“Parkdale, though young, lives for herself”
These words were written about the lake-front, tree-lined village of Parkdale in the Toronto Daily Mail in 1879. The Parkdale of today lives on; she has been home to the aristocrats of early colonial Canada, survived through the World Wars and the Great Depression, opened her arms to various asylum seekers from near and far, and continues to shift, evolve, and surprise those that she embraces. But Parkdale is more than a sum of her parts; it is through the sporadic and diverse history that she continues as a unique and vibrant neighbourhood in the western heart of Toronto.
The Mississauga of the New Credit; Indigenous Lands
The history of this area began long before Parkdale, however, stretching across the thousands of years that Indigenous Peoples called this land home. Tkaronto, a Mohawk word meaning “where there are trees standing in the water” referred to The Narrows in the passage between Lake Ontario and Simcoe. The traditional inhabitants of this land are the Mississauga of the New Credit and artefacts of human habitation have been found from over 10,000 years ago. Lake Ontario and the Georgian Bay functioned as a trade route, with Indigenous Peoples using the Humber and Rouge rivers as a shortcut connecting the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Superior. Toronto, with proximity to northern hunting grounds, highly protected natural landscape, and abundance of natural resources attracted other groups however, and European settlers began the dark and insidious process of colonization. By undertaking The Toronto Purchase, the colonizers paid 1700 pounds to the three groups of the Mississauga for the 1,000 square kilometres. And thus, the European ownership of this area, with a lake-side village of Parkdale, began.
The Village by the Lake
Beginning in the early 1800’s as an elite residential suburb, Parkdale was recognized as the westward sister of Rosedale. With the lake to the south, the spacious tree-lined avenues, and the intersection of railway lines, it became incorporated as a sought-after village in 1878. Parkdale prided and celebrated its pious self. It erected churches, held tea parties and temperance socials, refuted salons, and built schools, earning its name as the Floral Suburb and the Village by the Lake. Views stretched across the boat-filled bay, the Toronto islands, and Niagara on the good days. Locals gathered harmoniously, tree planting-bees were organized, and charming Victorian houses- many of which still exist today- were built for the virtuous families that were fortunate enough to live here. After the amalgamation with the City of Toronto, Parkdale grew a reputation as Toronto’s playground by the lake when the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion and Amusement Park opened in 1922. It was the place to be. But as they tend to do, times changed…
A Complicated Turn of Events
The fate of the Village by the Lake fell victim to a number of factors, beginning with economic slowdown that came with the Second World War and the Depression before that. The airy avenue-lined houses became unmanageable to their aristocrat owners, and they started being rented out as flats and rooms. The big hit began in 1951, when the Lakeshore Boulevard was widened to six lanes, followed by the demolishing of 170 homes and the closing of the Sunnyside Complex for the Gardener Expressway. And just like that, the lake- and the breezy lifestyle that came with it- was lost. From this point, Parkdale quickly changed. The former homeowners and village-enthusiasts moved, the large homes on stretching avenues such as Jameson were demolished for hi-rises, and many remaining homes turned into poorly managed rooming houses and the like.
The next crucial factor in the Parkdale story came with the sweeping North American trend undetaken by CAMH (previously known as the Queen Street Mental Hospital). Covered up by the guise of community based care, patients were released into the community with no support programs or community caregivers, and many found home in the sub-standard rooms of the past Parkdale mansions. This was compounded by the 1979 closure of the Lakeshore Provincial Psychiatric Hospital, and by 1981, approximately 1100 patients lived in South Parkdale. By 1985 there was 39 official group homes for former patients, rendering many patients left to their own devices. Instead of viewed as in need, these patients were viewed as dangerous and service dependent, and the elite reputation of Parkdale quickly grew grim.
A Story of Gentrification: Coffeeshops, thrift, & tapas
Unlike monotonous Rosedale, Parkdale offered a colourful variety to its inhabitants. Affordable housing, neighbourhood amenities such as lush trees and the lake, and spacious properties began drawing a different demographic to Parkdale in the 1980’s, and soon young parents, artists, and young professionals started filling the streets. Today, we see gentrification pulsing through Parkdale; art galleries, trendy coffeeshops, expensive second-hand thrift stores, artisan boutiques, young trendsetters, and of course, explosive rental prices. As this trendy middle-class movement gains momentum, the risk lies in the displacement of the low-income population and general ‘nimbyism’ towards these vulnerable individuals.
But unlike other gentrified neighbourhoods such as The Junction, Parkdale seems to be holding onto its roots. If you’ve lived or spent much time in this neighbourhood, behind the flurry of trendsters and and soy flat whites you will find a solid, living foundation. The historically low cost of living drew numerous immigrants and refugees to this area, many fleeing political-crises from countries such as Tibet, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. These populations have contributed immensely to the vibrancy, richness, and diversity of this area, allowing many people to experience it. Tibetan and Indian restaurants (shout-out to Glory of India), communal gardens, and support programs for those with mental health issues have flourished here, all contributing to the uniqueness and resiliency of this area.
What are the anchors that keep Parkdale from spiralling off into a flurry of gentrification? Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC), whose Tagline is “A community where people rebuild their lives”, works with members on issues of mental health and poverty. Meal programs, yarnbombing, supportive housing, and financial literacy programs are just a number of community supporting programs they offer. Greenest City is an environmental charity that is very active in Parkdale, with multiple community gardens that offer residents a veggie patch in the city, as well as art and food programs for the young and old, and affordable farmers markets in the summer months. Parkdale’s Little Tibet, which holds the largest Tibetan community in North America, is home to Tibetan food, gatherings, and cultural events. Will these factors keep Parkdale as a living and and thriving community? While gentrification spirals through these southern streets, it remains a diverse mixture of demographics; of people, cultures, income levels, and histories.
In Parkdale you can find warm, hearty meals that keep your bones dry. Parkdale is for Lovers t-shirts. People talk in the street, wander down the rolling avenues, create art on back-alley walls. It is undoubtedly alive; the heart of Parkdale beats through the streets. Is Parkdale a case of its own? Will it continue down the same roads of gentrification that have taken Cabbagetown and The Junction? Or can the roots of community and resiliency keep Parkdale what it has become through the changing times; a home for those who need it.
By Claire Stevenson-Blythe
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page