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Doors Open Toronto May 26 & 27, 2012 | The Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr, 100 Howland Avenue

In Coming events, Heritage & History on May 23, 2012 at 10:05 PM

The Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr, 100 Howland Avenue in Toronto’s West Annex will be open for Doors Open Saturday and Sunday, May 26 and 27, from 10:00AM to 4:30PM

By Jane Beecroft and Louise Morin | Walking north from Bloor Street up Howland Avenue in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, one soon comes across a surprising sight: looming above the rooftops of  this house-lined street is one quarter of a 19th century cathedral. Built out of rose-purple Credit Valley sandstone, the magnificent building is abruptly truncated on its west end. There a hodge-podge of modern structures have been awkwardly tacked on to the Norman-inspired Neo-Gothic architecture of the cathedral.

How did this partial cathedral come to be?

The story begins in the early 1880s, when the Howland Land Syndicate acquired a four and a half acre parcel of land just north of the Toronto city limits at Bloor Street, between Bathurst Street and Brunswick Avenue, in order to develop a residential subdivision.

To attract buyers to build outside the city, the Syndicate struck a deal with the Anglican Synod to build a cathedral for Toronto’s Anglicans. The congregation of St. James had consistently refused to serve as the cathedral for Toronto diocese as they had fully paid for their own church and did not want their parish facility taken over by the diocese.

After passage of a special act of the Ontario legislature to qualify the site as the cathedral for Toronto, the Synod agreed to buy one of the six city blocks in the subdivision–bounded by Barton, Wells, Howland and Albany Avenue . The Syndicate in turn gave funds to the Synod to start building the cathedral named for St. Alban the Martyr. The Syndicate named the residential subdivision in the cathedral’s honour: St. Alban’s Park.

The ambitious plans for the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr at 100 Howland Avenue, including a    135 foot tower. How much is left for future generations to enjoy?

Architect Richard Cunnigham Windeyer drew ambitious plans, inspired by the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr in Hertfordshire, England. Construction of the cathedral–the first building in the subdivision–began in 1884. In November 1889,  one quarter of the cathedral–the choir and crypt–was finished and regular services began. See House, where three Anglican bishops of Toronto would live, was completed next door at 120 Howland.

See House, 120 Howland Avenue, where three Anglican bishops of Toronto once lived.

In The Annex, The Story of a Toronto Neighbourhood Jack Batten continues the story:

That may have been St. Alban’s most triumphant moment. Its history was not all downhill from there, but neither did it come close to the hopes and plans that Archbishop Sweatman and the congregation imagine to be the cathedral’s due. The building as it stood in 1889 was in the form it retains in essence to this day: one quarter done, lacking the 135 foot tower that was fundamental to Windeyer’s design.

Windeyer died in 1900 and this blow, along with world-wide depression, the Boer War, and other factors slowed down fundraising.

In 1911, parishoner Sir Henry Pellatt took charge of seeing the cathedral to completion. In  1913, he hired architect Ralph Adams Cram to complete the construction of the cathedral. Cram got as far as laying the foundations for the balance of the building when funds ran out yet again. By now the diocese of Toronto was having financial trouble: it was expanding rapidly and needed funds for new churches elsewhere.

The cathedral suffered a further setback when a sudden fire damaged the interior in 1929.

On April 8, 1929 the interior of the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr was damaged in a sudden fire | Photo by J. Karl Lee 

Firefighters battle the 1929 fire at the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr | Photo by J. Karl Lee

In 1936, Bishop Derwyn Owen cancelled cathedral status for the unfinished building, demoting it to a local parish church. The Synod turned ownership of the church property to its congregation. It sold off the gardens and playing fields to the north of the cathedral as residential lots. It transferred the parkland to the south, St. Alban’s Square,  to the city.

Despite these setbacks, the congregation thrived. Among other good works, it established St. Alban’s Boys Club (now St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club) headquartered today in Seaton Village.

In 1964, the congregation rented out buildings to St. George’s College, a private boys’ school said to be looking for  temporary premises only, while the school sought “a satisfactory (out-of-town) site for a permanent residential college.”

But St. George’s settled in, and began a series of expansions. The 89 students enrolled in 1964 grew to 253 by 1970, to 361 in 1991. The student body spread to the other church buildings. A brutalist-style cement gym was built at the back of the cathedral, on top of the nave foundations.

