News & Opinion

Jane’s Walk

Lanes and alleys of the West Annex

By West Annex News | Torontonians have a love affair with back lanes. Free of the corporatization of streets and the monoculture of chain stores, lanes are the ancient rain forests of the urban landscape. Peaceful and deeply idiosyncratic, they are our refuge from the tyranny of the shiny and new.

Unlike surrounding neighbourhoods, the West Annex has few lanes. In the late 1800s, when a  plan of subdivision was proposed for the farmlands north of Bloor, east of Brunswick, west of Bathurst and south of Wells, lanes were not included in the plans. Public transit — the horse-drawn street cars already serving Seaton Village, of which the West Annex formed the eastern half — would meet most of the new neighbourhood’s transportation needs. And with 200 or so stables and liveries located in the nearby Village of Yorkville and available for hire, private ownership of horses and carriages was deemed unnecessary, and so the plans didn’t include lanes running behind houses.

Seaton Village Street car, 1890, City of Toronto Archive, Series 71, Item 3363

At this time, there was already a modest commercial strip on Bloor Street to the south of the subdivision.  A lane ran behind this commerical strip so that suppliers of coal and goods could make their deliveries to the back of the stores without interfering with shoppers entering on the Bloor Street side.  And that is the first lane we will explore.

The lane entrance: east side of Bloor, south of the Bathurst Street subway station, just north of the Payless for Everything Dollar Store. The lane is officially called Seaton Walk, although there are no signs to say so.

Start the tour at the laneway entrance which runs east immediately south of the Bathurst Street subway station.  If you’re coming out of the subway station, turn left and walk south towards Bloor, and turn left again and walk east just before the Payless store, behind the shops on the north side of the Bloor Street retail strip. This lane is officially called Seaton Walk, although, sadly, there are no signs to mark it as such. The name reminds us that the West Annex once formed the eastern half of Seaton Village, which now lies to the west on the other side of Bathurst Street.

The mural at the back of Sonic Boom, 512 Bathurst Stree

The first block from Bathurst to Albany is dominated by the large mural on the back of Sonic Boom, Toronto’s best record store, which you will pass on your right. On your left, directly opposite the mural is an entrance to a little parkette immediately adjacent to the lane, a nice place to eat your take-out from Ghazale or to meet up before a show at the Bloor Cinema. The Bloor subway which runs beneath this park was built almost entirely north of Bloor Street, offset just far enough to run behind the buildings on the north side of Bloor. A chain of parkettes and parking lots mark the subway’s path.

Seaton Walk Parkette, Albany Avenue

This parkette is known as the Seaton Walk Parkette, and was built by the city after the subway was completed in the 1960s.  This tiny space is overwhelmed by heavy cement furniture fixed on the open lawns, which prevent it from hosting the diversity of uses that Jane Jacobs identified as necessary for a park to succeed. The city parks department and the local residents’ association are in a constant struggle to prevent this parkette from sliding into dereliction.

Continue on. You’ll see some unexceptional lane graffiti and tagging on your right before reaching Albany Avenue.  At Albany, take a good look at numbers 11 and 13. While most of the houses of the West Annex were built between the 1880s and 1910s, numbers 11 and 13 were part of a string of new buildings built on the subway right-of-way in the 1980’s. We will talk about these buildings further on in our walk.  Continue on the lane, which passes between number 9 and 11 Albany.

As you continue east, note the Autoshare parking lot on your right. The areas behind stores were originally set aside for the deliveries of goods and supplies for the retail stores on Bloor. In the age of the automobile, the area is now given over for parking. Look up to the upper floors of the buildings on your right to see the many decks and balconies. It’s easy to forget that retail strips are also residential areas. This quiet laneway is the back yard for the residents of Bloor Street’s upper floors.

You will next come to Howland Avenue. Canada’s only American-born Father of Confederation William Pearce Howland owned the land in this neighbourhood in the mid-1800s and first registered the six block plan of subdivision for the area from Bathurst to Brunswick, Bloor Street to Wells. He passed the land into the control of the Howland Land Syndicate in which his son Oliver Aiken Howland–future mayor of Toronto-was a principal, which eventually developed the land. Another son, William Holmes Howland was  Toronto’s first Reform mayor and coined the slogan “Toronto the Good” during his successful bid for mayor in 1884.

15 Howland Avenue

At Howland, take a moment to admire both 15 and 16-18 Howland.  Without resorting to ersatz-Victorian gee-gaws, the architect successfully complemented the late 19th century/early 20th century brick Victorian homes of this heritage neighbourhood with these relatively low-cost modern building. These, along with numbers 11 and 13 Albany which we’ve already passed, and 316-318 Brunswick which lie ahead, are all fine examples of enlightened social housing, built on top of the Bloor subway right of way by CityHome, now called the Toronto Community Housing Corporation.

