Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Neighbourhood Digest

Toronto is a series of neighbourhoods united into a city by a municipal dislike of the weather. Some distinct neighbourhoods bear the names of a almost-forgotten communities long since consumed by the growing metropolis. Forest Hill—all mansions and private schools—is centrally located in the midtown part of Toronto and was a separate municipality until the 1950s boasting its own school system and village-like main street shopping district. Leaside, another venerable district, was a separate town folded into Toronto in 1954, along with the village of Swansea and the townships of North York and Scarborough.

Rosedale is arguably one of the most prestigious neighbourhoods in the city and stretched over leafy ravines close to Yorkville, which is convenient for trendy shopping, and the downtown financial district, which is convenient for corporate titans and new-era robber barons.

In the old days the conventional wisdom was that Rosedale was a WASP enclave and that Forest Hill wasn’t. Ted and Beebe Grade had lived their entire married life in a gracious old home on the best street to be found among the tortuous and often hilly lanes that added to Rosedale’s awkward charm. Like many homes in the neighbourhood it is large, brick, architecturally dull and surrounded by a brick and wrought iron fence. Gates, which were never closed, were original to the property and adorned with coach lights at each end of the driveway. The overall tone was designed to suggest landed gentry and teacups.

Irving and Candis Mitzvah lived in the middle of Forest Hill in a newly built mansion built in a style best described as ersatz-chateau. Forest Hill could boast some large lots (Rosedale didn’t win on that score) and the Mitzvah’s had treed their lot with a veritable jungle of greenery and lined their driveway with an allĂ©e of trees. The backyard boasted a large swimming pool and a vaguely Grecian themed pool house so that the whole place was something of a pageant of architectural styles and flourishes.

Jane lived in The Annex, a gorgeous old part of the city bordering the University of Toronto. The Annex can claim a good stretch of Bloor Street West as an anchor for the community with all the amenities of urban living including classic used bookstores. Large homes, many turned into apartments over the years, commanded high rents because of the funky feel of the neighbourhood and its downtown location.

The office was downtown in the hip Queen Street West district in a converted warehouse on Spadina Avenue. To the north was the original Chinatown (Toronto could offer more than one) and to the south were ultra-hip Queen Street and the fashion district. The financial district was ten minutes on foot to the east.

The Campanile was in an area that was without a name, really, although it was customary to refer to the general neighbourhood as Midtown. It was situated on Avenue Road but not on the side of the street that would classify it as Forest Hill. It was located just north of St. Clair Avenue—a strict border to delineate precisely where Forest Hillbillies lived and where they didn’t—and was best described by the intersection as Avenue Road and St. Clair. It was a noteworthy district and The Campanile did not suffer from any suggestion of a bad address.

The reason for this municipal history lesson is to introduce The Republic of Rathnelly. Canada was bursting with pride in 1967 and eager to celebrate its 100th birthday with a suitably national effort that would add a rosy glow of patriotic feeling to the country. The government subsequently launched and encouraged numerous “Centennial Projects” to take place in Canadian communities from sea to sea to sea and all manner of playgrounds, libraries, city halls and annual festivals came into being. Books were written and oral histories were recorded and school children across the land sang “CAN-A-DA!” as the nation bonded with itself.

Rathnelly Avenue is found among a charming knot of streets just below Avenue Road and St. Clair right where the big hill on Avenue Road levels out at the Dupont Street trestle. Local wags decided that the community would secede from Canada as a Centennial Project and a fun proclamation was written and a queen was soon elected. All in good fun, the neighbourhood still holds an annual street festival and the residents are known to be civic minded agitators.

Jack Grade lived in the Republic of Rathnelly and owned a couple of good paintings from Adelaide Cousins. When the conversation at supper turned to art—Ardie had a few good pieces from Miss Cousins that he had pointed out on his tour—it was only natural that Jack would invite Leesa to visit him sometime and “check out my Adelaides” and just maybe they could grab a coffee?

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