A hodgepodge of additions made by Royal St. George’s College on the unfinished foundations of the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr

Soon the ever-expanding St. George’s College coveted more of the property for themselves. In January 4, 1994, the school headmaster John Latimer assured neighbours about a proposed severance of Church lands to permit the sale of properties by the Diocese to the college:

“The Church will retain ownership of the church building itself and the lands on which it is located. The building will continue to be the home of the congregation of St. Alban the Martyr, your local parish.

The purpose of this letter is simply to assure you that the effect of the severance and transfer of the facility to the School itself will not result in any change in use, will not result in any increased traffic and so far as we are aware, will have no impact on the neighbourhood.”

But the local parish opposed the plans of St. George’s, and launched a court proceeding to prevent the sale by the Diocese.  While the legal maneuvers dragged on, the size of the college’s student body swelled again, to 417 in 1996, and to 440 in 1998.

Although the Cathedral and See House had been designated as being of architectural and historical value and interest under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1992, this did not stop them from falling into private hands. In 2000, the parish’s legal avenues exhausted, the church brass dis-established the congregation and sold the entire property to St. George’s College.  The Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr became the private chapel of the college.

Constant construction has been the hallmark of Royal St. George’s College’s stewardship of the    Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr and its related lands and buildings.

Slowly but steadily, St. George’s College built upon the foundations of the unfinished portion of the cathedral, for more classrooms, a library, a music room, an exercise studio, and a theatre, obscuring the original unfinished foundations of the cathedral. Today, only one small fragment of the unfinished foundations remains, on the west end of the property, opposite 104 Albany Avenue.

Foundations for the never-completed nave of St. Alban the Martyr Cathedral, opposite 104 Albany Avenue.

On September 18, 2010, careless workman working for the College left oily rags in the cathedral. They ignited, causing another devastating fire.

Damage from the September 18, 2010 fire. | Photo credits Royal St. George’s College.

While insurance monies provided the funds to restore the blackened woodwork, plaster and stained glass, original carved English oak furnishings from the 18oos were destroyed, as was a large portion of the original floor.

The restored cathedral re-opened in the spring of 2011 for the private use of students, faculty, parents, and alumni of the college, and their invited guests.

The famous double-hammer beam ceiling of St. Alban the Martyr Cathedral, restored after the 2010 fire.

Doors Open 2012 is the first time the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr–described in the Doors Open program as “truly a national treasure”–has opened its doors to the general public since the College acquired it in 2000. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit this embattled but enduring building.


See the Doors Open website for more information about visiting the Cathedral of St. Alban’s the Martyr the weekend of May 26 & 27, 2012.


Offline sources:

Jack Batten, The Annex: The Story of a Toronto Neighbourhood, 2004, Erin, Boston Mills Press.

The Community History Project brochure, St. Alban’s Park Subdivision

Other related articles:

St. Alban’s Square | A historic primer

What is the West Annex


Fanny Chadwick’s is now open at 268 Howland Avenue

In Arrivals & Departures, Eating & Drinking on February 18, 2011 at 2:35 PM

By West Annex News | Finally! The wait is over. Fanny Chadwick’s at Howland and Dupont opened its doors the evening of Wednesday, February 16, 2011.

We were given a look inside on Thursday, February 17th, just after the restaurant’s soft opening the night before. The transformation from the space’s last incarnation–AAA Chinese–is remarkable. There are large windows on the north, east and west sides of the restaurant, which allow natural light to flood into the space.  Inside is spacious, comfortable, and contemporary. The medium-brown wooden floors gleam. Comfy booths upholstered with bright, modern, geometric fabric line the walls, and vintage bar stools, upholstered in red leather–restored originals dating back from the days the space was Angelo’s Diner– provide seating around the L-shaped bar.

“The scene tonight @Fanny Chadwick’s” by @foodie411/Joel Solish

Sadly, we can’t show you the photographs we took during of our look inside the restaurant; part-owner Sarah Baxter wanted prior approval before we posted them, approval which she ultimately would not give. So we can only show you this mobile phone photo that @foodie411 (aka Joel Solish) apparently snapped off on opening night and shared on twitpic.

