beneath the Park. In 1996 the City studied a plan to unearth the bridge, and further, to restore the ravine, as part of an ambitious plan to resuscitate the Garrison Creek watershed, which would be more ecologically sound. The Crawford St. Bridge is not the only victim of interment: upstream on Garrison Creek, the Harbord St. Bridge came to the same fate.
Only a trace of the original ravine survives at the north end of the Park, but it does give you an idea of how deep and wide it once was. As for where Garrison Creek is today, it has been hidden underground in a brick-lined sewer, beginning in the 1880s. In heavy rainfalls, both Trinity-Bellwoods and Christie Pits are sometimes flooded. Many such waterways have been diverted into our sewer system, their names only surviving in street names, such as Taddle Creek Rd. on the U of T campus and in the name of the park.
No account of the history of Trinity-Bellwoods would be complete without mentioning Dr. Albert Durrant Watson (1859-1926), whose house was just around the corner from the Park at 10 Euclid Ave. Dr. Watson was a genuine 19th century polymath: a medical doctor who practiced for 40 years; a serious amateur astronomer who was widely respected in scientific circles; a poet and musician; and a strong believer in spiritualism, that is, the notion that one can communicate with the dead via a medium or in a group of like-minded people (the séance). It was a popular idea in the early 20th century, and one of its famous exponents, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of a fictional Dr. Watson, once came to Toronto to Dr. Albert Watson’s house for a séance. In 1920 Dr. Watson converted to the tolerant, eclectic religion of Baha’i, which was just being introduced to Toronto at that time. He wrote The Twentieth Plane: A Psychic Revelation (1918), in which he quotes from his conversations with Samuel Taylor Coleridge on that astral plane.
Ten Euclid Ave. is a good example of an architectural style found only in Toronto: the gable-bay house, that is, a narrow but long house of two or three stories, mostly found in row houses or double houses, although Toronto has some that are single houses. The bay window was meant to let in the maximum amount of light, since the sides of the house often had no windows. It evolved in part to take advantage of the property tax code, which was based on width. The oldest surviving houses date from 1875, and generally speaking this style of house was popular in the older parts of Toronto, such as Cabbage Town, the Annex, and Trinity-Bellwoods.
It is humbling, and instructive, to watch our imagined time-lapse film. We see how urbanization reshapes the actual geomorphology of the land: a ravine with its stream and surrounding flatlands, first built upon and then slowly erased to the point where hardly a trace remains, except for a plaque or two. We see men in their stiff collars and high boots, the women in their voluminous dresses and large hats, colonizing this part of Toronto, mostly people from the British Isles, establishing Anglo-Catholic parishes with their churches. And these generations give way to a much more diverse population, wave after wave. Trinity-Bellwoods now has a large Portuguese population (Little Portugal is just next door on Ossington). St. Matthias’ Church has a dwindling congregation, reflecting both the changes in the demographics of the area and the increasing secularization of society. Many churches in Toronto have been repurposed, some now Korean churches or Tibetan Buddhist temples, others for commercial uses or as meeting halls.
Immersed as Trinity-Bellwoods is in history and the ghosts of bygone generations, it has nowadays become one of the most attractive, trendy neighbourhoods of Toronto. As late as the 1990s this neighborhood still was a little sketchy; a former owner of the Swan Restaurant noted that where the Mexican restaurant Fonda Lola is today (Shaw and Queen West), there was a crack house.
This stretch of Queen West feels sophisticated and human-size. Remarkably, there is a wonderful bookstore that has survived the big box stores and Kindle, for those of us who enjoy holding a paper book in our hands and like the feel of turning pages and the smell of paper and ink. One way I judge bookstores is by the vitality and size of the poetry section. At Type Books (883 Queen St. West) the poetry section is up-to-date and covers a wide variety of periods and styles. It is such a joy to wander among the various subjects and the tables with the new arrivals. Borges said that books, like people, have their own fates. You never know what you might come across, perhaps something that will change your life. Also, at Type Books there are talks by authors and other literary events that energize the artistic life of the area.
