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Strolling through Wychwood Park with Shawn Micallef

Posted by Derek Flack / September 20, 2010

Wychwood Park TorontoThis is one of those posts that's been on my list to write for sometime. Back in late Spring when Shawn Micallef's book, Stroll, came out, I got together with the author for a walk around Wychwood Park, one of Toronto's oldest gated communities, located between Davenport and St. Clair on the escarpment formed by Lake Iroquois.

I had thought that a tour of Wychwood would be the perfect way to find out more about both Shawn's book and the concept of psychogeography, the method upon which his walking tours is loosely based. The latter is, as Shawn writes in Stroll, "a term invented by Guy Debord and the Situationists in 1950s Paris. They were concerned with the effects of geography on human emotions and behaviour, so they did absurd things like walk around Paris using a map of London."

Although the Situationists had hoped that such exercises might "strike a blow against capitalism and society," the observations in Stroll aren't so political and lofty. What it does have in spades, however, are subtle notes about often-unseen aspects of Toronto, the types of things that, while available to be seen, are often missed on account of the lack of attention we have to offer during the daily grind.

Shawn MicallefKey to appreciating the minutiae out there, according to Shawn (among others), is the temporary defamiliarization of our surroundings, or what Bertolt Brecht called the "alienation effect." As he explains in the introduction to Stroll, by "taking what's familiar and making it strange...and letting some unpredictability seep into your routine, you're better able to see what all the excitement is about."

Being a big believer in this way of thinking and in the necessity of forcing oneself to experience the unfamiliar on a consistent basis, I suppose I felt some pressure to get this post right, to do it a bit of justice. So I delayed writing it, repeatedly pushing it back over the summer. But, I finally told myself that I had to get it written before the leaves changed colour and all the green foliage in the photos looked ill-fitted to the season. Fortuitously, the author's project, @strollcity, which will display the tweets that Shawn sends out during his walks on screens in subway stations, is set to launch tomorrow. What better time to shed a little more light on Stroll?

Taddle CreekI met Shawn at the inconspicuous southern entrance to Wychwood Park, a gate that reads "Wychwood Park Private Grounds." As I was waiting for him to arrive, I realized that the little bit of running water to the west of the gate must be what remains of Taddle Creek, one of Toronto's most famous buried waterways. This was the first in a series of little discoveries made during my walk through the park.

Taddle CreekI'd be surprised if there was a better Toronto tour guide than Shawn Micallef. Soft-spoken and insightful, it'd be easy to be humbled by his knowledge of the city if it wasn't for his unassuming manner. So beyond what I already knew about Wychwood, I was treated to a few tidbits that one won't find in the Wikipedia entry.

Wychwood Park TorontoFor those who don't want to follow that link, the basics are as follows: Wychwood was founded as an artists colony by Marmaduke Matthews and George A. Reid in the late nineteenth century. Its most famous resident, no doubt, was Marshall McLuhan who lived at No. 3. Although the community was amalgamated into Toronto in 1909, the area is still maintained and managed by the residents via an executive council.

Marshall McLuhan houseNo doubt it's this last part that so confused me when I first discovered the neighbourhood as a 12-year-old. Riding my bike through the area with a friend who had told me about this strange place without "normal" sidewalks and streetlamps, I was fascinated and confused. What was this place, I wondered? When I told adults of a private community near Forest Hill, they scoffed at me.

I was a little off on the exact location back then, but I was certainly right about the private thing. Although a considerable number of cyclists struggled their way north up the road while Shawn and I took our walk, I still had that sense that I was visitor on someone else's property.

Wychwood ParkThis lessened a bit as Shawn shared what he knew about the neighbourhood. When walking by the pond that sits at the centre of Wychwood (which was created by damning Taddle Creek), for instance, I learned that descendants of the original goldfish that Matthews' grandson introduced to the waters before heading off to fight in the Great War are still said to occupy it. Sure, this sounds a bit implausible, but the place has a certain je ne sais quoi about it that makes such a thing easier to believe.

Wychwood ParkThere's also, of course, some intriguing architecture to found at Wychwood. Not only are there numerous examples of the Arts and Crafts style (something I was not really familiar with prior to the visit), but for those inclined toward the contemporary, there's also an Ian MacDonald-designed home that won the Governor General's award in 2008. Shawn explains that the structure actually sits on the footprint of the original home, which is perhaps why, despite its modern look, it fits so well with its surroundings.

