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Toronto: A Guerilla Community Gardener Grows in Downtown Toronto

  • Subject: [cg] Toronto: A Guerilla Community Gardener Grows in Downtown Toronto
  • From: Adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Sun, 5 Sep 2004 12:50:48 EDT


This looks like a garden that should be on the ACGA Convention visit list, and that the gardeners should be told about the ACGA convention to meet other "kids" just like them.

Adam Honigman
Clinton Community Garden 

Sneak attacks win war on blight
Neighbours use gardening skill

Abandoned lot blooms anew


In the war of beauty versus blight, a small band of downtown guerrilla gardeners has won a battle.

But even as they weed and chat together with bees buzzing around the blossoms in their peaceful green corner, they know that the long-term outcome is uncertain.

Draper St. is a miniature kingdom of its own in the shadow of the CN Tower. It is a single city block of 28 Queen Anne-style houses with mansard roofs - genuine period houses built in the early 1880s on one of the narrowest streets in town.

These days, Draper St. has its own community garden where residents gather on summer evenings to chat and sip coffee together after a day's work. It's an informal meeting place on weekends, a place for enthusiastic gardeners to pursue their horticultural passions on weekdays and an ideal site for the annual September Draper St. community party, which last year attracted both then-city councillor Olivia Chow and soon-to-be-mayor David Miller.

The catch is that the garden doesn't officially exist. The land is privately owned by someone who chooses to remain anonymous. The cultivation came about through neighbourhood guerrilla gardening efforts.

"We love our garden," says retired art teacher Catherine Freeman, 60. "It adds beauty. It's a place where we can get together and it gives the community a kind of completeness."

Freeman is the Draper St. kingdom's social director, the way Jenet Hamilton, 54, is its head gardener and Bill Brokenshire, 59, is not only president of the residents' association, but also the community archivist and historian. Brokenshire has documents showing who built each house on the street and who the first residents were in every one.

"People move here from streets where they don't even know their near neighbours," observes Hamilton. "Here, everyone knows everyone."

The neighbourhood spirit is so comradely, Freeman says, "we all have each other's keys and look after each other's cats."

One resident was born on the street, and Hamilton has lived there since infancy.

While Draper St. has always been a closer knit community than most in the city, it never used to have a gathering place. It did, however, have a vacant lot surrounded by a chain-link fence, subject to having garbage thrown into it by people from outside the neighbourhood.

The lot originally had two houses on it and, later, a factory building made of cinder blocks. It burned down in 1969, leaving cement, rocks and weeds. Since then, the only use put to the lot was occasional parking for a nearby business.

"One day we noticed Jenet sneaking in here with some dirt and some plants from her garden," says Freeman. "Soon, we were going over to Leslie St. to get compost from the municipality for the garden."

The guerrilla gardening movement grew as more neighbours joined in, bringing plants, soil and elbow grease. Some contributed outdoor chairs and a table. Last summer, Draper St. residents took to meeting for a group gardening shift after work every Wednesday.

"We had bricks and rocks from house renovations and we started to bring them here to the garden to build the beds," Brokenshire says. Since his house is next door, he also provided a hose to water the plants after the garden's earliest days when Hamilton lugged 20 containers of water a day up the street from her house.

This year, Brokenshire's friends at Lancaster Landscaping and Flowers began contributing shrubs, plants and at least one tree. If their landscaping work requires removing plants, they take them to the Draper St. community garden.

By now, the garden has masses of purple-flowered Russian sage, wide-leafed hostas, bright summer phlox and sedum around its borders. There are obedient plants, Solomon's seal, ornamental grasses and Queen Anne's lace. One resident has set up a basketball backboard where the young people of the neighbourhood shoot hoops on summer days.

The great unknown in all of this is the owner of the property. A property management company has been the liaison between the residents and the owner. At first, relations between the two were at least as rocky as the borders around the flower beds. Lately, they're blooming more brightly.

The residents say they appreciated receiving permission to hold their annual neighbourhood party on the vacant lot a few years ago. They were delighted when, three years ago, the chain-link fence came down and an attractive wooden fence replaced it, with a bench and planter out front.

"It was chained closed," Freeman says. "We climbed over it for a while and then we asked for the key and they gave it to us."

Brokenshire says residents have now been given the use of the garden for three years.

Draper St. has been designated a historical area at both the municipal and the provincial levels.

The street is named for William Henry Draper, who served as unofficial prime minister of the coalition of Upper Canada and Lower Canada from 1844 to 1847 and, in 1869, became chief justice of Ontario. He died in 1877, about five years before the houses were built on the street that bears his name.

The neighbourhood's historical designation requires that anything built there must exactly replicate the exteriors of the existing houses. The expense involved in that proviso means it's not a promising financial prospect for a landowner there, which gives the residents hope for the future of their garden.

"It would be a wonderful gift if the owner were to deed it to the city for a parkette," Freeman says wistfully.

Former Ontario lieutenant-governor Lincoln Alexander was born in a home near the garden, she observes. "We'd love to see it called Lincoln Alexander Parkette or, alternatively, it could be named after the owner, if he would prefer that."

Meanwhile, Draper St. residents have had a neighbourly summer in the unofficial garden and are happily planning their annual street party this month.

"It's a wonderful meeting place for us," says Hamilton.

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