Baxter wouldn’t show us her menu either (although we found it later, also posted by Solish) as she said it was still evolving based on the feedback received during this week’s soft opening. She did share that the menu’s focus will be on seasonal comfort food, sourced locally where possible.  The meat will be from Rowe Farms, the beers from Ontario and Quebec, and the wine international.

An enthusiastic review of the food served the night of the soft opening night can be found on Solish’s Community Foodist website, together with more photographs of various dishes served that night.

111 Howland, where the original Fanny Chadwick lived from 1884 to 1898

As we understand it, Fanny’s will be open for dinner this week, brunch on the weekend, and then open full hours sometime next week. The Fanny Chadwick’s website is still under construction but gives this phone number–416.944.1606–and an email address for information: Regular updates are appearing on Fanny’s Twitter account, @FannyChadwicks.

The restaurant is named after Fanny Chadwick, an illustrious former resident of 111 Howland Avenue. According to Jack Batten in The Annex: The Story of a Toronto Neighbourhood, Fanny was born on January 10, 1873, and moved to 111 Howland Avenue at age 11 when her father, a successful senior partner with a prestigious 19th century Toronto law firm, built the enormous home opposite the See House beside St. Alban’s the Martyr Cathedral.The Chadwicks were Anglicans and committed supporters of the then partially constructed Cathedral.

Memorial window in St. Alban the Martyr Cathedral, 100 Howland Avenue

A gifted writer and actress, Fanny prolifically wrote, produced, and starred in plays which she presented in the living room of the spacious family home, to rave reviews from audiences that included members of Toronto’s working press. Fanny’s output dropped off after her marriage in 1898 and the birth of her son in 1900.  She died in 1905 at the age of 32.  A stained-glass window in the Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr at 100 Howland Avenue–across the street from the Chadwick home–commemorates her, donated by her heart-broken father.

Detail of memorial window dedicated to Fanny by her father

Fanny Chadwick’s restaurant is yet another sign that the upper West Annex is transforming itself, and far outpacing the Bloor Street strip to the south for the number of interesting shops, cafes, galleries and restaurant that are opening.


Also see:

Bert Archer, Venerable Dupont diner gets $250,000 overhaul, transforms into Fanny Chadwick’s”, YongeStreet.

Jack Batten,The Annex: The Story of a Toronto Neighbourhood, 2004, Erin, Boston Mills Press.


10 March 2011 update (from our Twitter feed):

West Annex News
WestAnnexNews As we have a chef & restaurant owner in our family, we know it’s not fair to review restaurants until they’ve had a few months to sort out.  So we had no intention of mentioning our meal @FannyChadwicks tonight before the Tarragon Theatre. But it was superb – food & service. The seared rainbow trout @FannyChadwicks is incredibly moist & flavourful & the portion size was generous (for the fish and the slice of apple pie).

*20 February 2011: edited this post to add Fanny Chadwick’s phone number, now posted on their website along with the restaurant hours.

*19 February 2011: this post was edited to add the photograph by @foodie411/Joel Solish.  Visit his Community Foodist website.

Issues for this Wednesday’s meeting with Councillor Vaughan and Royal St. George’s

In Coming events, Royal St. George's construction on February 15, 2011 at 1:34 PM

By Louise Morin | BOHICA: bend over, here it comes again.

Yes, Royal St. George’s College is back at it again; they will be resuming construction on March 14, 2011 for two weeks, then take a hiatus during the spring, resume the summer of 2011 and continue then until the fall of 2012 . . . and perhaps beyond, to complete the project Jane Jacobs famously called “bad Mel Lastman-era planning.”

And between RSGC’s indifference to bylaws and construction guidelines and the City’s inability or unwillingness to enforce them, the St. Alban’s Park neighbourhood can be forgiven for feeling abused.

But Adam Vaughan has decided to wade in where Olivia Chow wouldn’t, and has called a community meeting this coming Wednesday, February 16th at 7:00PM at Walmer Road Baptist Church  to try to address some of the more contentious issues arising from the construction.

What are the issues?