Wychwood ParkAs we made our way out of the private community and toward the Wychwood Barns, I got a little background on the opposition Artscape faced from residents who aren't so moved by the history of their neighbourhood. Perhaps it's this attitude that contributes to my sense that Wychwood is not as welcoming as one would want.

Still, as we leave neighbourhood behind, I'm grateful to have learned a bit more about its history and residents. It's something that had been on my list to do for a while, and, like this post, I'm glad to have finally knocked it off the list.

Wychwood ParkWychwood ParkWychwood Park



E. Leet / September 20, 2010 at 03:27 pm
So what's the deal with snow removal and fire dept service for those special Wychwood folks?

How can they claim it's private property?
Myles Mackenzie / September 20, 2010 at 04:24 pm
Wychwood Park is one of my favorite places in the world.

Having grown up in the area and spent much time strolling through there on dog walks, or nervous dates, it's always been a special place. It's a great example of the many hidden neighbourhood gems in the city. It's old oak trees, protected pond, varied topography and old (historic) homes tell a particular story about the City, that many are oblivious to.

That Shawn has devoted attention to it in his book, and you with this post is a testament to it's magic. Now that the words out, I wonder if this secret pleasure of mine will lose some of it's luster. I mean, if everyone and their dog or girlfriend shows up there, that would make my youth kinda generic.

Oh well, I guess I'll have to share.

Nigel Ratburn replying to a comment from E. Leet / September 20, 2010 at 05:10 pm
Re: snow removal -- I believe all property owners contribute to a maintenance fund to pay private operators to clear snow.
Fire services--I dunno. That's a good question.

Wychwood Park used to have a tennis court too, exclusively for use by the residents. Don't know if it's still maintained.
Alice / September 20, 2010 at 05:36 pm
So I dont quite understand- is this place really open to the public? Is anyone allowed to go wander around the park?
gab / September 20, 2010 at 05:43 pm
Interesting read but I am still confused: is it private property (roads and all) and if so, were you then trespassing?
Jimmy replying to a comment from Alice / September 20, 2010 at 05:59 pm
It's a small neighbourhood, not a park.
It's like saying you live in High Park.
There is kind of park-ish common land in it though.
Have a look at it on google maps...
Derek / September 20, 2010 at 06:06 pm
@Alice and @gab

To clarify: anyone can enter Wychwood Park, but the neighbourhood does manage its own streets and amenities (which is why it's often referred to as a private community). It's like a gated community where the gate is always open. I suspect that the reason for this is that there really isn't much traffic there anyway.
Myles Mackenzie / September 20, 2010 at 06:25 pm
The "Park' was also designated a 'Heritage Conservation District' in 1985, the first designation of its kind, I believe.

As Derek notes, it's not actually locked up - no guards, razor wire or watch towers. But it is a closed loop though, only accessible by car from one end. It's a housing enclave open to the public, with a real naturalized feel.

Certainly exclusive (see house prices), but in a non-threatening, open kind of way.

W. K. Lis / September 20, 2010 at 06:54 pm
Sounds almost like one of those suburban gated communities, but without the security guards, entry codes, or logbooks.
Shawn Micallef / September 20, 2010 at 07:42 pm
It's like of like a condo, but in neighbourhood form. One that lets people like you and I walk down it's "hallways." Take a walk - it's a good shortcut on foot or bike from Davenport to St. Clair.

As for @strollcity, don't forget to @reply the account with your own thoughts - they'll appear on TTC screens.

Thanks Derek for the lovely photos and thoughts.
Shawn Micallef / September 20, 2010 at 07:43 pm
It's "like a condo," that is.
Adam Sobolak / September 20, 2010 at 07:59 pm
Maybe not so much modern-day "gated communities" as their clustery 60s/70s forebears (like all that North York stuff with streets named "Linkway" and "Shepway" and "Starway" and whatever).

Oh, and the tennis court's still kicking.

Wonder if this walk continued into Alcina (with the backs of a lot of Wychwood properties as well as the modernist York Wilson house)
Z replying to a comment from E. Leet / September 20, 2010 at 11:50 pm
"So what's the deal with snow removal and fire dept service for those special Wychwood folks?

