Street Scene, The Annex Neighborhood, Toronto
A couple of years ago I stayed a week in Toronto and spent a lot of time walking about the city. Since the hotel was on Avenue Road near Bloor Street, a shopping and dining area known as Yorktown, and on the edge of a very peaceful though densely populated residential district called The Annex, my first and last walks took place there. The Annex is a neighborhood noted for a peculiarly Torontonian style house which became locally popular toward the end of the 19th century. Its prototype was a home built for a contractor named Lewis Lukes at 37 Madison Avenue by E.J. Lennox, late 19th century Toronto’s most prominent architect. It was a style that would be modified and perfected for the following twenty years. The Annex style house is a curious mixture of American Richardsonian Romanesque and the British Queen Anne style, and the stroller down these streets sees plenty of brick walls, porches, turrets and rounded arches and columns made of Credit Valley Sandstone. I was there in mid-September, and though some of the trees had just begun to acquire their fall colors, and there was the occasional chill in the air, most days were still languid with the soft residues of a lingering summer, and I could see how people would enjoy living there. Huge leafy trees, inviting and somewhat mysterious looking balconies, steeply pitched roofs and alluring back gardens only partially showing beyond gated side yards: what’s not to like? The proximity of shops and restaurants and some rather glorious museums and parks just a few blocks away adds to the charm. Still, what vestiges of practicality remain in me ask questions like: what about all that dry rot? suppose your house has settled after a century and your living room floor is tilted? what do you do with your dogs during the winter? And of course the ever-to-be-considered quandary: how do people afford it? Because, though most of the city’s elite began to move to more spacious and newly fashionable districts in other parts of the city in about 1900, The Annex remains one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Canada. I can see why.
The part of Toronto that most touched my heart, however, and where I felt most perfectly at home for reasons I can’t fully understand, is known as the Garden District. And especially the eastern portion of the Garden District, between Jarvis and Parliament streets, an area first subdivided in the 1850’s from estates owned by the Jarvis and Allan families. It is really a somewhat tattered and tarnished area, once the site of some fashionable homes but long since gone into decline. A few vestiges of these residences remain, but most are in run down or even decidedly sorry shape. I found them quite intriguing and wondered about their histories. It’s an area where you probably wouldn’t want to walk about much at night. But at the center of it all is my favorite spot in all of Toronto: Allan Gardens, built on land donated to the Toronto Horticultural Society in 1857 by George William Allan, president of the Society, mayor of Toronto and long-serving senator. Allan Gardens includes a conservatory, a charming off-leash dog area surrounded by low wrought-iron fences and a spacious city park, one of the oldest in Toronto. After discovering the place on my first morning in the city, I went back every day.
What I like about Allen Gardens is its sleepy, friendly and forgotten atmosphere. High-rise condo buildings loom up from between the branches of trees, but they seem irrelevant to the scene. Pigeons, despised as pests on the busier city streets, here seem completely at home as they search peacefully for their daily meals among the blades of grass. A few idle oldsters and young men with bottles loosely disguised in brown paper bags lounge quietly on benches, bothering and bothered by no one. Dogs romp joyfully in the off-leash area, the two spaces divided mercifully according to size of dog. Inside the conservatory, which is partitioned into five sections according to vegetative variety, an incredible number of plants, many quite rare, find permanent homes and are impeccably tended. A couple of soup bowl sized turtles spend their days drifting around their own private pond in the tropical section. My favorite is the cactus house, though. It’s warm and sunny. I can imagine sitting there just about every morning, especially in winter, after walking to Allan Gardens after breakfast at home in The Annex. Tilted living room floor and all. After all, Allan Gardens, along with its inhabitants, is a bit tilted too, a bit settled with the years, a bit in need of repair. That’s the essence of its charm.