1.  Routing of construction vehicles through the neighbourhood

Of the 500-plus construction vehicles to pass through the neighbourhood, 200-plus will be tandem dump trucks | Photo credit Jack Byrnes Hill

Adam Vaughan wants our input on the proposed route for the 500-plus construction vehicles which need to travel through the neighbourhood to the RSGC construction site. The first option would bring the trucks down Howland from Dupont to the RSGC campus, the second brings them in Barton from Bathurst and north up Albany–the wrong way on the one-way street; the third brings the trucks in Wells from Bathurst–the wrong way on one-way Wells–then south on Albany. In all three options, the trucks exit south on Albany and west on Barton out to Bathurst.

In an attempt to avoid having this issue divide the neighbourhood, I’ve heard some neighbours suggest that the trucks should rotate amongst the three routes. While I appreciate the spirit of compromise that motivates this suggestion, I’m against it. RSGC has been my neighbour for 23 years, and they’ve never failed to disappoint me during construction projects: they just don’t follow the rules. If they’re given a schedule of rotating routes, they are not going to comply; instead, we’re going to have trucks on all three routes all of the time.

The red line is option 2: the fastest, shortest route in and out of the neighbourhood.

Although it will be unpleasant for me personally (I live just a couple of doors north of the corner of Barton and Albany), I’m in favour of the trucks following option 2.  It’s the shortest route in and out of the neighbourhood. It keeps the rest of the neighbourhood relatively safe and undisturbed. It will be easy to tell our kids where they can and can’t go without our supervision, to avoid trucks. And it will be crystal clear to RSGC the only route where their trucks are permitted.

2.  Protocol and compensation for interruption of services .

RSGC says that they will need to interrupt services (hydro, water, gas, telephones, Internet) for up to six hours at a time, at various times during this project. Neighbours of St. Alban’s Park–the de facto residents’ association of the West Annex–has pressed RSGC to provide a schedule of the interruptions in advance. Neighbours also asked for details of RSGC’s plan to pay compensation to those financially inconvenienced by the interruptions.

In reply, RSGC wrote earlier this month “RSGC can’t speak to compensation as it relates to third parties. If neighbours have questions, we ask that they contact these utilities directly.”

This disingenuous response won’t do. RSGC has to speak to a protocol for advance notice and compensation for us at Wednesday’s community meeting.

3. Removal of portables

The portable illegally moved by RSGC in late 2010. RSGC first promised to remove their portables in 1996, in return for permission from the Committee of Adjustments to build an addition. They built the addition, but never removed the portables.

In 1996, RSGC promised to remove the two portable from their property in return for a variance to permit them to build addition for more classrooms.  They built the addition but the portables were not removed.

In December 2010, RSGC moved the two portables, and pushed them up to the back fences of adjoining residential properties on the east side of Albany and the west side of Howland. In keeping with their philosophy that it is always better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission, RSGC didn’t get the okay from the city before making the move. The city has since told them one of the portables must go.

Neighbours of St. Alban’s Park have asked that the portable–which is used only as a judo studio–be removed entirely from the site immediately; after all, it’s been improperly on the property for well over 10 years. RSGC wants an indulgence: they want to move the portable to the tarmac, facing Albany Avenue, pleading just “three more months”.

Given the long history of broken promises around the portables, yet more promises aren’t going to cut it. The portable has to go, now.

4. Community Committees

During the construction in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s, in 2007 and again in 2010, RSGC repeatedly breached bylaws and construction management guidelines, particularly those concerning hours of construction, weekend construction, dust, mud, and noise control, and traffic and parking control.

The OMB ordered that for this project, various mandatory committees be struck, and that neighbours have a seat on these committees–the Construction Committees, where RSGC can seek permission to break the rules in special circumstance; the Community Consultation Committee, where neighbours can take complaints and problems caused by the construction; and the Neighbourhood Liaison Group under the Traffic Demand Management Plan.

RSGC has funny notions about neighbourhood representatives on committees.

Up until now, without any consultation with the neighbourhood, RSGC has chosen the so-called neighbourhood representatives. RSGC has then refused to give the rest of  us contact information for the neighbourhoods reps; they ignored Neighbours of St. Alban’s Park’s 2007 request for contact information, and mine made in the summer of 2010. And if these committees have ever met at all, RSGC has kept secret the date and place of their meetings and the results of their deliberations.

