Celebrate the streetcar line that made St. Clair West the thriving community it is today
It’s hard to imagine what is must have been like back in 1913 when St. Clair Avenue was Toronto’s furthest city limit, much like Steeles Avenue is today. St. Clair was a dirt road with very little in the way of commercial or residential buildings, right up until the streetcar line was built. The St. Clair streetcar was a harbinger for change in many ways, for community and commercial development.
Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the laying of the St. Clair TTC streetcar tracks and the opening of the first of the car barns on Wychwood Avenue. The Wychwood Barns Community Association has plans for a grand centennial celebration during the week of September 10 to 15, an initiative they hope will be the catalyst for broader and deeper community engagement.
The WBCA was created five years ago when the barns were converted from a derelict state to the current revitalized campus of public facilities.Its broad mandate is to provide community stewardship to the space and to work to connect the surrounding community to the people and organizations in the complex.. The association is comprised of civically-engaged individual volunteers who live in the surrounding neighbourhood, supported by a part-time coordinator.
In the 1990s, the community expressed an interest in saving these industrial architectural structures as public spaces and as a result, the Artscape Wychwood Barns play a vital role in the social life of neighbourhood. Ward 21 councillor Joe Mihevc was instrumental in spearheading the Wychwood Barns revitalization project. “The WBCA started about five years ago when we kicked off and opened the new Artscape Wychwood barns and their task is to animate the arts and culture activities at the barns on behalf of the community.” says Mihevc.
“The centennial seemed to be a perfect opportunity to celebrate the beginning of these wonderful buildings and the role that the St. Clair streetcar line played in the development of the community along St. Clair”
The association has enlisted the efforts of over 100 volunteers engaged with the centennial project and has been the recipient of several grants. “The city is 110 per cent behind this effort.” says councillor Mihevc. “It’s important to celebrate our local community and really to note it’s milestones. Immediately before World War I is when things really got going, when the city started to stretch out and St. Clair became the top of the city and everything north was farmland.”
Liz Kohn is the director of communications for Artscape, the facility operator and property manager of the Wychwood Barns. Artscape is an organization that has transformed a portfolio of underutilized buildings across Toronto into dynamic community assets. “With the Artscape Wychwood barns, because of these beautiful old structures, went through the redevelopment phase and have defined how we would reuse those individual barns to serve multiple purposes.” says Kohn.
Barn 1 is called the Studio Barn, home to artists and their families and also provides for studio use. The WBCA’s Community Gallery is located at the east end of Barn 1. Barn 2 is the Covered Street barn, an 8,000 sq. ft. open space that is rented out to host private and public events. Barn 3 houses the office space for a number of nonprofit arts and environmental organizations. On the south end is the giant barn and greenhouse called the Stop’s Green Barn operated by the Stop Community Food Centre.
Visitors to the barns can see where the original tracks entered the property and where work was performed on the ancient cars. “Our architect Joe Lobko wanted to make sure that barn two, the most public of the spaces, really highlighted its former use.” says Kohn.
Ruth Baumann has served as president since the creation of the WBCA and was recently awarded a Queen’s jubilee medal for her work with the association.
“We have an interest in heritage and the arts and the environment and in community-building overall.” says Baumann. “So the centennial seemed to be a perfect opportunity to us to both celebrate the beginning of these wonderful buildings and the role that the St. Clair streetcar line played in the development of the community along St. Clair. The St. Clair story is evidence that good transit builds communities.”
In an ongoing effort, the association has accumulated a collection of historic photographs from the Toronto archives that they’ve made available at the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings at the barns. “With the permission of the archives, we reproduce these photographs for a five-dollar donation,There’s been huge interest from the community in knowing more about their neighbourhood’s history. .” says Baumann.
During the week of September 10 to15, the WBCA plans to stage an exhibit in Barn 2 about the development of the neighbourhoods and the streetcar.and volunteers are busy researching material with assistance from the Toronto Archives.
Also underway, to be launched coincident with the centennial, is a new high-tech website celebrating the history of St. Clair concentrating on the area between Spadina and Dufferin. “It will also be connected to a mobile application that will be working with software that comes from Ryerson that allows both images and information to be layered onto a Google map.” says Baumann. Visit atthebarns.org to view more information about the centennial events and the WBCA.