By Courtney Boost, Heritage Toronto
The West Don Lands, recently rebranded as the Canary District, is an area that has been prone to change. Bordered by the Don River, King Street East, Parliament Street and the rail line adjacent to the Gardiner Expressway, the area is undeniably an up-and-coming neighbourhood. Like many neighbourhoods in the city’s core, the West Don Lands have experienced change to both its natural landscape and built environment, but on a scale and over a period time not seen by most. The area began as a thriving wetland and marsh before being developed into a hub of industry in the 19thcentury, which declined with the fall of rail transportation. Over the past decade, the area has been reinvented as the Athletes’ Village for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am & Parapan American Games, and revitalized into an emerging urban community.
The industrialization of this former wetland began with the straightening, widening, and deepening of the lower Don River in the late 19th century. The provincial Don Improvement Act (1886) sought to improve unsanitary water conditions, create an accessible waterway for large vessels, accommodate rail traffic into the city, and establish land for industrial purposes. By 1891, the lower River was noticeably straightened from Winchester Street south to the Grand Trunk Railway Bridge, adjacent to Eastern Avenue. Although the project fulfilled neither its promise of bringing shipping to the Don River nor its pledge of improved sanitation, it did make available more river valley land.
In drastically altering the natural heritage of the Don River, Toronto saw opportunities to further industrialize: distilleries, tanneries, oil refineries, packing plants, piggeries, and soap factories were thriving in the area. With booming industry and limited space, the Toronto Harbour Commission established the Toronto Waterfront Development Plan to further develop the port lands. The Plan, which took nearly two decades to complete, began in 1913 and involved the creation of 800 hectares of solid land and deep water. To accomplish this, the majority of Ashbridge’s Bay Marsh and the central harbour were filled, which inevitably resulted in the destruction of one of the largest wetlands on Lake Ontario. Today, only a small portion of the Marsh remains – near Leslie Street in the Beaches.
Among the remaining buildings from this period of growth are the Palace Street School and the Canadian Northern Railway office building, which create a historic gateway at Front and Cherry Streets. Built on the southeast corner, Palace Street School (1859) was one of the first free schools in Toronto, and was said to have been the first school in the Toronto Board of Education to have a female principal.
Following the school’s closure in 1887, two additions were completed and the building operated as a hotel for nearly 80 years. In 1965, the Vlahos Family purchased the rundown building and opened the Canary Grill. For the next four decades, the Canary provided an iconic diner atmosphere for guests and film producers alike. Used as a backdrop in several popular movies, including Scott Pilgrim vs The World, the historic restaurant served its last meal in 2007, but still stands as a touchstone of the neighbourhood’s past.
Across the street from the neighbourhood’s new namesake stands a landmark of the district’s railway heritage. Beginning in 1905, the Canadian Northern Railways (later part of Canadian National) offices were part of an expanding campus of railway and related industry buildings. The railway was instrumental to economic growth along the waterfront, with industry reliant upon rail as an efficient means of freighting materials and goods in and out of the area. Factory owners clambered to the port lands, yearning to secure their position within the highly sought Great Lakes shipping industry. However, with the rise of transport trucks, the growth of highways, and increased access to inexpensive land outside the city core, this area became de-industrialized; Canadian National Railways left its freight office in 1970 and many factories soon followed.
Efforts to revitalize the heavily polluted lands have been a long time coming. In 1987, Mayor Art Eggleton launched a plan to revitalize the underutilized lands, while combating the City’s subsidized housing crisis. Known as “Ataratiri,” the plan involved the acquisition and demolition of most properties in the area. Unfortunately, the development process for the cleanup of the brownfields was costly, and the project was cancelled five years later.
Since 2005, a three-part revitalization plan has been underway. Known as the West Don Lands Precinct Plan, it is slated to transform the derelict district into a thriving urban neighbourhood. The first phase of development included the opening of the Underpass Park in 2012, the first ever park built under an overpass in Toronto, which demonstrated how neglected urban spaces can serve as a valuable public amenity. Similarly, the 7.3-hectare Corktown Common Park serves the budding neighbourhood, while simultaneously serving as a berm designed to protect eastern downtown from flooding.
It is interesting to note that Toronto’s nickname of “Hogtown” is rooted in the pre-history of Corktown Common Park. From 1874 to 1927, the site was home to the William Davies Company, reputed to have been the largest pork packing plant in the British Empire, which was also one of Canada’s first store chains. Like others in the area, the company’s buildings had easy access to the railway and were part of an integrated industrial campus; for William Davies, this meant everything from slaughter to shipment was done on site. By 1900, the company processed nearly half a million hogs, contributing to Toronto’s well-earned moniker. The William Davies Company merged with three other firms to become Canada Packers, continuing to operate here until 1932.
The second phase of the West Don Lands Precinct Plan includes the Athletes’ Village for the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games. The Village will house visiting athletes during the Games, following which the community’s transformation will have reached its peak. The final neighbourhood will include a YMCA recreational facility, a George Brown College student residence, two affordable housing residential buildings, two market residential development sites, and various retail stores. The area will also feature the City’s first ‘woonerf’ – a narrow street, with no curbs or signage, designed for pedestrians, cyclists, automobiles, and streetcars.
Whether you still call it the “West Don Lands” or have welcomed it as the “Canary District,” the new urban community will serve as a civic legacy of the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games – along with a few reminders of the city’s industrial heritage.
Courtney Boost is the Marketing Assistant at Heritage Toronto. A charitable City agency, Heritage Toronto offers neighbourhood tours from April to October, including the new “West Don Lands: From Manufacturing to Medals” tour, sponsored by Canary District.
Image: 1894 photograph looking east along the Esplanade, Toronto Public Library