This farce can’t continue.  The neighbourhood should get to choose neighbourhood representatives.  We should be able to contact our representatives. We should be told in advance when committees will meet.  We should be able to attend the meetings.  Meeting agendas should be posted on the RSGC website in advance, and the minutes of the meetings promptly posted afterwards.

5. Enforcement of construction guidelines and bylaws

Councillor Vaughan’s office has asked someone from the City staff to come to to Wednesday’s meeting to explain to us why, project after project, RSGC has gotten away with breaking rules, and coach us on how we can get help from the city in the future.

In my many years as RSGC’s neighour, I’ve been to too many meetings where I hear RSGC’s “sincere” apologies for past breaches, followed by their lavish promises that they’re going to change their behaviour–this time.

When the next round of construction begins, we get the same disappointing behaviours–construction on weekends and statutory holidays, construction noise well before 7AM and well after 7PM, sidewalks blocked with building materials and trucks, no dust or mud control, on-street parking taken by construction crews and equipment and RSGC students.

Personally, I believe that RSGC follows a deliberate strategy of apology.  Why pay, for example, several thousand dollars on dust control when an apology later costs nothing?

6. Building on the south lawn by St. Alban’s the Martyr Cathedral

The view of St. Alban's the Martyr Cathedral from the east end of St. Alban's Square park

RSGC recently mentioned their desire to build–at some point–a small greenhouse “of less than 100 square feet” on the south lawn of St. Alban’s the Martyr Cathedral, where the RSGC environmental club wants to grow plants.

It is important that we stop any expansion of RSGC sheds and bins onto the lawn of St. Alban’s the Martyr Cathedral. The Cathedral is a designated heritage building of tremendous historic significance.

Between the brutalist gym RSGC stuck on the Albany end of the Cathedral in the 1970’s, to the big bus layby stuck on the Howland side in 2007, and the various bits and pieces stuck here and there on the Cathedral in between, there only is one unobstructed view left of the Cathedral for public contemplation, that is the view from the east end of St. Alban’s Square.

RSGC filled the the north side of their property with many sheds, bins, and portables. Now that they’re converting that space to a playing field, they’re looking to the only open space left on their campus, the lawns on the south side of the cathedral.  We must say no, and preserve what’s left of the view of this heritage site.

After 30-plus years of RSGC expansion, this the view of the historic cathedral from Albany Avenue

So as Jane Jacobs urged us, this we must remind RSGC on Wednesday night that there is a community here. If we all work together to make sure RSGC follows the rules, there’s no need for this latest project to become the same chaotic hell of those of the past.


For further articles and information about Royal St. George’s College construction, visit the RSGC Construction home page and RSGC Construction Archive.

Visit Jack Byrnes Hill’s photostream on Flickr.

Royal St. George’s construction imminent, Councillor Vaughan to host community meeting February 16, 2011

In Coming events, Royal St. George's construction on January 19, 2011 at 10:49 PM

Historic See House at 112 Howland Avenue is to be partially demolished and a large addition built on the back. Built in 1887, it was the home of all Anglican Archbishops of Toronto until 1937.

By Louise Morin | According to Andrew Whiteley, Assistant Headmaster at Royal St. George’s College, initial work on Phase II of RSGC’s OMB-approved construction plans–the underground garage and the addition to the back of the See House–is scheduled to begin in March 2011.

The March work will involve two weeks of shoring the perimeter of the future underground garage. So long as RSGC gets its final approvals from City Hall or the OMB, the work will take place during RSGC’s spring break from Monday March 14 t0 Friday March 25 (weekends excepted, or at least so Whiteley has promised; RSGC’s track record for observing bylaws and guidelines about days and hours of construction is not impressive).

Shoring involves excavation, driving steel support beams into the ground, and pouring concrete. Whiteley described this work as “noisy and disruptive” and “lots of work, lots of traffic and cement trucks”.

In mid-June of 2011, the balance of the work on the new underground garage and the large addition to the back of the historic See House on Howland Avenue begins. Whiteley said this too will be noisy and disruptive work. How disruptive? Whiteley suggested at least some neighbours should plan to spend the summer of 2011 at their cottages. RSGC hopes to complete the exterior work in September or October of 2011, and the interior work by the fall of 2012.