CityHome was a project of the Crombie-era reform movement. Crombie became Mayor of Toronto in 1972. His entry in Wikipedia sums up his mayoral legacy nicely: “he ushered in an era of socially responsible urban development inspired by thinkers such as Jane Jacobs. Crombie represented the return of the reform movement in Toronto politics. . . his policies differed sharply from those of the Old Guard who preceded him . . . who were very pro-development and allowed a great deal of demolition of older buildings including houses, to make way for the construction of apartment blocks, office towers, and highways.”

These buildings illustrate one of the principles of the City’s housing policy at the time: mixed tenure, which placed subsidized housing in existing neighbourhoods, and where some of the tenants receive subsidies, and some pay market rents.

The gate in the south-east corner at the back of 15 Howland

Cross Howland and walk north (to your left) to the driveway of 15 Howland. Turn right (east) and walk down the driveway of 15 Howland to the back right (south-east) corner of the property. Open the chain-link gate, go through, and continue east until you reach Brunswick Avenue. There are three or four steps to descent just before you reach Brunswick. If you are unable to descend stairs, the alternative is to skip walking down the driveway of 15 Howland, and just continuing straight ahead across Howland to continue along the commercial laneway to Brunswick Avenue.

Joseph Burr Tyrrell Parkette

After crossing Brunswick, enter little Joseph Burr Tyrrell Park, another of the string built above the subway. Don’t mind the typo in the park sign. Continue east through the park. On the north side of the park just before you reach Dalton Road, there’s a historic plaque commemorating Tyrrell, whose remarkable life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries.

Joseph Burr Tyrrell historic plaque, on the north side of the parkette near Dalton

Tyrrell was a geologist, cartographer, explorer, mining consultant, and apple hybridizer. He was the first to discover the Albertosaurus and other dinosaur bones in Alberta‘s Badlands, and coal around Drumheller. The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller is named in his honour. There’s even a Historica minute about him.

At the time of his death at age 99 in 1957, Tyrrell lived at 14 Walmer Road, the lot directly across the street from the parkette.  His home was demolished for the construction of the Bloor-Danforth subway soon after his death. The Old Guard at City Council allowed almost all the historic homes on Walmer Road to be demolished for high-rise apartment buildings, one of which you see ahead of you.

Joseph Burr Tyrrell’s Walmer Road home once stood on the lands directly across from the parkette named in his honour

Metropolitan Toronto purchased, expropriated and demolished over 800 properties in all to build the Bloor-Danforth subway, about 70% of which were residential.

You are now at the far eastern boundary of the West Annex.  Across the street is the Annex proper, annexed to the City of Toronto in 1887.  And so ends the first half of the tour.

Now turn right and walk south to Bloor Street. Turn right and walk west on Bloor back to Brunswick Avenue. Turn left to cross Bloor and keep walking south on Brunswick. You’ll pass the Future Bakery on your right, Labrinth Lounge, and the Annex Live at 296 Brunswick Avenue, the former home of the Poor Alex Theatre, whose name was a deliberate parody of that of  the Royal Alexandra Theatre on King Street.

The Green Room mural

Turn right (west) into the lane immediately south of the Annex Live.  On this east-west laneway behind the Bloor Street commercial strip, you will see a series of murals painted on the various commercial buildings, including the Tranzac Club and the former premises of the Green Room. Beautiful and suprising, these murals are part of an anti-graffiti strategy, since at one time reputable graffiti artists would not deface or paint over the work of others.
Another lane, running south, intersects this one. Turn left, south on this laneway. While many people think of this area in the Annex, you are actually now in Harbord Village. The Harbord Village Residents’ Association undertook a project to paint murals on the garages of this north-south laneway to inhibit graffiti. Continue south down this lane and enjoy the number and variety of different works, some of which have been enhanced by subsequent artists. The photos here are but a small sample of the works in this lane.
Keep your eyes peeled, there are many, many works here, and some of the smaller ones can be easily overlooked.
When you reach the garage with the woman in the red bowler hat, you’re pretty much at the southern limit of the best works.
Turn back and walk north on the lane. When you reach the east-west laneway again, exit left (west) where there are a few more outstanding large murals and smaller pieces.  When you reach Borden, turn right (north) and you will return to Bloor Street.
And that’s the end of the tour.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
With thanks to Jane Beecroft the Community History Project and Gus Sinclair of the Harbord Village Residents’ Association, and others who preferred to remain unnamed.

You may also enjoy reading Jane Jacobs on the hazard of popularlity, which explains why a surfeit of  inexpensive sushi restaurants are found on the Bloor-Annex strip. 

Feel free to leave comments below.

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