How can they claim it's private property?"

Is it your understanding that the fire department doesn't service private property?
Jeff / September 21, 2010 at 09:30 am
Great article. I applaud Blog TO for these kind of pieces. People get wrapped up in their own corner of Toronto and this provides a great way to understand more about the city. That and I'm sick of poutine articles.
Shawn Micallef / September 21, 2010 at 07:19 pm
In the book, Stroll, there isn't a chapter on Poutine, I promise.
Bob / September 22, 2010 at 04:00 pm
No Poutine . . . hooray ! ! !
Lynda / January 23, 2011 at 08:31 am
Where can I buy your book?
Eileen Currie / July 10, 2012 at 07:51 am
The Wychwood Park grounds are the private property of the owners who bought it, just as those who own houses with front and back gardens own theirs.
They pay for the maintenance, AND snow removal etc just as home and condo owners pay for THEIR private grounds to be maintained.

I just don't get the jealousy of people who "want" what someone else has, to the point of scratching out the Private to read Public (but unwilling to contribute to the COST of upkeep!)

Stick to your own back yard or public parks ( which you DO own!) if you feel that envious.
David Rea / January 11, 2013 at 04:49 pm
Re Wychwood park
I lived at 91 Wychwood park which backed on Alcina ave.
If I recall we paid taxes to city of Toronto and also park assessments for common expenses.
A number of famous Canadians including mrCurrely the ROM,George Reid who lived next door was AGO.
As well as a number of famous Canadian artists.
David E Rea
Me / January 11, 2013 at 07:29 pm
The envious are too busy whining that they're expected to work for what they want and how unfair it is around the OCCUPY campfires.
SD replying to a comment from Me / February 6, 2013 at 01:46 am
Wow dude... Occupy was like two years ago. Where have you been?
Dweeb replying to a comment from SD / February 6, 2013 at 10:44 am
Living in the park.
mary lou willard / September 10, 2013 at 04:26 pm
The first time I visited Wychwood Park, there were two white swans om the pond. Then there was only one white swan and I thought she must be lonely. Then there were none. I will never forget the beauty of those two whit swans on the pond in that mystical part of the city.
Lori / February 12, 2014 at 02:49 pm
I am not a native Torontonian. However I have explored the city from top to bottom. About 23 years ago I happened upon Wychwood Park. I fell in love and wanted to live there. It reminded me of Northern NJ with its tree lined sidewalkless streets. However I can't afford to live there. I have amazed many native Torontonians with the discovery of this amazing community. Many of them don't even know it exists. The thing I love most is the preservation of the look. It is so different than the rest of the city that has sold it soul to the highest bidder, who in turn builds an ugly mcmansion in homage to themselves. Never have I seen a city that is owned by developers with no sense of architecture design as Toronto. It gets uglier every day. Thank god the beauty of Wychwood Park has been preserved.
CINDY BISAILLON replying to a comment from David Rea / April 3, 2014 at 12:29 pm
Hi David
I have loved Wychwood Park for a long time. On a recent walk through I noted #91, and wondered about its history. It looks like a Tuscan villa. Surely it's been converted into a number of apts...? And you lived in one of them? Did it originally have a central staircase and square plan layout, d'you know? Do tell something of its history...!
Cindy Bisaillon
Howland Ave
David Rea / April 16, 2014 at 11:44 am
(91 Wychwood Park was a single family residence and doubt it has changed with the rigid rules in the Park'

I lived there in the 50s and early sixties with relatives J.B Rea and his sister
Big home with central plan beautiful stair case.
I have most of the furniture from the house It was sold to Mona Band in 1961.
Her father owned the big home in the center of the park and owned United cigar stores .

The back garage opened on Alcina and of course we had a chauffeur and limousine .
Great parties through the years .
J>B Rea owned The Dresses Limited

I started my business in 1960.
we manufactured wedding and evening gowns and also manufactured Girl guide and Brownie uniforms from the time Baden Powel came to Canada to set up the organizations
Kanye West replying to a comment from mary lou willard / September 17, 2014 at 08:59 pm
They used to shit in the pond and mess up the entire ecosystem so we had to get rid of them. There was LITERALLY 6 ft of swan shit at the bottom of that pond about 10 years ago LOL.
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