While the construction is ongoing, RSGC needs to route more than 500 construction vehicles, including about 200 tandem dump trucks through narrow West Annex streets. RSGC proposed three route options City Transportation Services in December 2010:

  • Option 1: Enter from Dupont, then south on Howland to RSGC; exit RSGC south on Albany, then west on Barton to Bathurst Street;
  • Option 2: Enter from Bathurst, then east on Barton, then north on Albany to RSGC; exit RSGC south on Albany, then west on Barton to Bathurst Street;
  • Option 3: Enter from Bathurst, then east on Wells, then south on Albany to RSGC; exit RSGC south on Albany, then west on Barton to Bathurst Street.

Thanks to the intervention of Neighbours of St. Alban’s Park Inc.–the de facto residents’ association of the West Annex–Councillor Vaughan will consult the neighbourhood about these options in a community meeting he’ll host, probably the evening of Wednesday February 16, 2011.

Also on the agenda:

  • protocol for RSGC to interrupt essential services (hydro, water, gas, telephones, Internet). RSGC wants to be able to interrupt services for up to six hours at a time, at various times over the summer. Neighbours of St. Alban’s Park has pressed RSGC to provide a schedule of the interruptions in advance. Neighbours of St. Alban’s Park has also requested answers to other questions about service interruptions, including details of RSGC’s plan to pay compensation to those financially inconvenienced.
  • RSGC’s breaches of bylaws and construction management guidelines in 2007 and again in 2010, particularly those concerning hours of construction, weekend construction, and dust, mud, and noise control. Also to be addressed is RSGC’s failure to establish the OMB-mandated community consultation committee where neighbours can take problems and complaints as they arise during the construction;
  • the removal or relocation of the portables. In 1996, RSGC promised to remove the two portable from their property in return for a variance to permit them to build an addition.  The addition was built but the portables stayed. In December 2010, without the necessary permission, RSGC moved the two portables and pushed them up near the back fences of adjoining residential properties on the east side of Albany and the west side of Howland. RSGC must move at least one of the portables. The city will not allow it to stay. Neighbours of St. Alban’s Park have asked that the portable–which is used only as a judo studio–be removed entirely from the site now. RSGC is considering the request, but may ask to move the portable to the tarmac facing Albany Avenue until construction is completed. Then both portables must be removed entirely, which Whiteley promises RSGC will do–this time.

Further information about the community meeting will be posted here as it becomes available, and watch for a flyer from Royal St. George’s College.

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For further articles about Royal St. George’s College construction, visit the RSGC Construction home page and RSGC Construction Archive.

The weekly wrap for November 19, 2010

In This week in the neighbourhood on November 19, 2010 at 2:29 PM

Tranzac Club | 292 Brunswick Avenue

“To me it’s hallowed ground” Polaris Prize winners Damian Abraham, Owen Pallet and others reminisce with Chris Bilton about the Tranzac Club on the eve of the beleaguered venue’s crucial fundraiser, in Eye

Step aside sushi, it’s fro-yo’s turn to rule the Bloor/Annex retail strip. Steve Kupferman reports on the proliferation of frozen yogurt purveyors on Bloor between Howland Avenue and St. George Street, in Torontoist.

Jane Jacobs warned us urban renewal was tricky. Ann Mehler Paperny asks if Regent Park’s revitalization is crumbling in the Globe and Mail.

“Sharrows on Harbord do little more than remind me of where better bicycle infrastructure is needed” Duncan argues that the new bike sharrows on Harbord between Spadina and Bathurst miss the point in Duncan’s City Ride.

“Churchill had tea on the porch and went for a stroll through the grounds of St. Alban’s” David Wright recounts his mother’s memories of Winston Churchill’s wartime visit to 123 Howland in RSGC Archives.

“For the fourth time in two years, the popular Annex hangout failed its health inspection” David Topping investigates the demise of the Green Room in Torontoist.

And just when you thought it was safe to read again, Brian Fawcett offers up his two cents on why Toronto elected Rob Ford, and what it means in Dooney’s Cafe.