Just next door, The Paper Place (formerly the Japanese Paper Place) is one of my favorite stores to browse in. Wrapping paper, stationery, origami and everything paper imported from exotic locales: there is Nepalese and Tibetan paper, Japanese paper with gorgeous designs, and even the tools you need to sew paper together. It is a great pity that, despite its speed and convenience, modern technology has largely replaced letter writing. How wonderful it would be to receive letters on such paper and in such envelopes. Each one would be a collector’s item.
Another sign of urban sophistication is culinary: The Spice Trader, very close to The Paper Place and Type Books. Since the advent of TV cooking programs our meals now incorporate recipes from all over the world. For example, you may need galangal for a Southeast Asian recipe or nigella seeds for Indian naan, but you will rarely find these at your local supermarket, thus necessitating a trip to the Spice Trader to add to your collection of condiments.
Just across the street is the Stuart Jackson Gallery, entirely devoted to traditional Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e). The colours and the sense of design are unsurpassed, and the subjects include views of nature, such as Mt. Fuji and sea coasts, but also everyday scenes such as fishing, crowds crossing an arched wooden bridge, bamboo umbrellas in the snow, beautiful women, and particularly actors in kabuki and nō dramas.
Trinity-Bellwoods Park is the hub for the Queen West Art Crawl (QWAC), which is held every year in October. Artists and vendors set up their pavilions along the walkways of the Park. Their wares include everything artistic from jewellery, bracelets, to paintings of all sizes and prices.
My dream for Trinity-Bellwoods has always been that, with some government support, space would be made available in nearby buildings for artists of every sort – painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, poets and writers, filmmakers and actors, so that a critical mass of creative, original people would be established, and that these would become the nucleus of Toronto’s bohemia, from which would emerge a renewed cultural vitality and a more humane urban life.
Steps to realizing this dream have already been taken in at least two locations very near the Park. The largest is Artscape Youngplace at 180 Shaw Street at the western edge of Trinity-Bellwoods Park. The building is a huge 75,000 square foot public school, built in 1914, but decommissioned in 2000, and bought by a not-for-profit urban development organization, Artscape, in 2010, the same organization that arranged for the establishment of the Wychwood Barns to become a community space. In this case, the intention has been to convert classrooms, with their 10-foot-high windows and abundant natural light, into artists’ studios and workshops where not only is art produced, but also classes are held in training students in the arts and music. There is even a café where artists and writers can socialize, probably one of the most important aspects of an artistic community. Some suites are owned and some are rented out by the hour. This building is also the home of the Koffler Center of the Arts, which includes an art gallery.
The other location is a former warehouse at 900 Queen West, just across from the Candy Factory Lofts. This building was bought in 1995 by Artscape West Queen West. The city specifically zoned this building as an artist live-work project, the first in the city. Originally in the 1970s several warehouses and factories along Queen West had been closed down and there were a number derelict buildings. In this twilight zone artists had begun assembling because of the affordable rents, but as the area gradually became trendy, the artists could no longer afford to live there and sought refuge in Parkdale and Liberty Village. For example, nowadays a loft in the Candy Factory rents for over $6000 per month. Because of Artscape’s purchase of what is now Artscape West, 22 artist-led families reside in the building, which also houses five work studios, a tenant garden and a community bake oven.
In the corner spot in the Artscape West Queen West building is Graven Feather, a gallery and ‘art hub’, centered around printmaking, binding, paper and letterpress, with studio space and a retail shop. Workshops are also offered on linocuts, framing, stitching books, even pop-up books.
In 2005, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) was established at 952 Queen St. West, just a bit west of Shaw St. and for a decade was an important stimulus to the artistic community; however, the museum, now renamed the Museum of Contemporary Art_Toronto_Canada, is relocating to the century-old Tower Automotive Building, 158 Sterling Rd., about halfway between Dundas West and Bloor West, past Lansdowne. The Museum is due to re-open in May 2017.
To make my dream for the area even more complete, I would also like to see the Crawford St. Bridge disinterred.
– Robert L. Fisher
Photos by Silvana de Bono and Robert Fisher
Additional photos courtesy Toronto Archives, Artscape, QWAC, Graven Feather, Schuster Gindin