Sunday, 12 May 2013

Mark Warrack

What do you like about your neighbourhood? How is North York unique, special, or different? Tell us what you think about Mark Warrack's walk into the past and how your personal memories can give us even more colourful insights.  


NORTH YORK... WHEN I WAS A KID...

The Warrack family - Mark in his father's arms

… Yonge Street was a very different place. The road was only two lanes in each direction, with wide sidewalks on either side. There wasn't a single structure over two stories high. There was almost a village-like 'Main Street' feel to Yonge Street. There was a local movie theatre -- only 25 cents on Saturday afternoons….

GROWING UP IN WILLOWDALE

Willowdale – that was the name of the Canada Post mark and address of received mail.   The phone number of everyone I knew began with the numbers, 221 – pronounced “Baldwin 1”.  We never used an area code and everybody had a party line.  A private phone line was pretty much just for businesses.

I grew up on Hillcrest Ave., in the fifties and sixties, in the second block from Yonge Street.  At the west end of the block was Doris Avenue and home to our family doctor.  His office was immediately next door in a plain, unassuming building to the north, which still remains.  Behind the Doctor’s house and his office was an open field that led downhill to the creek and beyond. Today this area is flat, filled in with no sense of a hill or open creek as there once was.  I recall sitting in the Doctor’s examining room looking out the window to the fields outside as if you were out in the country.  On the east side of Hillcrest across from the Doctor’s house was a single residence which remains, then open fields east past the creek.  The sense of space and remnants of open grassy fields left over from the former farmers’ fields was our favourite play area.  To have fields and a creek only half a block away was a whole natural world just seconds from our house.

It’s just about impossible to imagine today what that first block east of Yonge Street was like.  There were no sidewalks; the paved street came to a soft edge with gently rolling ditches to either side.  Over the street was a natural canopy, formed in a high arch from the mature trees that lined the street.  Imagine a green tunnel instead of the canyon of high condo towers. Hillcrest ran through Doris Ave., a simple two lane road, not cut off as it is today.  The independently designed homes were set back from the street edge, green lawns, stone walkways, and flowering bushes.  There was a sense of place walking this stretch with fine, well designed homes, built in the years before WWII. They weren't overly large homes, but there was elegance, sense of style and individuality.  It wasn't a subdivision.  Each home was distinct and well-spaced from one to another. Not a one remains.  Gladys Allison Place did not exist.  Doris Avenue, like the other streets in the area was tree covered, narrow and houses on both sides.

Willowdale, 1953 (Photo: North York Historical Society)
Yonge Street was a very different place.  The road was only two lanes in each direction, with wide sidewalks on either side.  There wasn't a single structure over two storeys high.  There was almost a village-like ‘Main Street’ feel to Yonge Street.  There was a local movie theatre – only 25 cents on Saturday afternoons; a bowling alley which in the late sixties became DeBoer’s furniture store; a small family run hardware store with wide plank wooden floors, a long wooden counter, and an elderly proprietor with wire rimmed glasses, white shirt and a sweater -  Do these wonderful stores still exist?; and a drive-in Dairy Queen with the big ice cream cone display out at the street.  At least a Dairy Queen still exists on the same site today, but not the former drive-in of the 1950s.

Willow Theatre (Photo; Toronto Public Library)
On the northeast corner of Hillcrest and Yonge was a gas station.  Like many gas stations of the era it was finished in white enamelled panels.  Next door was the local fire hall.  The fire station was set back from the street, a red brick structure with two large bays for the two trucks, a tall tower, and easily visible from the sidewalk was the shiny brass pole that the fireman slid down when the sirens blew.

Yonge Street looking north from Elmwood Ave. (Photo: Toronto Archives)
Across from the fire hall on the west side of Yonge Street were the municipal buildings, in the same location where Mel Lastman Square and the North York Civic Centre are today.  The buildings were set well back from Yonge with an expansive green lawn out to the street.  It is good to see that today this area has kept the tradition of open space, yet in a very different design and hard surface form.  The municipal building or town hall was fairly simple and not very large.  Next door was the indoor municipal pool where every kid in the area learned to swim.  It was compulsory in Grade 5 that each student took swimming lessons.  The water was always cold.

Yonge Street looking south from 5000 Yonge and Hollywood Ave. (Photo: Toronto Archives)
Across the lawn from the municipal building at right angles to Yonge Street was the local public library.  This was a beautiful 60’s modernist structure with a white wave canopy on the south side.  Libraries were as much a community asset in those days as they are today.

To the south of the municipal offices was the wide open green space of York Cemetery.  Until the area was developed in the late 70s, the cemetery gates sat out at Yonge Street.  Beecroft Road did not go through, but stopped on either side of the cemetery property.  When the area was developed the stone pillars and gates were moved back to the west side of Beecroft Road where they remain today.  The cemetery was a playground for the local kids with acres of open space and twisty roads to ride your bike.  It never occurred to me as a child that someday the cemetery would take on a whole new meaning when my father was buried there in 1975.

Just north of Parkhome Drive and west of Yonge Street was an old abandoned brick house.  The large deserted house and the surrounding, unkempt, aging orchard provided hours of intrigue and adventure for the local kids.  We would spend hours in and around this mysterious place, always a bit creepy and scary.  It was eventually reclaimed by the municipality and was brought to new life as the Gibson House Museum.  A very different kind of learning centre than it was in the 60s.

Gibson House, 1967 (Photo: North Historical Society)
In the old days, as it were, Doris Avenue, which began at Sheppard, dead ended at Parkview Avenue.  The street had to end as there was a lovely, stately home at its terminus that sat upon a slight rise overlooking the street, extensive gardens and grounds and small creek to the west.  I had no idea who lived in this house, but it was recognized as the local mansion, always well maintained and obviously stood out from all the other homes in the area.  Today it is known as the McKenzie House.

Someone asked me recently if I have ever thought of moving back to Willowdale, the home of my youth. I quickly replied, “No” The area of my youth is no longer there.

Dempsey’s Hardware, Yonge St. at Sheppard Ave. (Photo: Toronto Archives)
A sincere thank you goes out to the North York Historical Society, the Toronto Archives and the Toronto Public Library for supporting this project.

Northtown Plaza,Church St. at Yonge St. (Photo: North York Historical Society) 

ABOUT MARK WARRACK

Mark lived on Hillcrest Avenue, Willowdale, for his first twenty years.  After two years at York University he headed west and graduated in archaeology from the University of Calgary.  Having spent nine years working full time as an archaeologist Mark drifted into the museum world for several years as a curator and educational programmer, eventually acting for six months as a Museum Advisor for the Ontario Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Recreation.  For the past twenty-four years Mark has been the Senior Heritage Coordinator for the City of Mississauga.   Other than a recent two year secondment at the Ontario Heritage Trust, Mark has overseen the identification, preservation and conservation of Mississauga’s cultural heritage assets.  Outside of the working world Mark continues to volunteer with his local residents association.  He is also a founder member of the Building Storeys photography exhibits, sponsored by Heritage Toronto, where Mark is an active member of the Board.

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