123 Howland, where Churchill had tea

Local heroes Grassroots Albany celebrate 20th year

In uncategorized on May 1, 2009 at 7:27 AM

Grassroots Albany's annual sale of native and local plants will be held Saturday, May 16, 2009 starting at 9:00AM. The proceeds are used to fund local environmental initiatives like last year's free backyard native tree giveaway

It was 20 years ago when Albany Avenue resident Amanda McConnell returned from filming in the Amazon in despair. “It was two months of thick smoke, starving families, and destroyed rainforests” said McConnell.

But rather than let her despair paralyze her, McConnell was galvanized into action. Along with neighbour Temma Gentles and partner John Blazina “we decided we would act locally and think globally. We flyered the neighbourhood about forming a local environmental group and got about 16 people to the first meeting.”

The group never looked back. For 20 years, Grassroots Albany has lead a remarkable array of local initiatives in the West Annex, enriching the urban forest and strengthening community bonds along the way.

Foremost among these is the annual native and local plant sale held each year at McConnell and Blazina’s home on Albany Avenue south of Dupont Street.

Now in its 16th year, the sale is a circle-the-calendar social event for the entire neighbourhood. For native plant aficionados and newbies alike, it is an opportunity to buy plants and get advice from Grassroots volunteers who staff the sale. All are local gardeners with expertise in what works in the local West Annex microclimate, and from whose gardens most of the plant sales have come. Native plants, shrubs and trees have always been the emphasis of the sale: plants that have evolved here, have adapted to the local climate, soils, and rainfall, and which sustain local insects, birds, and other wildlife.

Plants from Grassroots' sale | click to enlarge

From the proceeds of the plant sale, Grassroots funds a myriad of local environmental initiatives.

Only three years after Grassroots was established, it undertook an unprecedented yard-by-yard tree inventory and study into the natural history of trees of the Albany-Howland neighbourhood. Armed with the information gathered in that study, Grassroots spearheaded countless planting campaigns over the years, from front yard tree planting in partnership with the City of Toronto Forestry Department to last fall’s free native tree giveaway, which Grassroots funded in conjunction with a grant from the Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation.  Grassroots Albany planted over 40 new native trees in local backyards as a result of this initiative alone.

Delivering free tree to Albany Avenue back yard

In 2004, Grassroots once again financed an inventory of the local urban forest. The results, reported in Return to the Forest–The Albany Neighbourhood 12 Years Later were gratifying. While trees were declining elsewhere in the city, the 2004 report showed that the community planting projects had significantly increased the number and diversity of neighbourhood trees.

Bring back the toads | click to enlarge

Plants and trees are just one facet of Grassroots’ activities.  Earlier this decade Grassroots offered tadpoles for distribution to local back-yard ponds to help re-establish the toad population once indigenous to the neighbourhood.

St. Alban’s Square is graced each summer with one of Grassroots’ most famous initiatives–the spectacular display of Explorer roses stretching the entire length of the park from Howland to Albany Avenue on the north side–known as Jacobs’ Ladder. Few of the rose walk’s many admirers realize this living tribute to neighbour and urban thinker Jane Jacobs was entirely funded and planted by Grassroots, and maintained by neighbourhood volunteers organized by Grassroots.

Jacobs' Ladder, the rose walk planted by Grassroots Albany in honour of neighbour Jane Jacobs

The rose walk stretches the entire length of St. Alban's Square | click to enlarge

The rose walk is but one of the many projects Grassroots has undertaken in St. Alban’s Square, a down-on-its-luck park sliding towards dereliction when Grassroots adopted it 20 years ago. The vibrancy this verdant space enjoys today is owed entirely to Grassroots’ tireless work over the last two decades, including in the area of advocacy for the West Annex’s most important public space.

When St. Alban’s Square was threatened in 2004 by Royal St. George’s College‘s proposal to “assume maintenance” of the park and turn it into their exclusive playground for morning recess, lunches, and after school activities, then Councillor Olivia Chow turned to Grassroots to gauge the community response: a resounding thumbs down.

Again in 2008, Grassroots helped the West Annex stand up to the Annex Residents’ Association Working Group’s plan to turn St. Alban’s into the dumping ground for the Annex’s off-leash dog problem.

In 20 years, employing her great personal charm, warmth, and passion, McConnell converted an entire neighbourhood to the local and sustainable causes long before they became fashionable, and helped foster a vibrant, active, and united community. The West Annex thanks her.

Amanda McConnell, far left, at a tree planting in St. Alban's Square